Why can’t animals be their pets?

Oh, I can hear the screams of protests. What’s with Koko’s Kitten? You are asking in reference to the famous case involving the trained American Sign Language gorilla captivated by the kitty cat. What’s the story with Owen, an infant hippo weighing just 600 pounds who was quickly a close friend of Mzee, an old giant tortoise of 160 years in the Kenyan reserve for the game? What is it with Tarra or Tarra, the Asian elephant in the Elephant Sanctuary in the hills of Tennessee whose best friend was a dog name Bella?

It’s true. There are numerous instances of long-term bonds among animals of various species. The issue is that almost all of these incidents were between semi-captive or captive animals in zoos, wildlife refuges, and research laboratories.

I recently read academic journals and spoke with many animal behaviorists about instances of pet-keeping that live in the wild. I found none. Some articles in journals on primatology describe cases in which chimps in the wild “played” with small animals such as Hyraxes. However, the relationship quickly went downwards in all instances where the humans killed their new friends and began throwing their bodies around like rag dolls.

The author of Stumbling on the Path to Happiness In his book Stumbling On Happiness, Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert claims that every psychologist who writes on paper vows to one day write a line which begins, “The Human beings are the sole animal ….” is pet-friendly.” I was convinced that pet-keeping could not exist with other animal species, that I decided to take to Gilbert’s challenge and began writing in my upcoming book about the human-animal relationship, “Some We Like Some We Hate The Food We Eat, The Reasons It’s so difficult to think straight about the Animals, “The human being is the only animal which is able to keep different species for prolonged period of time just for pleasure.”

The Exception That Proves the Rule?

However, a few days after I emailed my publisher the last edits on copy editing, I got an email from my close friend James Serpell, head of the university’s Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society. James, aware that I see pet-keeping as an entirely human experience and not a human thing, wrote cryptically, “Hal, I came across this and thought you’d be interested.” Included in the email was an article in The American Journal of Primatology.

Argh. It was terrible news for my only-humans-keep-pets theory. I could hear James laughing. The article mentioned the twelve bearded capuchins looking after the baby marmoset, a different kind of monkey. One of the piece’s writers included Dorothy Fragaszy, a University of Georgia primatologist studying capuchins in the private reserve in Brazil. The article also featured stunning photos of Jeanne Shirley, a California hospital epidemiologist and an avid naturalist who often travels to tropical regions to photograph wild creatures. Jeanne accidentally spotted the capuchins and was amazed to see them hopping around and even feeding the marmosets.

Source Image used with the permission of Jeanne Shirley

Researchers found that capuchins cared for the marmoset, whom they dub Fortunata, an infancy capuchin. They often fed the baby monkey and spoke to Fortunata in capuchins. They carried Fortunata around and let her ride on their backs throughout the day. As they played with their new pet, they cautiously controlled their actions’ force so they didn’t hurt the smaller marmoset.

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But, most importantly, the relationship between Fortunata with the capuchins was more than an infrequent hook-up. The monkeys cared for the marmoset right from infancy until approximately the age at which she would have reached the age of an adult. A few days later, she vanished, and Dorothy isn’t sure whether she left the group on her initiative and was then killed by an animal predator.

Why I Am Sticking to My Guns…

Does this have made me give up and let go of the notion of humans being the sole species that can keep pets? The capuchin-marmoset connection has indeed given me a moment of doubt. But I’m not willing to abandon the idea for several reasons.

In the first place, even though the capuchins were not kept in cages, the circumstances were not totally natural, as they were fed every day during the program designed to increase ecotourism at the research site. It also needs to be made clear whether this was the case of pet-keeping and adoption. In their report, they were referring to it as adoption. Still, in an email, Dorothy shared my opinion that there is a clear connection between the relationship the capuchins shared with Fortunata and my relationship with my cat Tilly and who I interact with and feed and talk to in baby-talk.

Then, Fortunata may be the only exception to the general rule that animals other than humans don’t have pets. Capuchins are the most intelligent monkeys, described as “the New World Chimpanzee.” As chimps do, they are part of complex societies, use instruments, eat meat, and have enormous brains relative to their size. However, if capuchins successfully bring an outsider into their lives and then keep the animal as a pet for longer than an entire year, why aren’t the chimps?

I’ll tackle this issue in my next article on our relationship with animals. Keep an eye out for it.


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