Why Will A Predator Sometimes Befriend Its Prey?

You’ve probably seen the adorable videos that are so pervasive on the internet these days: a cat and a bird fall in love, a snake and a rat become best friends, a horse and a goat cannot be separated, and on and on the wheel spins. Animals can build strong bonds with one another even when nature seems to insist they cannot. But why?

In one example of this phenomenon, a man named Marc Bekoff brought a fox into his home temporarily. This could have turned into a huge problem because Marc already owned a dog who was certainly unfamiliar with the new species of animal. But guess what? The fox and the dog became inseparable (literally). When Marc used a baby fence to separate the two at night, the fox gnawed through it. When Marc caged the fox during the day, the dog would hunker down in front of it and start to whine.

Human animal lovers, and especially pet owners, immediately become infatuated with this kind of story. How could we not? Animals are supposed to be aggressive and uncomfortable with species they do not know, and predators are supposed to eat their prey, not fall in love with it. Animal lovers are not the only ones who find these relationships fascinating. Scientists do too.

A psychologist at the University of Tennessee, Gordon Burghardt, does not believe these relationships are imagined. Current research seems to suggest he’s right. Studies have conclusively shown that a number of animals choose companions for specific reasons: chimpanzees for personality, elephants for emotional support, and bats to find a place within a larger colony.

Interspecies pairings are a bit more difficult.

Zookeepers in Siberia left a goat meal for a tiger named Amur, but he decided he would rather make friends with what may have been a tasty morsel. This surprised everyone, as Amur was already accustomed to eating all the other goats that had been provided. But it’s more than that: Amur is actively aggressive towards anyone who approaches his goat companion. Zookeepers get hissed at when they try.

Burghardt believes a case of loneliness may have inspired the awkward pair-bonding. When predators no longer have to hunt for prey (or a mate), they can become quite bored. Amur probably wanted to play more than he wanted to eat. The goat must have been quite the talker. Even so, another zookeeper from a different park estimated that the goat would almost certainly be eaten sooner or later. For now, Amur is on a diet of rabbits.

It’s important to note that the lion’s share of these weird relationships have occurred in captivity. Whether or not they are common in the wild is another question entirely, and probably equally as difficult to answer as all the other questions raised. Why do these animals fall in love with one another? We don’t really know.