By Jennifer S. Holland
So your cat and dog share a bed, and your parrot and gerbil sometimes nibble at their food side by side. Cute. But a wild bear and a wild wolf hanging out like old friends—even sharing prey? Now that is something special.
Very rarely do we catch wild animals behaving in unexpected ways, mostly because we aren’t usually traipsing around in the wilderness with a camera. Fortunately, photographer Lassi Rautiainen was doing just that, in northern Finland, when two young hunters, a brown bear and a gray wolf, crossed species lines and became companions. For at least ten days they were spotted sharing food and hanging around together; the wolf was even accepted by other bears in the area. (Also see “Why Animals ‘Adopt’ Others, Including Different Species.“)
We tend to think nature follows very strict rules. Predators are usually solitary, and they hunt for themselves and, in some animals, their families. That’s just evolutionarily logical. Food equals survival. (Watch a video: “Grizzlies and Wolves Compete.”)
But sometimes even in nature the obvious rules don’t apply.
It’s happened before, probably way more often than we know. Other reported cases of unusual wild friendships include a lioness in Kenya who stayed with and protected her young oryx (a small antelope) prey rather than kill and eat it, and a leopard in India that returned night after night to cuddle up with a chained-up cow.
It’s never clear why these unusual pairings occur, but wild animals that get separated from their mothers too early, or that are cast out from the group (like this wolf, perhaps), sometimes take odd steps as they figure out how to survive on their own. A partner of any species might simply bring comfort, a sense of safety. And if there’s enough food to go around, why not break bones together? (See pictures of animal odd couples.)
This may help explain the affection between wolf and bear in Finland. Or could it be that they simply enjoy each other’s company? The more we learn about the nonhuman mammalian brain, the more we see overlap with our own brain function. The need for companionship can override the need to stick to the rules. And that’s a beautiful thing in any species.
Jennifer S. Holland’s new book is called Unlikely Loves: 43 Heartwarming True Stories From the Animal Kingdom.