National Geographic News
A dolphin with a spinal deformity mills with sperm whales.

A bottlenose dolphin with a spinal deformity rubs against a sperm whale.

Photograph courtesy Alexander Wilson and Aquatic Mammals

Christine Dell'Amore

National Geographic News

Published May 10, 2013

A feel-good tale of sperm whales "adopting" a deformed bottlenose dolphin made an Internet splash this week. The story resonated with readers, including Reddit commenter Fallapoo, who said: "I see a Disney movie in the works."

But the marine mammals aren't the only ones that form odd alliances, experts say.

Such adoptions are relatively common among domestic animals, and occasionally seen in the wild, according to Jenny Holland, author of the 2011 book Unlikely Friendships. (Read a Q&A with Holland about her book.)

Some examples include a dog that nursed a baby squirrel as part of her own litter, captive apes that treated cats like infant apes, and a dog that watched over a baby owl, Holland said by email.

And in her forthcoming book, Unlikely Loves, Holland will feature a Dalmatian that adopts a calf that happens to wear Dalmatian-like spots, a goat that helps a young giraffe learn self-confidence, and a hen that sits on "her" pups to keep them warm.

Why Adopt?

But what motivates these adoptive families?

"I wish I could crawl into these animals' minds and ask! But we can make some educated guesses based on what we know about animal brains—and our own," said Holland, a National Geographic contributing writer. (Read about how animals are smarter than you think.)

For instance, in some cases, an animal will adopt one of its own species, which is instinctual.

"Instinctively animals take care of young to help them survive and therefore pass on the family DNA," Holland said. "So I think there's some hard wiring in there that leads them to offer care to another animal in need. If it isn't a relative, there maybe some wires crossed, but I think the behavior comes from the same place."

Mutual benefit is also a motivator, noted Jill Goldman, an applied animal behaviorist based in southern California.

"In order for the relationship to be sustained, I believe both parties will need to benefit in some way," said Goldman, who has studied wolf behavior. (See pictures of animal odd couples.)

"How we define benefit is another matter. Social companionship in some cases may actually be enough of a benefit so long as it is not outweighed by competition [or] threat."

For instance, adding an individual to a group could help secure more food or offer more protection—which is probably what happened in the case of the deformed dolphin, Goldman said.

"No one's going to allow you to hang around if you're not pulling your weight."

Goldman added that a lot of such adoptions occur when a nursing mother takes in a young orphan. (See National Geographic's pictures of animal moms.)

"Moms might be more willing to take on youngster because when moms have given birth, they have a high level of oxytocin, that bonding hormone," Goldman said.

 

A Greyhound puppy with a baby owl.
A Greyhound puppy keeps a baby owl close.

Photograph from Solent News/Rex USA

 

During this period, if the mother takes in a youngster, it "becomes a very nurturing relationship."

But a nursing mom wouldn't take in an unfamiliar adult, which might be perceived as a threat to her litter, she noted.

Animal Empathy?

Holland added that many animals, particularly other mammals, are capable of empathy, "and may take in another to relieve its pain, hunger, or loneliness."

"Mammals have the same brain structures, the same system, related to emotion that we have, so why not?" she said. (Watch a video of smart animals.)

Holland said "these stories give us another perspective on non-human animals.

"Sometimes we don't give them as much credit as they deserve for being complex, thinking, empathetic beings."

15 comments
Ruth Bennett
Ruth Bennett

I had a male Burmese cat that helped me take care of an infant raccoon.  She was only 5 days old when I got her and he jumped right in and started grooming her.  Took care of all the cleaning neccessities for her while I just fed her.  It was great!  After her eyes opened, he would sit and wave his tail for her to play with like cats do for kittens.  They wrestled around togther until she got so big she overwhelmed him.  It didn't stop his care though.  When she got quiet, he still cleaned her ears and face.  It was adorable.  Sad to say, I lost him when she was about 2 or so.  I still have her, though.

Joy Saldanha
Joy Saldanha

My Daschund,Tigger lived 17 years,and I still miss him with all my heart. He had the weird habit of growling over his food, while wagging his tail at the same time, before he ate! We had a great Dane as well,and they had some great games together. The difference in size mattered not one wit.  j.e.s. 

Red Smith
Red Smith

My dog danced today, he wiggled on his back and stopped when the music stopped. He then started his wiggly dance again when the music came back on. He also tries very hard to act like the kids and so he can get the same attention as them and he gets upset if he is not allowed to be involved. I know these are not examples of animal adoption, but definitely show he cares and wants to be part of the pack.

Channing Shattuck
Channing Shattuck

Maybe they aren't "adopting" them so much as taking them in as... pets...

Elysia Christensen
Elysia Christensen

People tend to think of animals as lesser beings, incapable of feeling loyalty, love, etc. I have never believed this and never will. 

Gail Lucas
Gail Lucas

seen this so many times in posts and how it shows us humans up for the way some treat other animal species. Off course animals have empathy towards other species, we humans are not the only ones with feelings. I have often believed we could learn a lot about compassion from what some call lowly creatures.  

Stephan Makintaya
Stephan Makintaya

Just watched, "Animal Odd Couples" by Nova.... so amazing and heart-warming.  Especially the story about the 40 year old blind horse that gets led around by his "seeing-eye" goat!!  A goat spends 16 years guiding this horse around!!  Utterly amazing!!  Animals are so under-estimated and under-appreciated.

Gumilyov Enu
Gumilyov Enu

Call it  "feelings", or behavior reflected by high level of oxytocin - bonding hormone or  instincts,but obviously these animals can teach humans how to care. 

Susan McLoughlin
Susan McLoughlin

Because we kill them and eat them I think we have protected our psyches by consciously deciding that animals have very limited consciousness and feeling. I think we are very, very wrong.

Susan McLoughlin
Susan McLoughlin

Because we kill them and eat them I think we have protected our psyches by consciously deciding that animals have very limited consciousness and feeling. I think we are very, very wrong.

Papa Foote
Papa Foote

"Sometimes we don't give them as much credit as they deserve for being complex, thinking, empathetic beings."

YES: "Humans" are "Not" the "...COMPLEX, THINKING, EMPATHETIC BEINGS":

DEFINED as: "...Holism (from ὅλος holos, a Greek word meaning all, whole, entire, total) is the idea that all the properties of a given system (physical, biological, chemical, social, economic, mental, linguistic, etc.) cannot be determined or explained by its component parts alone. ..."!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holism

Wallace Bradley
Wallace Bradley

Near Glidden, WI there is a golden retriever & a white tail deer who are companions. They live in the wild & have been seen by many over a span of several years. I have seen photos taken of them as they raid local dog dishes & bird feeders.

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