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Posted on Mon, Nov 12, 2012 : 10:30 a.m.

Can examining 'odd couple' animal relationships give us a fresh look into pet behavior?

By Lorrie Shaw


flickr photo by Rikki's Refuge

This past week, I ran across an article about a kitten that had wandered into a baboon enclosure and as far as the staff could tell, it hadn't wanted to leave. The baboon "adopted" the young cat, so to speak, even taking to grooming it and not letting it out of its sight — or so that's what is being depicted. (Because the footage is limited, it's hard to tell if what is being reported is indeed true.)

Also this week, I was lucky enough to catch an episode of Nature that broached the topic of unlikely animal relationships.

Nature: Animal Odd Couples examined the positive relationships between creatures like a dog and a deer, a coyote and a lion, a goat and a horse, and others.

The relationships that were featured on the program were all unique but did have a common thread: they were forged because of human influence in one way or another. Each, with the exception of one, were in a zoo or animal sanctuary setting.

The humans involved had a great understanding of animal behavior and allowed the creatures to find their respective ways and adapt without meddling.

On any given week, I'll be in the midst of several species whether it be dogs, cats, birds of all kinds, reptiles and even chickens. Sometimes there will be be multiple species in the same household, and most often the animals figure out ways not only to get along but demonstrate that they actually enjoy each other's company. Some of the animals can be found snuggling close together, eating or drinking from the same bowl and playing games with each other. (The latter is an incredible aspect of their relationship to observe.)

And why wouldn't they? They live in environments where they are able to make choices about who they interact with, for how long and in what capacity. I think that observing cross-species relationships just might offer a fresh look at complex emotions, friendships and might help clarify how our domesticated pets navigate daily life with each other and us.

All of that being said, I think that two things need to be emphasized -— the care that we need to exercise in how we interpret our animal's behavior when they are interacting with us and each other, and how much we influence them.

In examining animal relationships and emotions, tossing out any biases that we have is essential, and that includes anthropomorphizing them.

In spending time with so many animals over the years, it's clear to me that they are affected by the changes that occur in their lives with their housemates, even if they express how they react to them or accept them differently than we do.

Problems often begin because as humans, we like to think that we have the market cornered when it comes to emotions and compassion.

The fact is, animals do a great job of living together so long as we humans are not mucking things up for them.

Only when we are open to seeing animals more honestly — including examining things like what "dominance" really means, and understanding the repercussions of anthropomorphizing an animal's behavior - will we be able to understand them better.

Lorrie Shaw leads the pets section for and is a professional pet sitter.Connect with her on Google + or e-mail her directly.


Linda Peck

Mon, Nov 12, 2012 : 9:28 p.m.

Thank you for this very sweet story. I never tire of seeing any animals getting along well, humans or otherwise.


Mon, Nov 12, 2012 : 5:55 p.m.

I grew up on a farm that for a few years had a single sheep and a single domestic goose among the menagerie. They formed a bond and became inseparable. When I exhibited the sheep at the county 4H fair the goose had to come along and lodged in the sheep barn with its friend. The only disruption to their companionship was the annual shearing of the sheep. When the sheep returned home after being clipped his goose wouldn't recognize him. For the following 2-3 days the sheep trotted along behind the aloof goose, baaaing pitifully, until finally being accepted again.

Lorrie Shaw

Tue, Nov 13, 2012 : 4:30 a.m.

dawnsong, what an interesting story. I appreciate you sharing it. It had to be a bit frustrating for your goose. I am always fascinated by what causes inter-species relationships to change and grow. Thanks!


Mon, Nov 12, 2012 : 1:45 p.m.

Lorrie, you find the best resources! I loved reading Trisha's blog (what "dominance" really means) and look forward to reading more. I believe that alpha, dominant, subordinate, etc. are squishy terms and can be applied only in specific situations at specific times. Much like ethographs are snapshots of a group's interaction at a point in time. I have a cat that seems to get the resources he wants when he wants them but he doesn't exhibit aggressive behavior. He just gets what he wants without any kerfuffle. I call him the Lion King. I have another cat that hisses and swipes at the others but they seem to ignore her boorish behavior. Many people would think she's bossy and mean but I believe her behavior is fear-based and defensive. I could talk "animal behavior" all day long! Thanks for the article.

Lorrie Shaw

Tue, Nov 13, 2012 : 4:26 a.m.

I love the work of people like McConnell and other ethologists as well. Although we still have a lot to learn about animal behavior, the efforts of these folks has brought the understanding of animals a very long way. I appreciate the notion that you are looking beyond what behavior that your pets are exhibiting and not pigeon-holing it. You're right - often, things are not always as they appear in the relationships of pets. Thanks for chiming in - I always appreciate it!

Elaine F. Owsley

Mon, Nov 12, 2012 : 1:39 p.m.

Our part chow, part German shepherd dog, Tigger, formed a bond with a young doe that wandered onto the property. We were astounded to watch their game - he would chase her into the next yard, she would chase him back for about 10 minutes. Then each of them went their way. This was repeated several different days and one evening, I looked up to see her looking in the window as if to ask "Can Tigger come out to play?" He could, and he did. Then one day she showed up with two young doe friends. When Tigger came out, the friends ran away and she followed. We didn't see her after that. Peer pressure, probably.

Lorrie Shaw

Tue, Nov 13, 2012 : 4:18 a.m.

Elaine, what a sweet story - thanks for sharing that. I think that it's so interesting that she felt very comfortable in both "worlds". :)


Mon, Nov 12, 2012 : 11:51 a.m.

Yes, well, these interspecies relationships are fascinating - but just don't teach them politics. ;-)