• Wed. Feb 28th, 2024

How are animal-human bonds formed?

ByNatalie Nosenko

Oct 29, 2018

A recent, adorable video showed a young woman successfully befriending an octopus. She named him Egbert and would regularly stop by for a visit. The octopus recognised her and was more than happy to stay in touch with the woman, both literally and metaphorically.

The unusual friendship inevitably raised questions on how human-animal bonds form, how animals perceive them and how they are different from how we see them.

This is not the only example of humans befriending unusual or exotic animals. In 1969, John Rendall and Anthony Bourke bought a lion cub from Harrods and named him Christian. They were bringing him up until he was one year old. He then became too big for their London flat and they decided to send him to Kenya. Christian was successfully reintroduced into the wilderness where he became the leader of his own pride. A year later, John and Anthony came to visit. They were told that Christian had become absolutely wild and would not recognise them. However, he proved different and YouTube is now flooded with videos of the touching reunion.

The pattern of human-animal relationships seems to remain constant and involves the same factors: taking care of the animal, spending time together, training the animal and talking to it. While there was not much chance for talking in the case of the octopus, the rest most surely took place. The link could be biological too. A recent study at the University of Edinburgh revealed that a hormone vasopressin helps the brains of animals to differentiate between familiar and new scents. It appears like the hormone is the key to bond formation.

While there are no questions on why we humans enjoy our friendships with animals so much, it still remains unclear how they perceive the connection. Usually, a wild animal has to be orphaned at a young age to form a bond with a different species. In these cases, they perceive the caretaking humans as their parents and primary agents of socialisation. This can make it harder to reintroduce the animal into the wilderness, although Christian the lion proved different.  

Egbert’s new friend kept diving to the spot where she first found the octopus regularly, she gave him fish as treats and after some time she tried teaching him how to open a jar.

The same process happens when we adopt a new puppy or a cat. The first step in forming the bond for them is learning who the food dispenser is. This seems to be the first thing that keeps pets securely fastened to their new human. Time spent on playing with the caretaker further enhances the bond and makes it less materialistic. Interactions which require accomplishing tasks – training – further secure the bond.

However, history has seen bonds between humans and adult animals as well, not only cubs. We discovered that animals bond thanks to scents. Nevertheless, this does not explain why they would choose to further interact with the familiar. We may have learned a lot about them, but there is much more yet to discover.

Image: sasint via Pixabay

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