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Uniquely Human- The relationships between humans and other animals.

Updated on January 15, 2019
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Our relationships with animals of other species are complicated, but are they completely unique? We likely started keeping the company of other animals with wolves, a mammal with a similar social structure to early man. It would have been mutually beneficial for the humans and the wolves, allowing both to hunt more efficiently. The earliest know evidence of an actual domesticated dog is dated to about 12,000 years ago; a canine jawbone that is significantly different that the jawbone of a wolf. This shows that we were significantly changing the species that we were allowing into our lives. [i]We do see this initial step in other animals, the Goby fish and Snapping shrimp for example. While the Snapping shrimp busies itself finding food and keeping it’s burrow tidy during the day time the Goby fish hovers overhead, keeping an eye out for any dangers. In exchange, the Goby fish is allowed to share the safety of the burrow when night time falls.[ii] It sounds a lot like the role of a guard dog to me. It stops short there, however, and the unlike humans the Snapping shrimp doesn’t cause the Goby fish to change significantly, nor employ it for any other purpose. Where we bred dogs, a genetically distinct species from wolves, the Goby is still just a Goby. Where we took dogs natural hunting and guarding skills, and taught them also to use those skills to herd livestock, to search for those that are lost, and even eventually even to detect when we are sick before we can, the Goby still just stands guard.


The Food Connection

Another reason for keeping certain animals close and safe is for a continued food source. Humans are not the only living creature to come up with that idea. The lengths that ant colonies go to obtain and retain honeydew from aphids is a well-documented partnership. They will not only protect the adults that produce the honeydew, but they will guard the eggs throughout the winter, and even take the larvae to new and healthier host plants to ensure their well-being. On a more personal note, I have seen this behavior manifest in my own home as well, and it was not in any way a “taught” behavior. My eldest daughter kept a few fish when she was younger, and at one point she brought home an unassuming white cichlid, which she called Ghost. Ghost was kept in a separate tank from the other cichlids, but like all of the cichlids we raised over the years, Ghost loved to eat guppies, and so we would occasionally bring home a few feeder guppies for a treat. After the first few times, Ghost would eat just one or two and then she would start caring for the welfare of the others. We observed her waiting to eat until after they ate, and protecting pregnant females from aggressive males. She still ate them on occasion, she just made sure there were always enough to make more, and she would chase and eat the males that were slower or duller than the others. Once we caught on to her strategies, we occasionally brought her new healthy young males, so that the guppies did not become overly inbred. She would show a preference for the new males and she would become very protective of them for several days, as well as quickly gobbling up all of the previous males. I have never found another account of this in books, or even forums on fish, but I have a hard time believing that we happened to pick up the only fish who ever kept “livestock”.

An ant tending to it's aphids.
An ant tending to it's aphids. | Source

We humans started with sheep and goats, caring for and protecting herds. Often we employed the help of our dogs so that we wouldn’t have to be ruled by the hunt for food. Later, as we gathered in larger communities, we added cattle and pigs to the animals that we commonly domesticated. In caring for them, we also learned to use their milk. Our bodies became accustomed to digesting lactose. We found a use for almost every part of their bodies, from the hide all the way to the bones. So it seems that although we are certainly not the only animals that gather together and protect other species for our own purposes, we are unique in our aptitude to care for several different kinds of livestock, and our knack for finding additional qualities to cultivate. This knack is what led us to cultivate one animal from food stock to one of our greatest assets.

Sheepherding

Horse Trivia

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Forward Momentum

The advancement of the horse to a viable means of transport was as much of a technical advancement as the building of ships and the greatest advancement to the speed of transportation until steam trains, some 5000 years later. Horses, and to a lesser extent asses, camels and even elephants, allow humans to move across much greater distances than walking or running and even to carry their belongings along with them, and that is a side of domestication that is not commonly seen in the wild. Although you will see images of the occasional hitchhiker in the wild, only our species rides an animal strictly for the purpose of traversing great distances, and only our species has figured out a way to convince it to go where we want it to go rather than just hanging on until it gets where it is going.

Bonds Without Barriers

There are many records of animals that form deep emotional bonds with other animals. Most of us know about Koko the gorilla and her kittens. Recent news has given us stories of a two-legged Chihuahua and his best friend, who happens to be a rather fluffy chicken[iii], and Mr. G, the goat who refused to eat for six days until reunited with his favorite donkey Jellybean[iv]. The bonds that they form with us are often as strong or stronger than the bonds we form with them, we all know stories of dogs and cats who have put themselves in dangerous situations to protect humans (just in case you forgot we are also animals of a different species). Many people will try to tell you that these unusual friendships only happen with either domesticated or tamed animals, and it is true that we often don’t see such close relationships in the wild. We have had documented exceptions, though. There is the stray kitten who was raised by a wild American crow[v]. The crow not only fed and played with the kitten, but kept his charge from dangers by warning from predators and cars, and continued their friendship her long past kittenhood, continuing to visit her for at least five years. Just in case you think that this is a one time only type of thing, there is also the case of the troop of bearded capuchins who collectively took care of a tiny marmoset from infancy until it was at least fourteen months old, at which point it disappeared[vi].


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I personally believe that there are more unlikely friendships out there than we have managed to document, and so I can say that our ability to form bonds with other species is not unique, nor is our inclination to partner up with other animals to take advantage of the differences in weaknesses and strengths. We aren’t even the only creatures to keep herds of tasty food healthy and convenient for long periods of time. However, there are some aspects of our relationships with other species that are very unique. Humans seem to be unique in the proclivity to bond with several species at once, of their own accord. and to be able to discern what each one needs to thrive. We are tool users, and our companion animals originated as tools, but as with any tool, animals must be maintained. In maintaining them, we learned we could love them, and some of them learned to love us in return. Unlike the crow, who fed it’s cat a crows diet of worms and bugs, we are able to observe and learn that dogs and cats need mainly meat to thrive, and horses and cattle need hay and grass, regardless of what we eat. If the human species is nothing else, it is adaptable, and I believe this is the reason we have the unique ability to see the many strengths inherent in animals, and the possible ways that those strengths can be utilized to our benefit, and in many cases for the benefit of our animal companions as well.

Resources

[i] Gascoigne, Bamber. “History of the domestication of animals” HistoryWorld. From 2001, ongoing. Retrieved 5/22/14

URL http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/plaintexthistories.asp?historyid=ab57

[ii] Snapping Shrimp and Gobies: A Safe Alliance; Veterinary & Aquatic Services Department, Drs Foster and Smith. Retrieved 5/22/14

[iii] Bellassai, Matt “This Two-Legged Chihuahua And Fluffy Chicken Are The Cutest Best Friends In The Entire World.” Buzzfeed, published Feb 13, 2014. Retrieved 5/26/14

URL http://www.buzzfeed.com/mattbellassai/this-two-legged-chihuahua-and-fluffy-chicken-are-actually-th

[iv] Harding, David “SEE IT: Goat reunited with donkey best friend at animal sanctuary.” New York Daily News, published May 25, 2014, retrieved May 25, 2014.

URL http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/goat-reunited-donkey-best-friend-video-article-1.1805061#ixzz32qKAUNwY

[v] Moss, Laura “Opposites attract: The kitten raised by a crow.” Mother nature network, published Oct 24, 2011, retrieved May 25, 2014

URL http://www.mnn.com/family/pets/stories/opposites-attract-the-kitten-raised-by-a-crow

[vi] Patricia Izar, Michelle P. Verderane, Elisabetta Visalberghi, Eduardo B. Ottoni, Marino Gomes De Oliveira, Jeanne Shirley and Dorothy Fragaszy “Cross-Genus Adoption of a Marmoset (Callithrix jacchus) by Wild Capuchin Monkeys (Cebus libidinosus):Case Report” American Journal of Primatology 68:692–700 (2006), retrieved May 22, 2014

URL http://stoa.usp.br/ebottoni/files/435/2179/2006_AJP_Izar%26al_FortunataAdoption.pdf

[i] Gascoigne, Bamber. “History of the domestication of animals” HistoryWorld. From 2001, ongoing. Retrieved 5/22/14

URL http://www.historyworld.net/wrldhis/plaintexthistories.asp?historyid=ab57

[ii] Snapping Shrimp and Gobies: A Safe Alliance; Veterinary & Aquatic Services Department, Drs Foster and Smith. Retrieved 5/22/14

URL http://www.peteducation.com/article.cfm?c=16+1905&aid=3064

[iii] Bellassai, Matt “This Two-Legged Chihuahua And Fluffy Chicken Are The Cutest Best Friends In The Entire World.” Buzzfeed, published Feb 13, 2014. Retrieved 5/26/14

URL http://www.buzzfeed.com/mattbellassai/this-two-legged-chihuahua-and-fluffy-chicken-are-actually-th

[iv] Harding, David “SEE IT: Goat reunited with donkey best friend at animal sanctuary.” New York Daily News, published May 25, 2014, retrieved May 25, 2014.

URL http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/goat-reunited-donkey-best-friend-video-article-1.1805061#ixzz32qKAUNwY

[v] Moss, Laura “Opposites attract: The kitten raised by a crow.” Mother nature network, published Oct 24, 2011, retrieved May 25, 2014

URL http://www.mnn.com/family/pets/stories/opposites-attract-the-kitten-raised-by-a-crow

[vi] Patricia Izar, Michelle P. Verderane, Elisabetta Visalberghi, Eduardo B. Ottoni, Marino Gomes De Oliveira, Jeanne Shirley and Dorothy Fragaszy “Cross-Genus Adoption of a Marmoset (Callithrix jacchus) by Wild Capuchin Monkeys (Cebus libidinosus):Case Report” American Journal of Primatology 68:692–700 (2006), retrieved May 22, 2014

URL http://stoa.usp.br/ebottoni/files/435/2179/2006_AJP_Izar%26al_FortunataAdoption.pdf

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    • Penny Sebring profile imageAUTHOR

      Penny Leigh Sebring 

      5 years ago from Fort Collins

      Ghost's behavior certainly took us by surprise too! It took us adults a while to really believe what we were seeing, although Taylor (our eldest) picked up on it much more quickly than we did.

    • DrMark1961 profile image

      Dr Mark 

      5 years ago from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil

      Interesting article. That Ghost sounds quite unusual. Voted up and interesting.

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