Yesterday I saw this story about the baby macaque who loves a bird. Like the well-circulated pictures and stories of the baby squirrel raised by a dog, the hippo who's friends with a tortoise, the pig acting as wet nurse for tiger cubs, or the classic stories of Koko and her kittens, these images just pull at my "awww" response. (A lot of the reporting on such stories recognizes the likelihood of such response, and semi-ironically deflects it by commenting on it.) So, I've been wondering, why is this?
The cute factor. I'm as susceptible as anyone else to pictures of cute baby animals. I get the Daily Puppy update in my inbox each day, and on crappy days I've been known to surf Cute Overload and the like.
I don't think that for me, at any rate, it's an idealization of maternal love. Biologically speaking, many animals are inclined to care for young infants who can't care for themselves -- particularly those who have long nursing times. So that's why the zoo keepers in China brought the pig in to nurse the tiger cubs. Why do we think such arrangements are cute, when the idea of human wetnursing tends to seem more icky? (To my students, anyway, whenever it comes up in a 19th-century text. To me it does too, but my horror of milk might be a factor there as well.)
But the idea of cross-species friendship, now, that's appealing. Partly, of course, because I share my life with three dogs. The experience of cross-species communication and affection is something very powerful. It has definitely changed who I am as a person -- made me a more affectionate and open human being. Seeing examples of animals who develop what we can only understand as friendships (though of course their understanding of what a friendship is might encompass some different elements than ours typically do) seems somehow hopeful to me. But it's not interesting or appealing to me to look at pictures of people's friendships (in fact, what's more boring than looking at a stranger's myspace party pics?). It's the possibility of reaching out past the species barrier -- the hope we could someday communicate even more deeply with dogs, with dolphins, with elephants, with horses, seems somehow promised in these examples of animal friendship.
Maybe this is just my misanthropy coming out in a socially acceptable cute form?