Do animals form real friendships?

(Photo by Alen Fetahi)

(Photo by Alen Fetahi)

At the Catskill Animal Sanctuary, animal odd couples are nothing new. In the wider world, they’re more popular than ever. This year brought a widely viewed episode of PBS’s Nature on the topic and more heartwarming images of interspecies comrades on the web than ever before.

Founder and director Kathy Stevens is happy to see it. Anything that gets people to think more compassionately about animals is okay by her. While cross-species friendships push the cute factor off the charts, they also suggest that animals are more than flesh and blood robots, programmed by evolution to interact with only their own species. What evolutionary basis could there be for unrelated species palling around? We’re not talking about ants and aphids or rhinos and oxpeckers here, but two animals of different species who just seem to really enjoy each other’s company, absent any food source. If animals choose to spend their time with other animals (and people) based on temperament, we need to give them a lot more credit.

“Right now we have a pygmy goat named Malachy who thinks he’s a horse. But he’s not really picky, it doesn’t absolutely have to be Rowdy, a horse he often hangs out with. But we’ve seen a lot of those intense cross-species pairings. It just so happens that they’ve died or in one case, a pig was adopted by a wonderful family. But we’ve had lots of it, particularly with the turkeys and sheep. I’m standing in the barn as I’m talking to you, and Malachy just came in, took a look around, saw there weren’t any horses inside, and left to look for them elsewhere,” said Stevens.

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“We had a chicken named Constance who liked to ride around on Lumpy the sheep, they were almost inseparable,” said Jen Mackey, a farm owner and former veterinary technician who’s been manager of CAS for just under a year.

“People are starting to realize that animals really are individuals, that it’s not just way too much personification,” said Mackey.

Stevens said that science is quickly catching up to the fact that animals are more like us than we realized. She hopes awareness of animal emotions will lead to more people going vegan, which needs to happen to keep the planet sustainable: animal agriculture is devastating the planet’s water supply and contributing to human illness while increasing global climate instability, she said.

In late August, an international group of prominent scientists signed The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. They wrote that the absence of a neocortex doesn’t appear to preclude an organism from experiencing conscious states “along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors,” i.e., select companions. Stevens said The Cambridge Declaration is a major milestone for animal rights.

“We’re most accustomed to thinking this way about our companion animals, our cats and our dogs, which of course we don’t eat. But what’s news is that this big old group of scientists is acknowledging that even bees are infinitely more aware of their lives than was ever previously thought,” said Stevens.

Saugerties’ most notable animal rights activist just finished adding seven new chapters to the paperback edition of Animal Camp, which came out in hardback in 2007. The new edition will be published in May.

“I talk a lot about [cross-species friendship] in my books, but it does seem the world is slowly waking up to the fact that all animals are much, much more capable of having a wide range of emotions than once was widely thought. We used to get accused of excessive anthropomorphization,” said Stevens. “Each animal is an individual, and in certain circumstances, it will choose as its friend an animal of another species, particularly if it has been picked on.”

Stevens said that since CAS is a sanctuary for abused and rescued farm animals, the normal order of life on this particular farm is naturally unusual.

“The more you do your job the better you get at it,” said Stevens. “We’ve gotten really expert at creating a happy environment for our animals, and we just watch how they grow, in all different directions, and that sometimes includes making particularly intense friendships.”

Do the animals exhibit grief when its particular playmate leaves or dies?

“Oh yes,” says Stevens. “We see that. If there’s been a slow decline in health we’ll see a certain acceptance. When Petunia the pig was adopted, Rambo the sheep came bounding down the hill, making noise and alerting us to the fact Petunia was being taken away in a car. In Rambo’s experience, animals only come to the sanctuary, so he seemed to be telling us some people were taking our pig.”

The opportunity to witness photogenic friendships between animals of different species is one of the draws of the popular tours of the sanctuary, $10 per adult, $5 for senior citizens and children under 12. CAS is promoting tour-ticket giftcards as a thoughtful and enlightened gift this holiday season. Available for purchase online, the tickets may be redeemed on weekends from April through October, and entitle the bearer to a 10 percent merchandise discount coupon to redeem when they visit. It’s a great gift for city friends and relations who will enjoy a few hours outdoors on a pretty 110-acre farm in Saugerties. Proceeds from the tour and gift-shop sales go towards CAS’ operating expenses.

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