The Truth About Relationships Between Species


Love is definitely in the air. And while Valentine’s Day presents ample opportunities to celebrate the special bonds between humans, what about our animals? It’s clear we love them, and we believe they love us back, but can they feel love for one another? Do animals connect on an emotional level like we do?

“Humans are capable of a huge range of emotions, with love being one of the most complicated,” says animal behaviorist Crista Coppola, PhD. “Animals do not necessarily feel love in the same passionate way humans do, but their behaviors would certainly fit the most basic definition of love—feelings of warm personal attachment or deep affection.”

All animals have four basic needs: food, water, shelter, and reproduction. “For domesticated animals,” Coppola says, “these needs are primarily provided and/or controlled by human caregivers. Once these needs are met, secondary needs are addressed, including social interaction.”

With companion animals, their desire to be with other animals can be strong. The better socialized, the more capable they are of inviting other species into their circle. Pets often seek affection and attachments, whereas wild animals are more occupied with meeting their primary needs. Although wild animals might bond across species, they are less likely to do so if the other species constitutes a possible food source. A domesticated bird and cat, on the other hand, might cozy up together, neither one having a clue that in the wild one of the two could be dinner.

Professor Paul Zak of Claremont Graduate University is a neuroeconomist who has been researching the hormone oxytocin— the “love hormone”—as a bonding agent in relationships for nearly two decades. In one study, he discovered that animals are, in fact, capable of falling in love in the same way humans can.

In one scenario, Zak measured the oxytocin levels of a bonded goat and Terrier in Arkansas before and after they played together. Data revealed that the dog had a 48 percent increase in oxytocin after playing, which means he was quite attached to the goat and that he viewed the goat as a friend. More striking was the goat’s reaction to the dog. The goat showed a 210 percent increase in oxytocin after playing, which, according to Zak, makes it safe to say the goat might have been in love with the dog. “The only time I have seen such a surge in oxytocin in humans is when someone sees their loved one, is romantically attracted to someone, or is shown an enormous kindness,” Zak told The Atlantic.

Extreme circumstances can also intensify an animal’s desire to form strong bonds with another species. In 2004, during the major Indian Ocean tsunami, it was reported that a oneyear- old hippo formed an unusual attachment to a giant, century-old tortoise. The pair stayed together and appeared to take care of one another as they navigated their way to safety.

“Because some animals are very nurturing and highly social, it is not uncommon for them to make friends with animals of other species,” Coppola explains. “Of course, this depends on the animals’ temperament, previous experience, and current environment and socialization, with socialization probably the most important [factor].”

In comparison with their wilder counterparts, domesticated animals are far more likely to “adopt” animals of other species. “From an evolutionary standpoint, dogs and cats were never subjected to the adaptive value of rejecting infants of other species, so they might adopt different species and display behaviors they have with their own infants,” says animal behaviorist Benjamin Hart, PhD.

However, in nature, he explains, herd animals, and even domesticated goats, sheep, cattle, and horses rarely do this, as there is no survival value in expending your resources on another’s young—even from the same species.

The sheer unlikelihood of interspecies love is perhaps what makes it so compelling. Years ago at Jungle Island in Miami, Anjana the chimpanzee adopted two tiger cubs who were taken away from their mother. Despite being a different species, Anjana’s maternal instincts kicked in and she would offer two-month-old male cubs Mitra and Shiva her finger to stop their crying, among other caring acts.

Another famous friendship is that of Bubbles the African elephant and Bella the Black Labrador, who both reside at the Myrtle Beach Safari in South Carolina. When Bella was a puppy, she was abandoned at the safari by a contractor hired to do some work there. The unlikely pair bonded, and quickly became best friends, splashing in the water, playing fetch, and just hanging out together for fun. Bella loves her pal, and doesn’t even seem to notice the approximately 9,000 pound difference between the two!

Time over time we can see that once an animal’s basic needs are met and there are no ulterior motives present, they are open to affection and attachments that bridge the species divide. This means not only bonding between hippos and tortoises, but fortunately for us, between animals and humans as well.

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