Just as I was writing this brief essay I received an email about a relatively rare and odd observation from Dr. Mary Evelyn Tucker, Director of Yale University's Forum on Religion and Ecology with the following questions: Have you seen this? What are your thoughts? I had seen the discussion of this unexpected and highly unlikely encounter between two individuals of different species, often called "odd couples," and below are some thoughts on these sorts of interactions. Tucker was referring to an essay by Karen Brulliard in the Washington Post, "For the first time, a wild lioness is photographed nursing a baby leopard."
I've written about "odd couples" in a number of previous essays, so I wasn't totally surprised by this encounter between two individuals who usually aren't all that friendly toward one another. (Please see, for example, "Odd Couples: Compassion Doesn't Know Species Lines,"Odd Couples Redux: Animals Make Friends with Other Species," and links therein; please also see snippets from the PBS special, "Odd Couples.")
Ms. Brulliard's essay lays out the scenario very well, along with some amazing photos. She writes, "The images show a lioness lounging on a flat, dry spot in the Serengeti. Attached to her is a nursing cub — and the cub is a tiny, spotted leopard." The lioness is named Nosikitok and she had given birth to three cubs in late June. Luke Hunter, president and chief conservation officer of Panthera, a global wild cat organization, is quoted as saying, "That means 'she is absolutely awash with maternal hormones and that instinct to take care of her own babies.'” Hunter also said, “This simply wouldn’t have happened if she wasn’t suckling her own babies.”
However, Mr. Hunters also notes that hormones are not necessarily the complete explanation of Nosikitok's behavior. For example, it wasn't known if the leopard cub's mother was still alive or whether if Nosikitok's own children were still alive. But, one thing is clear, namely, that Nosikitok and the young leopard had friendly and peaceful interactions. Why did they form and will they continue? Who knows?
It's also interesting to consider that for years some researchers actually debated whether or not animals "made friends," even among members of the same species. They would put the taboo "F" word, friends, in quotation marks, to reflect their uncertainty. Thus, the use of "friends" would mean two dogs or two cats who we would call buddies or BFF's were merely "acting as if" they were friends, but we don't know if they really were friends. Surely, anyone who's lived with more than one dog or cat or rat, for example, or who's done long-term field work on social animals, knows they form deep and meaningful friendships. And, one of the dogs with whom I shared my home befriended a baby bunny and other animals. (Please see, for example, "A Dog and a Bunny: A Tale of Compassion and Friendship.")
What's happening in cross-species friendships? Who knows?
Dr. Tucker asked what my thoughts are on this unique encounter and frankly, I have no idea why it occurred, without knowing more details, for example, about what were Nosikitok's previous encounters like with young leopards or the young of other species. It's also possible that she never had any of this sort. Actual observations of odd couples are very rare and few and far between, so we don't yet have the data to come up with any hard and fast explanations of what's happening.
In an essay by Cari Romm, "Can a Predator Really Be Friends With Its Prey?" I noted that we really don’t know why animals form cross-species friendships, and I still feel the same way. Each case will have to be studied on its own to see if there are any general rules of thumb underlying the formation of these fascinating encounters. But, it is interesting to note that for many of the nonhuman odd couples who have been observed in captivity, the unlikely friends had had contact with one another or members of the same "odd" species early in life, so they simply may not know friend from foe and couldn't care less about what they're supposed to do. They may have become imprinted on one another and that's all it took to develop a lasting friendship.
In an earlier essay I quoted Dr. Barbara Smuts, a well-respected primate researcher who brazenly and openly used the word "friends" way back in the mid-1980s, as follows: "We know this [the formation of odd couples] is happening between all sorts of species. I think eventually the scientific community will catch up.”
I couldn't agree more with Dr. Smuts. Let's get over thinking that we're the only species in which odd friendships form and learn more about the other fascinating animals with whom we share our magnificent planet.
Please stay tuned for more on animal friendships in general, and odd couples specifically. We really have so much to learn. And, of course, I hope Nosikitok and her adopted child have a lasting friendship for however long they remain together.
Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson); Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation; Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation; Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence; The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson); and The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce). Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do will be published in early 2018. Learn more at marcbekoff.com.