Studies of animal friendships may deepen our understanding of how complex the nonhuman world is, but there are more tangible benefits as well. The better we understand how friendships change an animal’s physiology–improving its health in the process–the more we can learn about the power of those processes in ourselves.
John Mitani, a primatologist at the University of Michigan, has been studying chimpanzees since 1995. He tells a tale of a friendship between Hare and Ellington, two older males that live in the forests of Kibale National Park. Mitani and other researchers studies reveal strong bonds can be developed into durable friendships. It appears that animals also know, like humans, it’s hard to get through life without friends.
In the late 1990s,Joan Silk, UCLA anthropologist was working with Princeton primatologist Jean Altman on a long-term study of savanna baboons in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park. Silk came up with a method for measuring the strength of the relationships between primates. Silk teamed up with University of Pennsylvania primatologist, Robert Seyfarth and his wife Dorothy Cheney. Robert and Dorothy studied friendships among chacma baboons in Botswana. The study conducted by the three scientists was to look at the longevity of the friendly adults. They found, on average, that the survival rate for female baboons with strong friendships living to age 15 is four times as high as female baboons with weak friendships living to age 15.
Biologist Randall Wells along with the Chicago Zoological Society began following bottlenose dolphins in 1970 in Sarasota Bay, Florida. Wells, during a 40 year span has been able to piece together the long-term history of these friendships. The story how Wells and his colleagues watched Nicklo, a 58-year-old female with an unrelated old female named Black Tip Double Dip fish whacking together will amuse to say the least.
One of the most provocative implications of these studies is that friendships that evolved within species may sometimes reach across the species barrier. In her best-selling book Unlikely Friendships, journalist Jennifer Holland describes many such surprising pairs–a gorilla and a kitten, a cheetah and a dog, a hamster and a snake. YouTube, a decidedly more ad hoc source, is filled with clips of cross-species buddies.
An anthropologist at the College of William and Mary, Barbara King the author of Being with Animals believes a lot of the case studies reflect wishful thinking more that actual friendships. “Right now the label is being applied far too broadly and uncritically,” she says. Two animals spending time together or greeting each other with enthusiasm does not constitute friendship. We have seen the cat that seems to befriend a crow, this would not meet King’s standard for friendship.
The list of distinguished researchers that contributed is very impressive. The article is well worth reading and filled with numerous examples of the studies to help us understand friendship among animals.