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Unlikely Friendships


April 4, 2012 by Steven Worden

By Steven Worden

The images are arresting. A rhesus macaque monkey tenderly rests his head against a dove as he strokes its feathers. Another macaque monkey protectively hovers over a yellow kitten as they both thoughtfully consider the camera. A fierce Rhodesian Ridgeback dog, bred to hunt lions, softly nuzzles a pot-bellied piglet.

These are but a few of the photos collected by Jennifer Holland in her aptly titled book, “Unlikely Friendships.” A collection of 47 remarkable photos with accompanying essays, this study lives up to the phrase, “heart-warming” as few books have.

In this intensely focused study, we can examine closely the gestures of apparent affection or at least cuddling between remarkably different species. In one photo, we even see a miniature hamster resting his tiny paws on the head of an apparently obliging rat snake. Unlikely friendship indeed.

Instead of anthropomorphizing and saying that these animals are “friends,” perhaps we ought to indulge in a little “zoomorphism,” and allow ourselves to see that we might share with other species a strong inclination to share a bond of companionship with others. After all, there must be some reason that revenues of online dating services reached almost a billion dollars in 2011. But, whereas dating services generally attempt to work out matches based on similarities, maybe there is also something to be said for what social scientists call, “propinquity,” simply nearness in space and time.

Maybe that gives us a clue into these extremely unlikely friendships: the animals found themselves thrown together because of the death of a mother or confinement in a living situation, or even as a possible snack. Over time a bond began to grow. And regardless of whether the species is homo sapiens or rhesus macaque, we naturally treasure healthy bonds with others. Of course, whether we are friends with a rat snake or with our colleagues, healthy bonds are neither too tight to suffocate nor too loose as to fail to provide dependable comfort and support.

We can learn a lot by studying “Unlikely Friendships.” Not only about other animals, but also about ourselves.

Steven Worden

PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at the University of Arkansas

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