Q&A: Unlikely Animal Friendships

The ties that bind are not always predictable—especially in nature.

Jennifer Holland, senior writer for National Geographic magazine, has written a delightful testament to this fact with her new book Unlikely Friendships: 47 Remarkable Stories from the Animal Kingdom.

With aww-inducing photographs, the book highlights the most improbable animal connections, such as the sled dog and the polar bear, the lioness and the baby oryx, the macaque and the dove, and the tortoise and the hippopotamus.

Weird & Wild talked to Holland about her favorite animal tales and what inspired her to write the book.

Q. What was the impetus for the book?

A. My background is in natural history and conservation, and I am a passionate student of animal behavior. [The publisher was] following my progress at the magazine, and they liked the style of writing I had and wanted to do a book on animal pairs. We agreed I’d be a good match for the subject. I think on a deeper level, I’ve been an animal lover since the womb. I got that from my mom—she always brought home various pets and treated them with love and respect. So I grew up with a lot of animals around and wouldn’t want to live without them now. This was [also] an opportunity to write something positive, to make people feel good when the world is struggling—as a reprieve from all the bad news.


An iguana and a cat snuggle. Photograph courtesy Rina Deych.

How did you go about choosing the friendships in the book?

It sort of came down to what we could get all the components for in time for the deadline. I was pursuing between probably 80 and 90 stories at once—it was a logistical challenge. I was getting ideas from the Web; I posted on some listservs asking people to send me stuff; I contacted some zoos and wildlife sanctuaries asking if they had any good stories to share. I tried to collect as many ideas from around the world as I could that might be suitable—and each had to have an available photograph. That was definitely an important component. The visuals really make the book special.

Was there one that you would have liked to see in person?

I would say the leopard that was having nightly trysts with a domestic cow would have been amazing to see. The basic story is the leopard came in night after night to nuzzle with and be cleaned by a domestic cow in India. It affected how villagers perceived of the big cat, a predator that sometimes preyed on their livestock. Now it was preying on the small mammals that ate their crops, so it was a good thing to have around. They were also simply awed by the odd relationship. It was like a secret affair because the leopard always left at dawn. One day the cat didn’t came back—it was a like a sad break-up for the whole town.

Is there a common reason that the animals form these connections?

I did talk to animal behaviorists, and in most cases context is important. Animals in captivity, when put together, tend to bond. That’s perhaps not terribly surprising. Sometimes, the loss of a parent or baby may have spurred one animal to offer affection to another. And some [relationships] aren’t easily explained, so I think they are just about enjoying companionship, similar to the way humans do.


A leopard visits with a cow. Photograph courtesy Rohit Vyas.

Did you try to avoid suggesting the animals were experiencing human emotion?

There’s a line you walk when you talk about animal emotion and the term “friendship,” of course. But the concept of animals having the capacity for empathy is much less taboo than it used to be. We can’t say exactly how animals experience emotions, but I, and many scientists I talked to, are comfortable saying they—particularly mammals—do in fact share many of the feelings that people experience.

Since this is Weird & Wild, what are some of the oddest bonds that you include in the book?

The iguana and the cat was a surprising one, because adult male iguanas are not typically lovable, sweet-natured animals. Here was one that let a cat share its food, lick its face, and play with its tail. Like a good friend, the cat [knew the iguana’s moods], and when to sit out. Whenever there’s a reptile involved, that’s especially intriguing. I was also surprised by the capacity of owls to play with other animals—or to play at all. There are two owl-dog stories in the book, and I really love both of them for being so unexpected.

Is there one story that particularly appeals to you?

There’s a story of cheetahs and Anatolian shepherd dogs that has a nice conservation angle. Conservationists have found these dogs effectively keep cheetahs away from livestock in Namibia—which protects cheetahs from being shot by farmers. Meanwhile, in captivity the dogs are great companions for cheetahs, reducing the nervous cats’ stress level. In terms of pure joy, the dog and dolphins story is a favorite. This hairy mutt had been observing dolphins playing for weeks, and finally he couldn’t stand it anymore and jumped in. It became a daily ritual for him to play in the sea with the marine mammals. I can relate to the dog’s desire—I would have jumped in, too!

What do you want readers to take away from the book?

First I think I just want them to feel good and enjoy the endearing aspects of the stories. You can also see the stories as great examples of getting along across boundaries—perhaps we should send the book to government officials around the world. Finally, I’d like readers to be aware of the unexpected ways animals may react to changes—good and bad—in their lives. Like people, they don’t always do what we might expect.

Check out more weird coverage on National Geographic News.


Meet the Author
Christine Dell'Amore, environment writer/editor for National Geographic News, has reported from six continents, including Antarctica. She has also written for Smithsonian magazine and the Washington Post. Christine holds a masters degree in journalism with a specialty in environmental reporting from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her book, South Pole, was published in 2012.