This week I’m in waiting mode. Nervous a little, I won’t know until Sunday, April 10, what the producers of the CBS Sunday Morning show have edited me to say during their segment about animal friendships. I interviewed with on-air correspondent Steve Hartman on the topic for almost an hour, but if you’re a fan of the program, don’t blink when the segment airs: my part will go by in a flash.
What a conundrum these media opportunities present! Presumably it takes years for a person doing scholarship in a certain field to build up enough knowledge to be deemed an “expert witness” on some subject. Yet the litmus test of being invited to talk about said subject on air (whether for TV or for radio) involves stripping away all the nuance and detail from an argument to present only the pith—and with compelling color and delightful detail, please!
Because I admire the unique value of anthropology in today’s world—the way it brings together socio-cultural, archaeological, linguistic, and biological angles on human societies and their patterns of meaning-making- I’ve tried to do what’s called “public anthropology” by connecting with non-academic audiences. As such, I was high-fiving with friends all over the place when a CBS news producer called me in mid-March.
At first, he told me he’d like to “do some background research” on animal friendships, with a focus on those formed between individuals of different species. His subtext, though, screamed out loud and clear: “Convince me that you can come across as non-technical enough and non-boring enough for us to fly you to New York to tape an interview.”
Fortunately he called on a good day. I passed the test, and last week enjoyed a behind-the-scenes look at TV production at a hotel suite in Manhattan. One thing I learned is why it’s a good thing that CBS crew members carry to off-site locations make-up for impossibly unsavvy female academics who don’t wear any. Another is what happens when the sound and crew guys follow you and a reporter out into a park to shoot “walking and talking shots,” and camera-toting passersby look disappointed since you, wearing an old green coat and a shy smile, are obviously no one famous.
It’s out of my control, of course, what bits may be chosen to support the story on Sunday. Cross-species friendships makes for a fascinating topic: Elephant Tarra and dog Bella, orangutan Suriya and hound Roscoe, baby hippo Owen and tortoise Mzee, unnamed kitten and crow have all gone viral with you-tube videos in the last few years. What’s going on with these odd couples? Do these pairs offer us a window into the complexity of animal emotion or is it just anthropomorphism at work when we refer to friendships in describing their behavior?
Applying the word “friendship” to animals at all is a relatively recent thing (at least in the realm of Western science). I admired the anthropologist Barbara Smuts’s decision, 26 years ago, to entitle a book Sex and Friendship in Baboons. By that time, Jane Goodall had been telling us for some years that animals experience close bonds and express deep emotions like joy and grief. But by no means was it readily accepted in science circles that male and female monkeys, living in the wild, could be “just friends.” Isn’t reproductive success the name of evolution’s game? Why would opposite-sex pairs waste energy on befriending each other when they should be producing offspring?
Yet Smuts, working in Kenya, saw with her own eyes that male and female baboons sometimes chose to groom and stay together, over and over, but not to mate. (It’s true though that baboon friends may go on to mate later, a factor that perhaps explains in part the original befriending decision).
To me, lucky beneficiary of the pioneering work of scientists like Goodall and Smuts, it’s nowadays perfectly sensible to talk about animal friendships full stop, that is, completely divorced from any reproductive context. And just as male and female monkeys or apes may be friends, it’s the same for individuals of different species. Sometimes, to be sure, animals of two species stay near each other for functional reasons—as when a bird rides the back of an elephant or buffalo, picking insects off it’s host’s back (thus acquiring extra protein while simultaneously ridding the host of pests). It’s no good leaping to “friendship” conclusions too readily.
But in some circumstances, as I hope I’ll be explaining on Sunday, there’s no other word that will do. Many birds and mammals (and the occasional reptile) crave connection, and take it where they can find it—which may, depending on personality, environmental circumstance, and any number of other factors, mean the expression of affection right across the species line.
I’ll post the video link to the segment here next week. Meanwhile, if you’ve witnessed any cross-species friendships, I’d love to hear about them.