By Karin Krisher
Everybody knows that a dog is man’s best friend. But what if the dog’s best friend is an elephant? Or a duck? Even another dog? Is it even possible for animal friends to exist– for a pair of horses to truly be pals?
Recent research says yes. Not only is it possible, but it occurs, and right in front of our friendly eyes.
Before we discuss the specifics, it may help us to define friendship. It’s traditionally associated with a long term, meaningful bond that surpasses both genetically inspired knowledge and actions (like protecting a sibling) and reciprocal altruism (the giving of something with expectation of return). Many people still believe that these two types of pseudo-friendship are clear marks of distinction between human bonds and animal friendships. Humans have prided ourselves on this simple distinction for the length of recorded history—we have real friends, not just companions. But in recent years, information has come to light that suggests that this feature isn’t so distinct.
First, we can examine the ways in which we are like other animals, and then the ways in which they are eerily like we. Carl Zimmer notes in Time that humans do in fact participate in the sorts of behaviors mentioned above, and it is most likely because of our close emotional association with those behaviors that we feel they are distinctive of humans.
He states that “Reciprocal altruism is to friendship what reproduction is to romance…we start with a primal impulse and then embroider deep feeling into it.”
We’ve thought, in a broad sense, that other animals don’t experience those same feelings. But judging emotional experiences based on what we always have, action, researchers have discovered that other animals do, in fact, develop close emotional associations with behaviors. Consequently, they too make, have, keep and lose real friends.
One of our clearest observable instances of this type of friendship comes from (surprise) two male apes named Hare and Ellington, who developed a long term bond that ended only when one of the apes died, leaving the other in a clear state of mourning.
Other examples abound: pairs of hyenas, baboons, elephants, horses, and male and female dolphins have shown very real signs of friendship, even marked by the collection and analysis of raw data. These data, too, can lead to an even greater understanding; once we have accepted that animals have friendships, and pairs of observable animal friends really exist independent of humanity, we have to ask why. And the answers might reveal something about ourselves that we are often hesitant to admit.
Why do animal friends exist?
Zimmer’s recent Time article cites several studies that prove the seemingly obvious, and similarly difficult to accept: friendship, even human friendship is beneficial to health, and, in the long run, boosts reproductive odds. (Example: Male dolphins can act as each other’s wingmen, allowing each individual to better fend off other males while mating.)
Even when sociality doesn’t contribute to the number of offspring, it can contribute to the offspring’s lifespan and health, because it contributes to their parents’ health. For female baboons with well-defined strong bonds, the survival rate to age 15 is four times higher than that of females with weak
bonds. In huddling and cuddling horses with a few close buddies, we find a decreased heart rate.
The notion that an aspect of humanity previously though distinct could be relegated to four-legged, winged, or slithering creatures might be disturbing to some, comforting to others. It may be hard to accept the clear biological benefits of friendship as the reason for its existence, simply because of the aforementioned strong emotional association, which develops as a result of memory.
But let’s face it: humans are animals, too. And our friendships, like those of other animals, have clear benefits. Recognizing those benefits might help us to choose our friends more carefully, and to appreciate the friends we do choose for their intrinsic value.
After all, we all accepted a long time ago that being sociable is better for your health than not. Why wouldn’t the same ring true throughout the animal kingdom?