Interspecies friends

Consider the issues raised in the recent NY Times article linked here about interspecies relationships: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/27/science/so-happy-together.html?hpw&rref=science&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=well-region&region=bottom-well&WT.nav=bottom-well&_r=0

This relates some of the discussion amongst scientists about how to understand the demonstrated relationships between dogs and cheetahs in a zoo or between a dog and a donkey on a scientist’s Wyoming ranch and so forth. Is this ‘friendship’ or just conditioned learning enforced by humans? How can scientists keep in a positivist tradition and give an adequate account of such phenomena?

One scientist is quoted as saying that these relationships (surely we can use that word without spurious quibbles) were not interesting because they were only found in a human engineered environment (tell that to the ants and aphids). I am sure that this scientist did not mean to imply that our ability to engender a domesticated environment does not merit scientific investigation or that our relationships with dogs, cats, horses, cows, pigs, etc. were uninteresting because of human involvement. I hope he meant that understanding these relationships must include understanding our role in them. That would be soundly positivistic; otherwise his statements could be seen as based upon some prejudice, and we know that can only lead to ignorance. It would certainly not be good science.

Other scientists are asking the questions here. How can we define friendship or companionship in observable terms? If the benefits are such that the two can be seen as symbiotic, does that preclude friendship?   How long does it have to last to even say it is a relationship? The dog and donkey mentioned above learned to play together after the dog persisted and so overcame the donkey’s ‘natural’ apprehension of the dog as potential enemy. Now they anticipate each other’s company each day. Will one show signs of missing the other once one has died? Sure humans are involved and have in a sense engineered the circumstance wherein the two species are more isolated with each other. The zoo has used dogs as companions to cheetahs and this has modified the cheetahs behaviors enough so that they are more ‘handable’, e.g., they can be taken out on trips as zoo ambassadors. All these animals are mammals, though the article does mention a tortoise, and many are quite social, dogs in packs (including their humans if you go to the dog park), donkeys in herds, etc.

This is really interesting to me. I have written earlier about Frans de Waals report of an elephant in the wild, after inadvertently injuring a human observer, stood over that observer and protected him from the area’s predators until rescuers came and even then the elephant had to be convinced somehow that they would not hurt their fellow person. And what about the story (from a video) of a dolphin whose swimming ability was severely compromised by a tangle of fishing hooks and lines and who swam up to a human diver who used his tools to free the dolphin? Or the whale tangled in netting freed by several divers who then went and tapped each one on the mask before swimming off? These events do not meet the proposed criteria for friendship because they are one time events but these animals certainly seem friendly enough. Yes, humans did engineer these events by observing in the wild or by polluting the ocean with our fishing lines and nets but really now, uninteresting because humans are involved? Inter-species is inter-species no matter what animals are involved.

The scientist about whom I am ragging on (poor fellow—I hope he is really a good researcher) used the analogy of a human garden and the beauty of the natural landscape to indicate how one merits his interest and the other does not. Now I live and work on a farm in a mountain valley in southwest Virginia so I happen to have both of those out my door and I must say I find both quite interesting. But then I find both a light bulb and a star interesting as well. And empathy, how about the attachments and empathic connections between individuals of different species?  Funny me.

I'm bored.  Is my friend coming over or should I get in trouble all by myself?

I’m bored. Is my friend coming over or should I get in trouble all by myself?

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