Can We Be Friends?

Can We Be Friends?

Braaf, Ellen R

Late last December near the town of Malindi in Kenya, heavy rains flooded the Sabaki River. Rushing waters swept a herd of hippopotamuses into the Indian Ocean. Before the townspeople could urge the hippos out of the salty sea and back into the river, disaster struck. On December 26 a tsunami slammed into the East African coast. Only one hippo survived-a 600-pound baby.

Rescuers found the hippo stranded on a reef the next day and brought the orphan they’d named Owen to a wildlife sanctuary. There something unusual happened. According to head scientist Dr Paula Kahumbu, “Exhausted, confused, and extremely frightened, Owen immediately ran to the safety of a giant tortoise.” At first, 130-year-old Mzee, whose name means “old man” in Swahili, didn’t know what to make of the baby hippo who cowered behind him and followed him around as if he were a mama hippo. But it didn’t take long for the tortoise and the hippo to become constant companions. “Owen and Mzee continue to spend their days together in the pond, feeding and patrolling,” Kahumbu says. “Owen nudges Mzee to come for walks, and Mzee sometimes even follows Owen.”

Are Owen and Mzee friends? You might answer yes, but many scientists hesitate to use the word “friend” to describe a relationship between nonhuman animals. As Dr. Lee Dugatkin, a biologist at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, cautions, “You see all sorts of cooperation in the animal kingdom, and you see some things we might call ‘friendship.’ But we have to remember we’re not quite sure animals feel or think like we do when they’re doing these things. We shouldn’t automatically think they’re friends with each other in the same sense you’re friends with your buddy down the street.”

What Is a Friend?

Biologist Dr. Marc Bekoff at the University of Colorado studies dogs, wolves, and coyotes. Although human friendships differ from animal friendships, Bekoff believes that many animals do have friends. What are the signs of animal friendship? If they’re in the same pack, animal friends may sleep close to one another. They greet one another, travel together, share food, and groom each other. Animal friends are nice to one another. They even play together. This friendly behavior can be important to an animal’s survival.

Playing together, for instance, helps forge important social bonds that keep an animal within the safety of the group. “Coyote pups who don’t play much are less tightly bonded to other members of their group and are more likely to strike out on their own,” says Bekoff. Leaving the protection of the group is dangerous. In his seven-year study of coyotes in Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park, Bekoff found that 60 percent of the youngsters who left the group failed to survive.

For more than 35 years, Dr. Frans de Waal at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, has studied primates-animals such as apes and monkeys. He, too, believes friendship plays a role in understanding how these animals interact.

How does de Waal define friendship? “Friendship involves liking, loyalty, and common purpose,” he says. “I know two female chimpanzees who 30 years ago were already close friends. They lived in a zoo group in the Netherlands with more than 25 chimpanzees. Last year I visited and noticed that they were still friends, still grooming each other, helping each other in fights, and so on. Loyalty!”

Why do animals have friends? “Mainly because in the long run they benefit from friendships,” de Waal says. “It is all give and take. Sometimes one gives more, the other takes more, but in the end both parties gain.”

Someone You Can Count On

While it’s true there are many animals that live together and help each other-that give and take-we might not think of some of them as friends.

For all animals, finding food is a matter of life and death. But for the vampire bats in Central and South America, the clock is always ticking. They have a constant need for blood. If they don’t get a blood meal every three days, they starve to death. So they’ve evolved a unique system of food sharing.

Common vampire bats live in caves, tunnels, or hollow trees with about 2,000 other bats, but they often hang together for years with a small group of about 10 to 20 bats. If a bat in one of these smaller groups doesn’t find food, which often happens, it flies back to the roost and begs blood from a groupmate. The full bat will throw up partially digested blood from its stomach into the mouth of the starving bat. But these vampires share blood only with bats they hang around with most of the time-partners who have shared blood with them in the past. Bats don’t like cheats. They are able to remember who is trustworthy and who is not, and they will stop sharing with an animal that takes blood but refuses to help out when it’s his turn.

Are the sharing bats in these small groups friends? They certainly help each other survive. But humans normally think of friendship as a strong emotional bond, one that has to do with sharing feelings, not just food. And it’s hard to know what a bat really feels!

Who’s Your Buddy?

Many animals live together without forming special friendships in the group. Female sperm whales travel in pods and can live together for 50 to 70 years. But they don’t appear to swim near or protect one or two special friends. They seem to be equally good buddies with everyone in the pod.

Until recently, most scientists thought that, although giraffes travel in herds and feed together, they didn’t much care which other giraffe they walked beside or stood next to. A recent study has shown that giraffes care at least a little bit-when eating leaves, they prefer to stand next to a companion giraffe at least 15 percent of the time. Still, you might not call that real friendship.

On the other hand, some teenage white rhinos team up for safety. For two years, radio transmitters were used to track a group of white rhinos in a large animal reserve in South Africa. Scientists discovered that when a young rhino roamed from home, it took along a partner who was already familiar with the territory. The companion helped to find food and water and avoid areas near predators’ dens.

Male friendships don’t turn up often in most species, but it’s not unusual for one or two adult male bottlenose dolphins to form strong bonds and pal around together for years. And among chimps, certain males in a group will often groom each other, hunt together, share food, and defend each other from danger.

Kiss and Make Up

Like the vampire bat, many kinds of animals, from insects to primates, benefit from living in groups. In fact, their survival often depends upon their cooperation. But members of a group also compete for food and mates-which can lead to fights. We may not be able to tell if two animals are really friends, but we do know that many animals work hard not to stay enemies. Making up after a conflict is essential to the survival of the group.

Making up often involves physical contact. People shake hands; dolphins take turns rubbing flippers. They also swim dose together-one dolphin leans a flipper against the other s side and gets towed through the water.

Spotted hyenas often meet in the clan’s den to say, Tm sorry” Within minutes after a fight, they greet each other with licks, sniffs, and groans. Friendly reunions help restore relationships and ease tension, especially between unrelated animals.

Chimpanzees actually kiss when they make up-a behavior some researchers think has roots in mouth-to-mouth food sharing between mother and child. At times, however, it’s tough to get the parties to agree. Dr. de Waal says, “When male chimpanzees fail to reconcile after a confrontation, they sometimes sit a couple of meters apart, as if waiting for their opponent to make the first move. The uneasiness between them is obvious from the way they look in all directions-the sky, the grass, their own bodies-while scrupulously avoiding eye contact with each other.”

It’s so important to restore good relations that a female chimp may step in to play peacemaker. Typically, she approaches one of the males, kisses or touches him, then slowly walks toward the other male. If the first male doesn’t trail behind, she often returns and pulls his arm to make him follow. Then she sits close to the second male. Both start grooming her. When she leaves, they continue to groom each other, panting, spluttering, and lip-smacking louder than before, as if to say, “We’re cool now.”

Dr. de Waal believes reconciliation is a “learned social skill.” For five months, he housed together two groups of young monkeys with very different peacekeeping styles-“bossy” rhesus monkeys that rarely reconcile after a fight and their tolerant stumptail cousins that are masters at making peace. At first, both groups kept to themselves, but in the end, “they did everything together” and the rhesus monkeys reconciled after conflicts as often as the stumptails. When the two groups were separated, the rhesus monkeys kept up the more peaceable ways they had learned.

The Friendliest Animal

So, can animals be friends? Like humans, animals cooperate, play together, share resources, and protect and defend each other. Some form strong, long-lasting partnerships. But maybe there’s more to friendship than that. Human brains are “wired” for complex emotions and thoughts. And humans can talk, You can share more than food with your friends. You can share ideas, dreams, secrets, sorrows, joys, worries, and hopes. Some scientists think that our ability to form friendships, to trust each other, share, and cooperate-and especially to help one another when we get nothing in return-has enabled humans to be the most successful animals on earth.

Copyright Carus Publishing Company Nov/Dec 2005

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