BOOKS: Unlikely Friendships

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  July/August 2011:


Unlikely Friendships
by Jennifer S. Holland

Workman Publishing
(225 Varick St.,  9th floor,  New York,  NY 10014),  2011.
210 pages,  paperback.  $13.95.

Exceptional color pictures of animals posing together sell Unlikely Friendships.  The individual stories are even more captivating.  One of the best known involves Koko,  who was taught American Sign Language by Gorilla Foundation founder Penny Patterson. For years Patterson also read stories about cats and kittens to Koko.


Asked what she wanted for her birthday one year,   Koko “drew two fingers across her cheek like whiskers.”  When Koko was not satisfied with a plush cat,  Patterson gave her the pick of an abandoned litter.
“She treated Ball (the kitten) as other gorillas treated their babies,”  Holland recounts,   “carrying him tucked in her thigh,  trying to nurse  him,  tickling and scratching him,  even playing dress-up with napkins over his body and head.”  Their endearing relationship was cut short when Ball escaped from the gorilla enclosure and a car ran him over.

News of the incident reached National Geographic.  When asked about Ball,  Koko signed,  “Cry,  sad,  frown.”  Koko soon bonded with two new kittens,  Lipstick and Smoky.  A giant among animals, Koko is pictured tenderly caressing the tiny furballs as if they are newborns.

The owl and the spaniel story is just as sweet.  Sharon Bindon,  director of a bird conservation center in Cornwall, England,  received an owl for rehabilitation who was too young to keep in the center’s aviary.  When Bindon brought the bird indoors, her English spaniel Sophi jumped up to investigate.  English spaniels are natural hunters skilled at flushing out and retrieving birds, but Sophi surprisingly began licking Bramble.

The tiny bird flapped and danced in front of Sophi and searched for her when she was not around. At night,  Sophi and Bramble snuggled together on the carpet. As Bramble grew and gained weight,  she moved from the house to the aviary,  but every now and then she continued to swoop down to visit Sophi and enjoy a round of canine slobber.

Holland also includes the story of a dog named Joker who turned up at a popular beach resort in Eliat,  Israel.  Bottle-nosed dolphins are kept in a sea pen there,  creating a tourist attraction. Joker seemed more at home at the resort than with his people.  One day Joker jumped in for a swim.  The dolphins seemed to welcome their canine friend.  Joker’s people eventually let him move into the aquatic facility,  where he seems content.  A picture of Joker swimming with dolphins is priceless.

Rapidly expanding scientific recognition of interspecies animal friendships interfaces with growing recognition of animal play.  Interspecies friendships not long ago were mostly regarded as extensions of maternal instincts,  or as hunting partnerships of convenience,  as when coyotes pair with badgers or wolves with ravens to flush out prey.  It is increasingly evident,  however,  that many animals of differing species keep company simply because they have fun together.

–Debra J.  White

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