Can animals really love us? We’ve already seen in the case of squirrels just how difficult it can be to verify this feeling between animals of the same species. But to now add love across the species divide – and all the way to us? You’ve got to wonder whether this is simply wishful thinking to make it easier for us to justify imprisoning our pets. First, let’s take another look at the mother-child bond, because this particularly strong kind of love is something we actually can trigger in animals, as I experienced when I was a boy.
Even back then, my interests revolved around Nature and the environment, and I spent every spare moment outside in the woods or at lakes in abandoned quarry pits along the Rhine. I imitated the calls of frogs to get them to respond, kept a few spiders in glass jars so I could observe them, and raised mealworms in flour to watch them turn into black beetles. In the evening, I curled up with books about behavioral biology (don’t worry, books by adventure writers such as Karl May and Jack London also had their place by my bed). In one of them, I read that you could get chicks to imprint on people. All you had to do was incubate an egg and talk to it just before it hatched so that the tiny creature inside became imprinted on a human instead of a hen. Apparently, the relationship lasted a lifetime. How exciting!
At the time, my father kept a few hens and a rooster in the garden, so I had access to fertilized eggs. I didn’t have an incubator, so an old electric blanket had to do. There was one other problem. Chicken eggs need to be kept between 100 and 101 degrees Fahrenheit and turned often every day so they can cool down a bit. Armed with a scarf and a thermometer, I had to painstakingly simulate behavior that comes naturally to a hen. For twenty-one days, I measured the egg’s temperature, draped varying layers of scarf over it, and carefully turned it. A few days before the estimated date of hatching, I began my monologues. And then it happened. Punctually on the twenty-first day, a small packet of fluff pecked its way to freedom. I immediately christened it Robin Hood.
The chick was incredibly adorable. Its yellow feathers were sprinkled with tiny black spots, and its black button eyes gazed straight at me. It never wanted to leave my side, and every time it lost sight of me, it began to cheep frantically. It didn’t matter if I was on the toilet, in front of the television, or in bed, Robin was always there. The only time I left the little chick alone was when I went to school. Then I took my leave with a heavy heart, and I was greeted effusively when I returned. But this intimate bond began to stress me out. My brother took pity on me and cared for the chick part time so that I could do something without Robin every once in a while. Eventually, however, it became too much for him, as well. By now, Robin had developed into a young hen, and we gave her to a retired English teacher who was very fond of animals. Man and hen became fast friends, and for a long time you could see the two of them taking walks together in the neighboring village: the teacher on foot with Robin riding on his shoulder.
I think it’s safe to say that Robin established a genuine relationship with her human caregivers, and many people can share similar stories about being a substitute parent for a young animal. The bottle-fed kids my wife hand-raises, for example, remain extremely attached to her for life. Here and in other cases, human caregivers play the role of adoptive mothers, and the stories are always heart-warming. However, these relationships are not voluntary, at least not as far as the animals are concerned, even if they do have their caregivers to thank for their survival. It would be more meaningful if an animal were to come and stay with us of its own accord. But has this ever happened?
To find this out, we must leave the warm embrace of maternal love and cast a wider net. What we’re looking for is a scenario where an animal can grow up and decide for itself whether it will stay or leave. There’s a good reason most dogs and cats come to us as babies, because that removes the element of choice for the little scamps. And that’s absolutely a good thing. After a few days of getting used to their new circumstances – and possibly after a twinge of anxiety at being separated from their mother – young animals just a few weeks old quickly get attached to their caregivers, and exactly like my wife’s bottle-fed kids, they remain particularly close to their people for as long as they live. Everyone feels good, but there’s still that nagging question: are there any adult animals that enter into relationships with people of their own free will?
For house pets, the answer is a resounding yes. There are countless examples of stray cats and dogs that practically force themselves on caring humans. But in answering this question, I’d prefer to explore the world of wild animals, because wild animals have not had tameness bred into them and are therefore not predisposed to seeking a connection with people. And I’d like to reject one more scenario: using food to tame animals, because when wild animals are offered food the only thing they want to do is eat, and therefore they tolerate, and to a certain extent get habituated to, our presence. Our former neighbors found out what a nuisance this can be when they started feeding a squirrel. For weeks, they had been tempting the little rascal with nuts, and it had practically become a member of the family. But if the human food dispenser wasn’t there in a timely manner every day, the squirrel would start scratching impatiently at the window. It demolished the frame in just a few weeks; squirrel claws are razor sharp.
Most friendships between wild animals and people are to be found in the ocean, with dolphins. Fungie, who lives in Dingle Bay in Ireland, is a particular star. He pops up often, accompanies tour boats, and shows off for visitors. He’s become a real tourist magnet and features in official travel brochures. People who feel moved to do so can safely get into the water with him. The sizable dolphin swims alongside them, and they experience a special kind of joy in his presence. His tameness doesn’t depend on food, which he refuses to accept. Fungie has been around for over thirty years now, and it’s difficult to imagine life in Dingle without him. Most people find Fungie’s story delightful – but not everyone. A reporter for the German newspaper Die Welt interviewed scientists and asked whether the dolphin might not simply be deranged. Perhaps, the reporter asked, the solitary animal hangs out with people only because he’s shunned by others of his kind?
Apart from the fact that people often form friendships with animals for similar reasons – for example, because they are lonely after the loss of a partner – I would like to investigate the question further with land-based animals closer to home. And that’s not easy, because a common characteristic of wild animals is that they are exactly that – wild – and therefore they normally never seek contact with people. Moreover, people have hunted them for tens of thousands of years, so they have evolved to be wary of people; those that don’t escape in time are in danger of losing their lives. And that is still the case for many animals, as you can see just by running your eye down the list of animals it’s still legal to hunt. Whether they are large game such as deer or wild boar, or smaller four-footed targets such as foxes or hares, or even birds, from raptors to geese and ducks or snipe, every year thousands upon thousands meet their end in a hail of bullets. Thus, a certain mistrust of anything on two legs is completely understandable. And that is why we are so moved when such a creature overcomes its natural wariness and seeks contact with us.
What might motivate a wild animal to do that? Let’s dismiss attracting them with food, because then we don’t know whether it’s just a case of hunger overriding fear. There is another driving force, however – one that is important for people as well – and that is curiosity. My wife, Miriam, and I had the good fortune to encounter at least one curious species: reindeer in Lapland. Okay. The reindeer are not completely wild, because the indigenous people, the Sami, own the animals and herd them with helicopters and all-terrain vehicles when they want to sort them for butchering or branding. Despite this, the reindeer have retained their wild character and are usually very wary around people.
Miriam and I were tent camping in the mountains in Sarek National Park, and because I am an early riser by nature, I was the first to creep out of my sleeping bag in the morning. I had been gazing for a while at the breathtaking sight of Nature untouched by human hands when I suddenly became aware of movement close by. A reindeer! Just the one? No, there were more coming down the slope, and I woke Miriam so she could watch the animals, as well. As we ate breakfast, more and more reindeer gathered round, until we were surrounded by the whole herd – about three hundred animals. The reindeer spent all day around our tent, and one young calf even dared to get within a few yards so it could lie down by the tent for a midday nap. We felt we were in paradise.
Every owner of a pet, be it a cat or a dog or some other animal, knows that people are capable of loving animals. But what about the quality of this love?
When a small group of hikers walked by, we realized how wary of people these animals really were. As soon as the hikers appeared, the herd retreated, only to return a while later to the area around our tent. It was clear that some of them were very interested in us. Eyes wide open and nostrils flared, they tried to figure us out. For us, it was the most amazing experience of the whole trip. We have no idea why the reindeer were so trusting around us. Perhaps our body language is calmer than usual for humans because of our daily interactions with animals, and that made us seem less threatening.
Anyone can have similar interactions in places where animals are not hunted. In national parks in Africa, for instance, or on the Galapagos Islands, or out on the tundra in the far north – places where species have not yet had bad experiences with people – animals allow visitors to get very close to them. And every once in a while, there are some individuals who are curious enough to want to check out the unusual guests wandering about in their territory. These are the encounters that make people particularly happy, because both parties come to them completely voluntarily.
It is difficult to prove that an animal truly loves a person of its own free will. Even my little chick, Robin Hood, had no real choice but to develop feelings for me. How about looking at it the other way around? Every owner of a pet, be it a cat or a dog or some other animal, knows that people are capable of loving animals. But what about the quality of this love? Some might argue that people simply project their emotions onto animals and see them reflected back. Their pets are substitutes for children they wish they’d had, partners they’ve lost, or friends who keep their distance. The subject is a minefield that I would just as soon avoid; however, as we’re talking about animal emotions, we should ask how our sentimental attachments affect our four-legged friends.
First off, they literally deform animals. In most places in the world, it’s been a long time since cats and dogs were bred to be highly skilled helpers in hunting hares, deer, or mice. Instead, we’ve been breeding them to satisfy, in both character and appearance, our desire to have something to cuddle and hug. The French bulldog is a good example. I used to think they were ugly, and that their squashed, wrinkled snouts put them at a disadvantage, because their snub noses interfere with their breathing so much that they snore. But then I got to know Crusty, a blue-gray male that we looked after every once in a while. Crusty won me over right away, and from that moment on, I no longer cared how he had been bred – he was just so adorable. Whereas other dogs have had enough after five minutes of being stroked, Crusty enjoyed this treatment for hours. If you stopped, he would nudge your hand beseechingly and look at you with his big puppy-dog eyes. His favorite activity was snoring contentedly while sleeping on his owner’s stomach.
Can breeding like that be a bad thing for the dog? There’s no question that French bulldogs have been bred to be lap dogs – living cuddly toys, so to speak. I don’t want to judge the legitimacy of this. The more important question I’d like to ask is what is this like for the dog? If a heightened need to be stroked has been bred into it, and if its appearance causes everyone (and I mean everyone!) to want to satisfy this need immediately, does the dog have a problem? It obviously feels just fine, and both it and the people it meets get what they wish for. It’s just that what led to this need to be stroked – genetic manipulation through selective breeding – has a tiny trace of the unnatural about it. This is very different from cases where owners ignore their animals’ needs, whether natural or caused by breeding, and when self-interested love blinds them so much that they end up treating their pets like people dressed in dog costumes. In such cases, overfeeding, insufficient exercise, and lack of exposure to the delights of the outdoors (such as walks in the snow) lead to severe health problems that torture the pampered animals to death.
The Inner Life of Animals: Love, Grief, and Compassion – Surprising Observations of a Hidden World, by Peter Wohlleben ? 2017. Published by Greystone Books and David Suzuki Institute. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher.