Do wild animals keep pets

Koko and her new kitten friend, 1985.It's fun to attribute human behaviors to animals – to imagine that the cat has a "favorite" toy, or to call the dogs "sisters" even if they came from different litters of puppies. We even dress up our pets sometimes. But as amusing as it is to think of pets as furry people and treat them accordingly, most of us understand that there are some human behaviors pets don't engage in. They don't read movie reviews, or drive (Toonces excepted), or keep pets of their own.

Or do they?

In his piece on HuffPo, Professor Hal Herzog admitted that, despite his unequivocal claim that "The human being is the only animal that keeps members of other species for extended periods of time purely for enjoyment," recent evidence may induce him to revise the next edition of his book, "Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard To Think Straight About Animals." Turns out a friend forwarded Herzog an article from the American Journal of Primatology, which described a group of bearded capuchin monkeys who had taken in a baby marmoset – another species entirely. Co-written by Dorothy Fragaszy, a University of Georgia primatologist studying the capuchins in a private Brazilian nature preserve, and photographed by epidemiologist and naturalist Jeanne Shirley, the article featured Shirley's photos of the capuchins carrying the marmoset around – even feeding it.


That may not mean the capuchins thought of the marmoset as a pet, though. They could have seen the little marmoset (named "Fortunata" by the researchers) as a baby capuchin: they fed her, chirped to her in their language, and toted her around on their backs. They were careful not to roughhouse with Fortunata, who's much smaller than their species. And she stayed with them from infancy until roughly the age of marmoset adulthood.

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Fortunata disappeared one day, though, and Fragaszy still doesn't know why – did she strike out on her own? Did a predator strike her? Nor did she conclude that the capuchins kept Fortunata as a pet (the paper calls the relationship an "adoption," which could go either way), although she said in an email to Herzog that "there is an obvious parallel" between the capuchins' treatment of Fortunata and Herzog's of his cat Tilly.

Owen and Mzee just chillin', 2005.Herzog admits that he can cite "scads of examples" of animals of different species befriending and becoming dependent on one another – Koko the gorilla and her kitten. Owen the baby hippo and his BFF, Mzee the tortoise, who bonded after a tsunami separated Owen from his mom. Tarra, an Asian elephant quartered at a sanctuary in Tennessee, and Bella the dog. He even notes articles that cite wild chimps "playing" with smaller animals like hyraxes, although those relationships didn't end well ("the chimps killed their new pals and proceeded to toss their corpses around like rag dolls" – yikes).

But most of these animals live in captivity – even the capuchins aren't entirely "wild," living as they do in a preserve – and while those interspecies bonds are obviously sincere (and not based in sheer practicality, like that between a shark and a remora), it's hard to say how the capuchins saw the situation. Was Fortunata a pet to them? A stepchild? A young friend or a mysterious toy?

We're leaning towards "adoption" here; we're not sure it's safe to assume that other species, even primates, approximate relationships the same way humans do. On the other hand, however the capuchins thought of Fortunata, they obviously loved her – just as humans love pets.

Do you think other animals "keep pets"? Do your pets "keep" each other sometimes? (Are you counting the cat's "pet" moth?) Discuss in the comments!

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