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    Volume 9 Issue 22| May 28, 2010|

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Food for Tought

Identity Crises and Unexpected Outcomes

Farah Ghuznavi

Most of us have pretty firm opinions regarding human superiority with respect to - and the differences that separate us from other species. So it was interesting to come across a BBC report on the results of an 18 month study based on observing the interactions of 22 chimpanzees at Chester Zoo, in the UK, which found that chimps appear to share at least one behavioural tendency with their human counterparts.

After any kind of confrontation between the animals, in about half the cases the victim in the fight would be soothed by another member of the group; and the consolation was always provided by another chimp with which the victim would routinely play or share food i.e. a best friend. Interestingly enough, not only does this indicate that the chimpanzees appear to be motivated by empathy to console the victims of aggression, the result of this behaviour had the effect of reducing stress levels, as was indicated by a return to the animals' normal activities of play or grooming shortly thereafter.

Sometimes, of course, we find ourselves identifying such similarities on a rather less scientific basis most commonly with our pets. For example, my friend's father, who regularly fasts during Ramzan, has been known to share his sehri sandwiches with his cat. Though I'm sure any self-respecting pet shop owner or veterinarian in a western country would highly disapprove of sandwich-eating cats, his cat seems to enjoy the higher status implied in being allowed to share "human food" very much indeed!

There are also many recorded instances of animals that confuse themselves with species other than humans. One pet-owner described how the stray dog that the family had adopted was carefully walking around the house sniffing at various things, when he came upon the pampered pet cat already in residence. Under the cat's imperious gaze, the dog immediately got down on his front paws, as if bowing before some terrible idol, and began whining piteously.

Unsurprisingly, this aroused the cat's interest, and as it came closer to inspect the new animal that had appeared inside its territory, the dog's cries increased in volume. In the end, the owner had to come and spirit the dog away, patting and soothing it in order to make it calm down. Now I don't know what kind of animal that dog thought it was, but there's little doubt that any self-respecting canine would never bow down willingly to a feline unless it suffered from a severe identity crisis or amnesia, perhaps?

A reverse case, of sorts, was one I came across where a friend's parents found three kittens in a bad way, in a corner of their barn. Her parents had been away on holiday for a few days, otherwise the kittens would probably have been found earlier, but something must have happened to their unknown mother (which was not a pet belonging to this family) and they were half starved by the time my friend's father came across them. Only one kitten survived, and was named "Lazarus" in honour of its return from death's door. The family had another pet at the time, a female border collie, so the kitten grew up with only this dog as a role model.

The implications of this became evident several months later when my friend went for a walk in the nearby forest with the dog, and was surprised to find the cat following them. She ignored it, assuming that it would quickly return home. After all, even when a cat thinks that it's a dog, that charade can go on only for so long. Two thirds of the way through the forest, my friend was startled to hear the melancholic howling of the cat which she and the dog had left far behind as they made brisk progress through the woods. In the meantime, the cat - which had clearly attempted to follow them - managed to get completely lost in the depths of the forest. In the end, they had to walk all the way back to pick up the exhausted cat and carry it back home. Since the cat, which clearly has a vertical learning curve, continues to follow the dog around, rejecting its feline identity, my friend and the dog are careful to sneak out for their forest excursions nowadays in order to ensure that they aren't followed...

And if this kitten at least had the excuse that it grew up thinking that the border collie was its mother, there are always those animals that don't let inter-species differences get in the way of up close and personal interactions, even with "strangers". A Swedish friend of mine, who lives in Bangladesh, recently found this out the hard way. Bo's wife lovingly cultivates a vegetable garden on their roof, and presumably this was what attracted a monkey there, much to their horror. When Bo and his dog went up to the roof to deal with the intruder, the dog was clearly at a loss when the monkey appeared unaffected by his barking. On the contrary, it decided to make friends!

But the ultimate example of friendship has to be one I came across recently at the Noah's Ark rescue centre in Atalanta, Georgia. Found huddled together as tiny cubs during a police raid on the home of a drug baron, Leo, Sher Khan and Baloo (you guessed it, a lion, a tiger and a bear) currently live together in a purpose-built habitat at the centre, where they even have a creek to swim in.

It is likely that the early time spent together forged a unique bond between the animals despite belonging to such disparate species. “To our knowledge, this is the only place where you'll find this combination of animals together, they are our BLT, (bear, lion and tiger),” said Diane Smith, assistant director of the zoo at Noah's Ark, where visitors can watch the 1,000-pound bear, 350-pound lion and 350-pound tiger play together in the grass, or lounge on their porch.

According to Jama Hedgecloth, cofounder of the zoo, the animals are “oblivious” to the fact that they wouldn't be friends in nature. They share a bond that Hedgecloth and her husband Charles recognised early on. “It is wonderful and magical to see a giant American black bear put his arm around a Bengal tiger and then to see the tiger nuzzle up to the bear like a domestic cat. When Leo wakes up, the three of them mess around for most of the day before they settle down to some food.” And they manage all this without trying to eat each other - perhaps it means there's hope for us (supposedly rather more civilised) humans yet!


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