Here's the latest in cute-animal news: A scruffy gray-and-white dog (a shih tzu) in South Carolina finds a tiny kitten in a ravine behind a Home Depot, yelps her discovery to passersby, and then refuses to abandon her new baby. The two eventually make it into a foster home together, and no doubt they'll be adopted as a pair.
I've been mining the Web for years seeking this stuff out, and I can tell you there is an endless stream of cuteness out there: You've got your fat cats squeezing into small boxes, your dreaming dogs running into walls, even your sloths crossing streets at a sloth-like pace. But the phenomenon that seems to really tug at our heartstrings, certainly at mine, is these interspecies adoptions—a lot of them featuring a dog and something else (often a cat).
This raises two questions for me. First, why so many dogs? Are they actually more empathetic than other animals? And second, what is it about these stories and videos that keeps us posting them ad nauseum on the Web?
Dogs Share the Love
Let's start with the dog issue. A big part of the reason they make the news so often is that we simply own a lot of them. (U.S. households boast 78.2 million pups—several of those mine. Americans also keep 86.4 million felines, so they show up a lot, too.) So the fact that dogs are reported more often in interspecies adoptions than, say, lemurs, isn't that surprising. But is there more to it than that? Based on my very nonscientific tally, dogs are by far the animals most often caught fraternizing with another kind. Are dogs simply extra "nice"?
It's tempting to say yes. Look at how they are with us. Studies suggest that dogs can truly empathize with humans; they may even be hardwired to respond to our moods—such as by nudging or licking us when we cry. I always thought they just like the taste of tears, but maybe they really care. Not all scientists agree with this notion, of course. Some argue that neural connections, not conscious ideas and human-like feelings, drive all animal behavior. A reaction to a crying owner, then, wouldn't be a generous gesture but some sort of automatic response to a particular sound or level of stress.
But we have, after all, spent some 15,000 years co-evolving with canines, selectively breeding them all the while to be the best possible companions. And that might be the key. Unlike cats (with the exception of lions), dogs started out as social creatures, and we then turned them, genetically, uber social. That growing bond with us "might be what gave them the ability to respond not only to their own kind but across species lines," speculates psychologist Deborah Custance, of Goldsmiths College in London, who studies social intelligence and animal behavior.
Still, are dogs more likely to show affection to another animal? Not necessarily. It may be less about what species you are and more about opportunity, says Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "I don't know that dogs are necessarily more empathetic than other mammals," he says. But when there's another species and the conditions are right, the "unexpected" can happen—like the dog that "adopted" the lost kitten in a ravine.
Meanwhile, like us, many other mammals seek companionship, have strong parental instincts, and protect those in their circle. Dogs (and cats and so on) certainly fall heavily into those roles. They have the same brain parts we have that let us feel emotion and that control our behavior and motivation. So they do a lot of the same things we do. And especially if they aren't fighting to survive in the wild (my dogs sleep on my bed and eat better than many kids), they have energy to share the love.
The Cuteness Con
Okay, so on to question 2: Why are we humans so drawn to this phenomenon of interspecies adoption?
Perhaps because it's happy news, it's unexpected. It shows kindness in a, if I may, dog-eat-dog world. But most of all, it's so darn precious. Being "cute," after all, is in a sense a mammalian scheme to con another being into caring for you. Humans respond to traits in animals like big eyes, big ears, floppy limbs, a wobbly gait, smallness; we instinctively feel protective toward creatures with these features.
It makes evolutionary sense: If we didn't think human babies were so adorable, would we be as likely to spend our prime years fussing over them? Meanwhile, we aren't terribly discriminating. Animals (or other things) with any of these features affect us. The more cute traits they've got, the more we say "awwww." And if there are two furry-faced animals together, cuddling, that's the best stuff of all.
Jennifer S. Holland is the author of Unlikely Friendships: 47 Remarkable Stories from the Animal Kingdom.