The Android video of different animals being buddies has been blowing up. It's impossible not to get the feels! We want all of our animals to be friends with other animals, but it's not always clear why and how those bonds occur. We sat down with Certified Animal Behaviorist and founder of Animal Behavior Associates, Inc., Dr. Dan Estep, to find out just that.
Like the start of many human relationships, timing is everything.
"There’s this period that we call a sensitive period for socialization," Dr. Estep said. "It is early in life when it’s easiest for animals to form relationships and learn who they should consider as friends, enemies and even lunch."
It's during this crucial time early on where animals are the often more receptive to interspecies bonding. Likewise, their future behavior patterns for attachment are heavily influenced, though not set in stone, as Dr. Estep notes.
The most common context for this to occur in zoos and laboratories is through cross-fostering of species, typically when a newborn animal is rejected by its natural mother or orphaned due to death. They would be paired ideally with a female who had recently given birth and, regardless of species, is hormonally predisposed to nurturing another animal.
"Mothers that have recently given birth have all these hormones in their system that make them more inclined to adopt and take care of another species as well," Dr. Estep said. This can even trump the way we typically see predatory and prey relationships, as he notes an instances where mice have been successfully cross fostered and adopted by cats.
"Cats have to learn that mice are prey. Early on in life their moms bring home prey, mice, for them so they begin to learn that this is food," Dr. Estep said.
It's not only mothers and their adoptive children who are capable of such attachment.
Both males and spaded females without the same hormones are able to form friendships with other species, as well as adults past this previously mentioned period of socialization. The challenge is, it's just not as predictable.
"There are other ways to get animals to kick into that hormonal state, just exposing them to a youngster oftentimes will trigger hormones, mostly oxytocin for nurturing. Exposure even stimulates this hormone in males," Dr. Estep said, confirming that males are capable of at least friendship (am I right ladies?).
Older animals unlikely to bond with other species can change through common behavior modification techniques often used to help when someone is afraid of height or flying.
"It's about gradual exposure over time so you don't trigger the same fearful response. When you want animals to socialize you eliminate that fear first and then you can use rewards, proximity and familiarity to strengthen the bond," the good doctor told us. "Animals become more fearful of new things as they get older are less likely to interact with other species. It’s not that you can’t reverse that, but it takes a lot of work and time."
One of the main ways to override this challenge with interspecies bonding is surprisingly human.
"It’s the old idea that the more time you spend with somebody, the more you’ll like them," he said. "That's a human principle of psychology that people have known and it works across most of the animal kingdom."
Dr. Estep also mentioned other familiar human psychotherapy techniques that can work for interspecies socialization, such as desensitization and counter conditioning. Perhaps that's why we're so drawn to these unlikely friendships in the first place, because they reflect our own inclinations to either bond with or fear others. And judging from what's on the internet, we all already know what is the most feel-good option of the two.