Our interest in unlikely animal friendships reveals something surprising about humankind

GIF National Geographic Hound Dog Orangutan friends hugging

Applying psychology to the topic of animal cuteness might seem like using a hammer on an egg. Can’t we agree that something is adorable just because it is?

But as with beauty, cuteness is in the eye of the beholder, and arguments abound as to why (some) infants and (some) animals manage to be so endearing to the human observer.

“Pleasure is not something that natural selection doles out without a reason,” writes evolutionary biologist David Barash for Aeon Magazine, “and we would expect that reason to be intimately connected with maximizing fitness.”

In the case of human babies, our fondness for loveable cheeks and big, bright eyes likely serves to ensure that they’re cared for.

But among animal videos — which, let’s face it, probably form a bigger part of the internet — little warms the heart as much as those of animals forming friendships with members of other species, as a recent article in The New York Times reminds us.

Seeing animals befriend one another makes us smile in a way that’s different from the warm feeling we get just from seeing any cute creature meowing or bouncing around on its own.

There are a few possible reasons for this.

1. We like animals in the first place.

Our brains evolved to enjoy them because they can help us survive. In other words, your dog might make you happy, in part, because canines make useful companions in the hunting, gathering world we evolved to survive in millennia ago. That extends to the animals we raise for the food, wool, warmth, and horsepower they provide.

Cute sheeps

Barash, in his piece about animal observation, also notes the human tendency to enjoy looking at animals that aren’t particularly cute, especially predators. The human race’s early fight for survival “would have generated a potent selective advantage to those of our ancestors who were attuned to the presence as well as the habits of other beasts, especially large and dangerous ones.”

Modern man now has the ability to view animals in the wild, in captivity, or on smartphones. But the reasons for doing so — whether the animals are cute, oddly coupled, or deadly — may still be very much the same: our survival as hunters, farmers, and potential prey depend on it.

2. There’s an element of surprise.

Unlikely animal friendships are “unnatural,” often especially so given that they wouldn’t occur if humans hadn’t introduced the creatures to each other in a domesticated space. This unexpected aspect sparks initial interest. The more unlikely the friendship (a dog and a donkey, for example) the more we seem to enjoy watching them interact.

The unexpected aspect is perhaps strongest when predator and prey — or more mildly, when dogs and cats — buddy up. And even in the natural world, there’s the case of the leopard who spared and helped the newborn infant of a baboon she had just caught for dinner.

Leopard baby baboon mother

Of course, that instance isn’t a bona fide friendship. It’s just a curious interaction one wouldn’t expect to observe under the ruthless laws of the jungle.

Barbara J. King, an anthropologist at the College of William and Mary, sets a higher bar for animal friendship than what we find in fleeting moments like this one, or in footage of dogs riding turtles or cats nuzzling goats.

For King, the Times reports, the relationship “must be sustained for some period of time; there must be mutuality, with both of the animals engaged in the interaction; and some sort of accommodation must take place in the service of the relationship, whether a modification in behaviour or in communication.”

It sounds a bit like what we deem friendship between people to require: time, mutuality, and even some sacrifice.

3. Animal friendships seem to flip the survivalist worldview of “genetic success above all” on its head.

Each of an animal’s features is a survival tool: Every colour, every feather, every organ and yes, every aspect of behaviour (including who an animal buddies up with) brings with it an advantage to keeping an organism alive and reproductively successful.

But these distinct creatures aren’t getting the same kind of evolutionary advantage they would from sticking to their own flock, or from the symbiotic relationships we observe in the wild.

These friendships seems to run deeper than the zero-sum game of the natural world. And that’s something we admire when we see it. Let’s look at a few examples highlighted by the Times and National Geographic.

Safi and Wister

Safi, a German shepherd mix, and Wister, a donkey, formed a friendship on the ranch they shared with a few humans in the 1990s.

Dog donkey friends running animals

A fence between the animals, who were skittish at first, allowed the two to slowly get introduced while maintaining their comfort zones. It took a helpful nudge from a human to bring them a little closer.

Dog Donkey friends fence animals

Part of what makes animal pairings so viral is that they’re unexpected, and it takes human nudging to make them happen. You wouldn’t find most of these friendships in nature.

The human above basically played the role of a parent arranging a playdate for shy children. And it was a man-made fence that made initial contact possible in the first place.

Suryia and Roscoe

The elements King says are crucial to a real animal friendship are all present in the relationship between Roscoe, a hound dog, and Suryia, an orangutan raised by humans at a wildlife park in South Carolina. Suriya is six years old in this 2006 footage:

GIF National Geographic Hound Dog Orangutan friends wrestling

We’re also drawn to these friendships because of the stories behind them, which we need to fill in. You’re not made to imagine what kind of activities an orangutan and a hound dog could get up to until they actually show up as ready friends. Suryia and Roscoe, it turns out, go on walks together (leash and all), wrestle, and even hit the pool together.

But as “monkey mama” and animal handler Moksha Bybee explained on camera, Suryia would soon outgrow his canine companion. “He’s gonna get older, he’s gonna get a little more aloof,” Bybee said.

And he has, to some degree. Photos courtesy of Bhagavan “Doc” Antle, who runs the park, show a grown Suryia lounging around with his human and canine pals.

Orangutan Dog wildlife park
Bhagavan ‘Doc’ Antle with Suryia and Roscoe. Courtesy of Bhagavan Antle

“Suryia has grown older and has other interests,” Antle wrote in an email. “You can see a sparkle in his eye every time Roscoe is with him.”

Orangutan dog wildlife park South Carolina
Moksha Bybee with Suryia and Roscoe. Courtesy of Bhagavan Antle

Sven Olaf and Karroo

The Times reports that trainers in San Diego have been pairing cheetahs and dogs since 1981, in an effort to socialize the fast cats before using them as ambassador animals for the zoos and parks they belong to.

“Sven Olaf is the roommate, companion, and constant friend to our South African cheetah, Karroo,” a trainer told a crowd of visitors to San Diego Zoo. The two were introduced when less than a year old.

A visitor at a theme park in Tampa, Florida, filmed a similar pair wrestling in a walled-off enclosure.

Dog Cheetah Zoo Friendship Wrestling

Again, humans fostered the bond between these animals. And as in the case of Safi and Wister, it was a dog that formed half the friendship. Dogs are good at socializing other animals, since they already get along very well with (and evolved alongside) members of our own species.

Clive Wynne, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University, told the Times that these friendships, curated by humans, might not be the best cases to draw conclusions about the nature of animals or relationships “because it ceases to be directly a story about animal behaviour,” he said. Instead, it “becomes a story about human impact on the environment, like the difference between gardening and the beauty of natural landscape.”

For the rest of us, and the denizens of the internet, these irresistible inter-species friendships remind us not only of our power and influence in the natural world, but also of our ongoing need to pay attention to — and learn from — the non-human animals around us.

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