Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my!

A few days ago I was contacted by a reporter from People magazine looking for some input on an unusual story about a curious friendship that had developed between a lion, a tiger and a 1000-pound bear. Apparently, the three animals were confiscated as cubs from “drug barons” during a police raid several years prior and have lived happily ever since various zoos.

Why, was the question, would three apex predators who do not normally get on well together become such close friends and could there be trouble brewing on the horizon?  Should they be separated? The answer, I told the reporter, was that the three had become bonded at an early age and had now come to regard each other as friends. Separating them would likely cause them some distress and may not be the best thing for them.

The phenomenon of animals forming close bonds is hard-wired and has survival benefits. It is positively life-saving for young to imprint on their moms and to recognize and socialize with their own kind.  Because the mechanism for this close bonding is in place, if a young animal is exposed to even animals of a different species during sensitive period of learning, it may bond to those animals and come to regard them as friends. Examples of atypical bonding abound. Monkeys and cats have become trusting and inseparable; cats have developed deep affection for dogs, cats have formed close bonds with birds and even mice (I have slides of both of the latter situations that I use in my lectures); and birds have become psychologically attached to people. In one case that did the rounds on the Internet recently, an elephant became super close friends with a dog and even waited patiently for the dog to recover when it became ill. The lesson here is that any social animal can become bonded to another different creature if exposed under the right circumstances at an early age.  Domestic dogs are no exception to this general rule and, as pups, can be engineered to bond with all types of people, dogs, cats, and other species. If both parties are young, the bonding can be mutual, as occurred with the lion, the tiger and the bear. Is there trouble on ahead for those three? Not likely, not after this early bonding and eight years of mutual appreciation.

Understanding the power of socialization during the critical period of learning is something dog breeders, owners, and trainers should always have in the front of their minds as lack of appropriate exposure, particularly during the sensitive period of development (3-14 weeks), is a cause of problems ranging from frank fear to aggression. On the other hand, properly arranged exposure of young dogs to whatever and whoever they will be exposed during their lives can produce the most stable and well-balanced adult dogs.  Now if only we could do the same for people ...

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Positively Expert: Nicholas Dodman

Dr. Dodman is one of the world's most noted and celebrated veterinary behaviorists, an acclaimed author of four books, and a regular lecturer. Dr. Dodman has written 5 highly acclaimed books and has authored two textbooks and more than 150 scientific articles and book chapters. He appears regularly on radio and television.


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