Odd Couples of the Animal World: When Mortal Enemies Become Friends
We as a species have an ingrained desire to bond with others and seek out others for friendship. We yearn for that connection with people, no matter how elusive it may seem at times. Yet it seems that humans are far from unique in this regard, and indeed the animal world holds some of the most baffling and at the same time touching examples of bizarre friendships there are. These are the cases of interspecies friendship between creatures that would, under normal circumstances, avoid each other at best and brutally kill or eat each other at worst, yet they have somehow formed a connection just as strong as any friend among our kind.
In a world where race, religion, and creed have often created walls of animosity between our fellow human beings, these animal odd couples offer some glimmer of hope, inspiration, and something to strive for as we move forth into the uncertain future. Let’s take a look into the very odd, yet undoubtedly poignant world of bizarre animal friendships that should not be.
One of the most recent unlikely such bonds to form between two very, very different animals happened in 2015, at the Primorsky Safari Park in Russia. A live goat was thrown into the enclosure of a Siberian tiger named Amur as part of its twice-a-week live feeding, during which the keepers were typically treated to the sight of a goat being pounced upon and brutally killed and eaten. It was expected that this time the same thing would happen as any other such feeding, that the goat would become lunch, but then an astonishing thing happened. As the zoo staff looked on in bewilderment, the goat fearlessly marched right up to the tiger and looked into its eyes, with the anticipated kill never coming. Amur instead stalked off and the goat followed in its trail, as if it did not want to be left behind. It was such an amazing turn of events that the goat was named Timur, meaning “iron,” and was allowed to stay in the enclosure, where it sleeps in Amur the tiger’s den right alongside what was supposed to be its nemesis. Since this unlikely first meeting, the two animals seem to have become the best of buddies, playing together, eating together, chasing each other, and even playfully head butting each other. Amur has even tried to teach Timur the goat how to catch prey, and Timur has taught the tiger how to lick a block of salt. So far there has been no definitive explanation for why Amur should let this goat live when it had killed so many others before it without hesitation. The story has captivated the Russian public to the point that weekly updates are given on the pair’s status and the park has switched to feeding Amur live rabbits instead of goats. Among the dumbfounded witnesses to this bizarre friendship, Zoo chief Dmitry Mezentsev said of the situation:
“This is a sign from above. People, take a look at yourselves. There are wars everywhere — Ukraine, Syria — while such different animals can live together in peace.”
The strangest part about all of this is that this sort of odd union between predator and prey is not totally unique, and has been documented on numerous occasions. In another case, photographer Adri De Visser was documenting a lion hunt at Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda when he came across the rather miraculous sight of what seems to be a lioness that had adopted a baby antelope after killing and eating its mother. In De Visser’s account of the incident, which is documented with extensive photos, the lioness finishes feeding off the baby’s mother’s carcass and retreats to some shade, after which the baby antelope pops out of hiding in the tall grass. The lioness stalked over to the animal, but instead of killing it, the two sniffed at each other and nuzzled each other, after which they wandered around together and the lion was even seen gingerly picking up and carrying around the baby antelope by the scruff of its neck, just as it would its own child. The lioness was also seen to grumble at and threaten any other lions that came near them, as if she knew that they were interested in eating her new found adopted child. While it may seem that this could not have possibly had a happy ending, the lioness was seen the following day still gently caring for her new adoptee, although it is uncertain what happened after that.
In other such case involving a lioness in Africa, in 2002 one such individual called Kamuniak, meaning “the blessed one,” adopted a total of five baby oryxes throughout the year, each of which she nurtured and cared for as if they were her own child for weeks at a time. It was an arrangement fated to be beset with tragedy. One of the oryxes was killed by other lions and another one taken away to a zoo because it showed signs of malnourishment, but amazingly the lioness was actually witnessed to allow one of its baby oryxes to feed from an adult oryx as the big cat peacefully sat nearby, and throughout these adoptions the lioness would go off and kill antelope for food, just as she was meant to, without harming the oryxes under her care nor the adults they fed from. Kamuniak also proved to be extremely protective of her baby oryxes, showing strong maternal instincts to protect them when humans or other lions were in the vicinity, and when one of her charges was killed by a male lion, she was shown to express signs of profound grief, refusing to leave the area where her “child” had died and roaring in anger for several days. One Kenyan conservationist, Saba Douglas-Hamilton, said of the strange situation:
“I couldn’t believe my ears when I first heard about the adoption. I just thought that’s absolute nonsense. Give it a few hours and that lioness will definitely eat the calf. It was really charming to see them together. It was like something out of a fairy tale and there was a real sort of intimacy between them. It was really strange. But then again, we develop strong intimate relationships with our pets which are different species. We do it? Why can’t lions?”
Lions seem to have a knack for these sorts of unusual shows of mercy and friendship. In another bizarre case, photographers Evan Schiller and Lisa Holzwarth were treated to a truly baffling sequence of events at northern Botswana’s Selinda Camp. A troop of 30 to 40 baboons were chased through the brush by a total of four lionesses, which sent the primates into a frenzy of screaming, dashing, and scampering up trees. During the chaos, which was punctuated by the shrieks of baboons and the grumbling roars of the lions, a mother baboon made a mad dash for safety before being snapped up by one of the waiting lionesses and killed. As the mother baboon lie dead across the ground, it soon became apparent that a young baboon less than a month old had been clinging to it. The very young baboon made its way over to a tree but was unable to climb it, at which point the lioness that had killed its mother came stalking up to it in what the photographers thought was certain doom for the little guy. However, rather than feast upon the baby baboon as it should have, the lioness instead gently picked it up in her jaws and carried it to another area, where she nestled the baby between her paws and seemed to groom it as if it were a baby lion. When two male lions arrived on the scene, she aggressively warned them off. This continued until a male baboon courageously darted down a tree to whisk the child to safety as the lioness was distracted by something else.
Lions have been shown to make these sorts of bonds in captivity as well. A famous case is that of Milo the miniature dachshund and Bonedigger the lion. This curious friendship blossomed at Garold Wayne Exotic Animal Park in Wynnewood, Okla., when Milo and three other dogs were introduced to Bonedigger when he was just a 4-week-old cub, and they would play as children do, regardless of species. When Bonedigger got older, and much bigger, he was diagnosed with a bone disorder that rendered him disabled. It was at around this point that Milo truly started to form a special bond with the lion, seeming to take Bonedigger under his wing, and the two became practically inseparable, eating, playing, and sleeping together. Even when Bonedigger grew up into a 500 pound behemoth, he remained best buddies with the diminutive 11-pound Milo, with the two grooming each other and the tiny dog even cleaning the massive lion’s sharp teeth. Over the years, Milo has even attempted to mimic a lion’s puffing, grunting and growling in a possible attempt to try and communicate with his unlikely friend. Bonedigger has become so socialized to the dog, in fact, that he now shares his enclosure with two other dachshunds named Bullet and Angel. The group basks in the sun together, gather around raw meat to feed together, and the dogs even sleep on top of the lion. Another dog that seems to have found an unlikely companion in a big cat is a female Labrador retriever mix named Mtani, who has become best friends with a cheetah named Kasi. The two were just babies when they were put together at Busch Gardens, and have since grown to be inseparable. They are now a regular attraction at the park, where they sleep and eat together, and go out and chase each other about an enclosure to the shock and amazement of onlookers.
So it seems that dogs can be a lion’s best friend in addition to that of man. But what about wolves? Although our modern dogs are originally all descended from wolves, make no mistake about it wolves can and do regularly kill and eat dogs when they can, and dogs seem to be treated as just another prey item to them. This makes our next case all the more fantastic. This particular story starts when Alaskan author Nick Jans, who had had more than 20 years’ experience with hunting wolves in the rugged wilds of Alaska, was sitting in his backyard when a wolf came stalking out of the wilderness. This wasn’t particularly strange, as the wilderness near Juneau has many wolves, but they are usually furtive and avoid humans altogether. However, the wolf on this day came casually sauntering out right into the middle of the backyard, which is when the author’s labrador came running across the yard towards it.
In normal circumstances, this was doomed to be a disastrous encounter, and Jans steeled himself for what was to come next, but to his surprise, the two stopped in front of each other and sniffed for a moment before launching into play, wrestling and chasing each other around like it was the most natural thing in the world. Jans would later say of this first encounter:
“It’s not like we don’t have wolves in the Juneau area. We do. But they come and go. But here’s this wolf trotting along like he was a dog. And, you know, I’d had 20 years of experience with wild wolves up in the Brooks Range. And, man, is it hard to see a wolf. But this guy just wasn’t worried about people. And he wasn’t sick; he wasn’t just some dufus of a wolf. He was obviously there for a reason. And the reason was our dogs. He wanted to interact with them. Really, I think he was the missing link to the whole story of the wolf that came to lie down by our fire, and became the genetically mutated soul of what we have lying at our feet today.”
When the dog and wolf were finished playing, it was assumed that the wolf would slink back off into the forest once again, but this would not prove to be the case. Soon it became a regular sight in the area and began playing with other dogs as well, which alarmed villagers at first but before long it was even coming up to and playing with people as well, and the wolf came to be affectionately referred to as Romeo. This wolf, which was wild and in no way had ever been tamed by people, refused to leave and charmed the locals with his unique gregarious nature and gentleness, until he was considered to be not a dangerous wild animal like most of his kind, but rather an accepted part of the community. For six years Romeo would stick around the town until poachers from out of state took his life, grieving the locals so much that they erected a plaque in his honor. It is such an impressive and unlikely tale that Romeo’s story has become the source for at least two books on the subject; John Hyde’s “Romeo: The Story Of An Alaskan Wolf,” and Nick Jans’ own book “A Wolf Called Romeo.” Jans would later say of this odd and truly unique, one of a kind relationship that developed between a highly feared predator and a town full of people:
“We have this schizophrenic relationship with wolves. Some people recoil and some people move toward them. I guess it’s a natural fear, since it seems to be somewhere deep in our being—you know, the Big Bad Wolf, the Three Little Pigs, Peter and the Wolf, Dr. Zhivago. Wolves are bad news. That’s the story we have in our heads. But what to do with a social wolf?
This was not the way it was supposed to go between big, wild things and us. Where you get to know an individual, and interact with them on a social level. Where it has no survival benefit for either party, but it’s obviously enjoyable for everyone. I mean, he’d come over to see me once he knew me. And, I mean, I didn’t feed him. And plenty of times, I went out without a dog, and he’d still come over to say hi. He clearly knew individuals. And it’s hard not to call that friendship. I think most people would agree, we can be friends with a dog. But say, well, ‘The wolf was my friend.’ People go, ‘Yeah, sure…’ Well, why not?”
Predator and prey relationships might be strange enough, but what about predator and predator relationships? In northern Finland, photographer Lassi Rautiainen managed to capture on film an unlikely camaraderie between a brown bear and a wolf. These two species would be wary of each other at the best of times, and viciously violent at the worst, yet in this case they seem to have become the best of pals. The two unlikely companions were spotted meeting every day from between 8pm and 4am, playing, running together, and sharing food with each other. This relationship was observed for 10 days while the photographer was there and probably longer, with the two animals languishing about and doing everything together. Rautiainen would later say of the situation:
“When I realized that no one had observed bears and wolves living near each other and becoming friends in Europe, I concentrated more and more on getting pictures to show what can happen in nature. Then I came across these two and knew that it made the perfect story. It’s very unusual to see a bear and a wolf getting on like this. It is nice to share rare events in the wild that you would never expect to see.”
If two predators of different species becoming best friends seems weird enough already, then how about three? The story of one of the most impressive of these unlikely friendships begins in 2001, when police raided a home in Atlanta, Georgia as part of a drug bust and to their amazement found a tiger, lion, and bear cub locked away in the home’s basement. The three animals had been severely abused, suffered from malnourishment, and were infested with both internal and external parasites. All of the animals were in pretty bad shape. The American black bear, which would be called Baloo, had a harness that had grown into its flesh and had to be surgically removed, since the owner had never bothered to adjust it as the animal grew. The lion, Leo, had a serious festering wound on its nose from being stuffed into a crate that was far too small for it. Shere Khan, the Bengal tiger, was the most malnourished of the three and was critically underweight, just skin and fur over a bone frame. When they were rescued, it soon became apparent that the three animals huddled together and expressed great distress when anyone tried to separate them.
Not knowing quite what to do, the authorities turned them over to a non-profit animal sanctuary for animals that have been abused, abandoned or neglected, in Locust Grove, Georgia, called Noah’s Ark Animal Sanctuary, where they received urgently needed medical attention. When they reached a stable health condition, Baloo, Shere Khan, and Leo, which have come to be affectionately collectively referred to as the “BLT,” were released into an expansive three-acre habitat together. Perhaps it is their shared history of abuse that can explain how close the trio bonded. Despite the large area of their enclosure, they are rarely more than a few feet from each other. The animals sleep, eat, lounge about, and play together, and it is not uncommon to see them nuzzling, grooming, or comforting one another. Keepers at the sanctuary say that while the three male animals do roughhouse, they never fight. The unlikely bond of Baloo, Leo, and Shere Khan is so strong that the only time they have ever been separated for any length of time was during Baloo’s surgery to remove the harness embedded within him, and they remain the only case in the world of lions, tigers, and bears being kept together in the same enclosure, where visitors are routinely delighted by watching these fierce predators be the best of friends. Jama Hedgecoth, the founder of Noah’s Ark Animal Sanctuary, thinks that humans could learn a few things from this curious trio, saying:
“I think people, they really want to be like that. They teach you how to get along. They’re definitely not the same color. They’re not the same species. They’re not even from the same country, and they love each other. They’re brothers, and they teach you how to love.”
The list of such cases is long, with numerous documented cases of a wide variety of animals from wolves, bears, big cats, and apes, among many others, to such large animals as elephants and hippos, which have sought out companionship with other, often very different, species. So what makes these amazing and often touching strange interspecies animal friendships possible? The answer most likely has various possibilities depending on the situation. A growing body of evidence is increasingly showing us that the extant of animal emotions and the psychological complexity of animal intelligence go much deeper than we ever thought was possible before, and it has become apparent that an animal will seek out friendships with other species if its need for a social bond outweighs its biological imperatives or instincts. In these cases, they are seemingly demonstrating a need for support and friendship very similar to what we experience. Some animals will even try to work out ways of cross species communication, and show very clear signs of grief and distress when such a companion dies or they are separated. Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado has said of these friendships:
“I think the choices animals make in cross-species relationships are the same as they’d make in same-species relationships. Some dogs don’t like every other dog. Animals are very selective about the other individuals who they let into their lives.”
These sorts of relationships are most common in captive raised animals, which in periods of stress will seek out even members of other species to lean on for comfort. Especially when two animals have been raised together, they may learn to rely on each other and form deep bonds. There is even the possibility in instances of two animals raised together since they were babies that they don’t even realize that they are of different species at all. In other cases, there is even the possibility, especially in very intelligent or large animals befriending much smaller or less intelligent animals such as a gorilla with a kitten or a chimpanzee and a puppy, that the dominant animal sees the other as sort of a pet.
Although cross species friendships are most common in captive animals, it happens with animals in the wild as well. Some of the stranger cases, such as predators befriending their prey in the wild, could have their basis in other explanations as well. For instance, when a lioness adopts an antelope, it could be a mothering instinct that kicks in, causing her to see the antelope as a baby rather than as prey. This could be caused by some emotional stress or trauma that causes wires to get crossed and stimulates the lioness’s maternal child rearing instincts rather than her predatory instincts. This sort of thing is very rare, but it does happen. Conservationist Daphne Sheldrick said, “It does happen, but it’s quite unusual. Lions, like all the other species, including human beings, have these kinds of feelings for babies.” Other wild animals of different species that form bonds might do so for not only emotional reasons, but also out of necessity, with lone, inexperienced, old, or injured animals forming sort of a partnership that incurs mutual benefits for the purpose of survival, such as hunting together and protecting each other in a wilderness in which they would die on their own.
“The lamb always gets eaten. It’s quite common for cats to play with their prey and they can look very gentle doing it. But it always ends in tears. These are just variations on the theme of cat-and-mouse, where cats capture their prey and play with it until they either get bored and leave it or get hungry and eat it. Nobody follows these things so persistently that they can tell you what happens at the end of the encounter. But either way, nature is not ‘The Lion King,’ with the warthog and all that.”
In the end, it still remains somewhat of a mystery and we can only speculate. Whatever is going on in these cases of bizarre cross species animal friendships, it seems clear why they manage to capture the imagination so much. Perhaps we see a reflection of ourselves in these cases, and hope that we can similarly overcome our own differences to achieve unity and peace. There is something attractive to the notion that even in a cruel, violent world where it is killed or be killed, eat or be eaten, two animals that are so profoundly different can create these bonds of friendship. The parallels with our own experiences are apparent, and it is alluring to think that if two animals can do this regardless of species, then humans too can make these bonds with each other regardless of race, religion, or culture.
These stories of interspecies friendships, of natural enemies becoming friends, or of predator befriending prey, are indeed inspirational and a powerful symbol of peace. Regardless of what one thinks of the cases I have mentioned here, I would hope that we can all relate to that.