Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

Minute TV, or, Doing Public Anthropology

April 8, 2011

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.


  1. April 8, 2011 8:28 AM EDT
    My favorite You-Tube video is the one with the dog and dolphin swimming together: I know you've seen it--does this count? And my male cat loves our dog--I'm not sure it's reciprocated, but in my family, dogs and cats are often quite attached to one another. I can't wait to see your interview, Barbara.
    - Colleen
  2. April 8, 2011 9:31 AM EDT
    Colleen, I'd never seen the dog & dolphin video- thank you! It absolutely counts, because they come together repeatedly (both making a specific choice). For others interested in animal friendships, it's very much worth cutting and pasting this link and watching the 2 minutes- sorry it isn't a 'hot link' here. (And Colleen I'm really nervous about how brief my appearance will be...)
    - Barbara J. King
  3. April 8, 2011 9:54 AM EDT
    Awesome, Barbara!

    My experience is that it takes far longer, sometimes months, to manage the 2-sentence version of an idea. Sometimes I never do get it, and I count those as failures!
    - John Hawks
  4. April 8, 2011 10:54 AM EDT
    John, thanks! You have way more experience with this level of media work than I. For sure you nailed it in the Neandertal documentary my intro-to-bioanthro students watch annually (due to brain freeze, and being at home rather than my office with my files, can't think of its name, the one focusing a lot on the V-80 bone from Croatia). My students read your blog then get quite excited to hear your work discussed on screen. Not to mention the Manhattan and rodeo scenes for extra color!
    - Barbara J. King
  5. April 8, 2011 11:02 AM EDT
    Our daughter's cat and our grandson's dog (both cat and dog live with us, not their "owners") are best friends. After a rocky start, they now groom each other and take naps in the sun together. On the other hand, that same cat and MY cat loathe each other.

    p.s. Charlie and I are listening to your Teaching Company lectures on biological anthropology, so I was pleased to see you reference "rs" in your post today. :)
    - Marian Allen
  6. April 8, 2011 12:55 PM EDT
    I recall that in Lauren Hillebrand's book "Seabiscuit," she describes Seabiscuit's need to have his monkey and pony friends with him when he traveled. She noted that it is common in racing circles for thoroughbreds to have companions of this sort. Colleen probably knows all about this phenomenon.
    - Geoff Feiss
  7. April 8, 2011 1:02 PM EDT
    Marian, I wonder how often a cross-species friend is chosen because the available same-species partner just isn't to one's liking. (Can't help but think of people who gravitate almost totally towards animals and not other people.) Geoff, thanks, the thoroughbred's need for animal companions is a phenomenon I hadn't thought of in this context- I'll connect with Colleen on this.
    - Barbara J. King
  8. April 8, 2011 5:45 PM EDT
    Hi, Barbara--Hildebrand certainly suggests that Seabiscuit's companions were friends, and it's very common to see cats and goats especially in shedrows. I've never seen anything akin to a friendship, but my experience is fairly limited. I think the companion animals compensate for the fact that horses, who are herd animals by nature, are separated from one another in stalls--the cats and goats can interact with the horses and get out quickly enough if they have to (another interesting point--dogs usually don't work). Thoroughbreds particularly need the companion animals because they might be "turned out" (taken out of training and so out of life in the stalls) only once a year and for short periods--one of the downsides of racing.
    - Colleen
  9. April 8, 2011 7:49 PM EDT
    Everyone - Barbara mentions the orangutan-hound friendship touted on youtube, and I *have* to comment! While apes have been known to make friends with other species, esp. dogs and cats, this is usually exaggerated for publicity purposes, and often puts the weaker animal at mortal risk. Even if there is a positive relationship between the ape and it's pet, the difference in interpretation of social signals and "styles" of play make the relationship as problematic as human-ape friendships. Anyone wishing further info can contact me at
    - Melanie Bond
  10. April 8, 2011 8:57 PM EDT
    Thanks, Colleen. I think you're suggesting that the horse- companion companionship can be risky to the smaller companion because of the horse's bulk, strength, and temperment. If I've got that right, it speaks to Melanie's point. Melanie, maybe I've not been thinking critically enough, but I'd thought from both the animal-behavior literature and my own observations that great apes do self-handicapping/ self-moderation in the presence of weaker companions to whom they are attracted. But you're saying even if this is the case, the cross-species signaling differences lead to the risk? Yet I've seen Karl Amman's videotapes of chimpanzee-dog play that worked very well, and even Owen (hippo) and Mzee (tortoise) worked out a nifty cross-species negotiation. I think you must have information and examples that I don't have?
    - Barbara J. King
  11. April 9, 2011 8:54 AM EDT
    Hmm--I wasn't actually thinking that the horses were dangerous to their companions (though there is a "comic" bit in *Seabiscuit* the movie where the horse is kicking various unsatisfactory animals out of his stall). For some reason, cats and goats don't spook the horses, and if they annoy the horse, they're more agile and can move out of the way. Dogs, on the other hand, are forbidden in the stables of most tracks. People who have horses as pets frequently have dogs (my sister-in-law actually trained her dog to ride one of her horses), but in places where there are lots of horses, dogs usually aren't welcome. Which is all meant to wonder whether there are "natural" sympathies or antipathies.
    - Colleen

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.