Are humans the only creatures who feel or fall in love? Do animals love too?
Haven’t we all wondered what’s going through our pet’s mind when they snuggle up with us on a sleepy Sunday? It’s that big question: Does my dog love me for me, or does he just love that he smells food on my person?
If you’re single on Valentine’s Day, that dog or cat-love might be more valuable than ever.
Simply put, humans aren’t the only creatures who can fall in love. Animals do too, and there are a ton of examples of it in nature. “All mammals share the same parts of the brain and for emotions, you would expect that there would be continuity across species,” says Dr. Marc Bekoff, a professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado.
Dr. Bekoff says that animal love also depends on how you define “love.” Is it building a life together? Mating? Never wanting to be apart? Animals in love do all that, and more. Dr. Bekoff says they “sleep together, travel together, they defend food, territory, and young together.” He adds that they even miss each other when they’re apart, and seek each other out. So if you have two dogs that are always together, it just might be puppy love.
Biologist Bernd Heinrich wrote about raven-love in his book, Mind of the Raven. He argued that since ravens have long-term mates, they surely fall in love since something has to keep a couple together.
“The other thing,” Dr. Bekoff says, “is that in all my studies, there’s been no hesitation to attribute negative emotions to animals. Fear, aggression, anger.” There’s really no reason animals wouldn’t have those positive emotions either, such as love and joy. Research on rats, for example, shows that they respond to tickling. “Rats have rat-joy.”
It’s easy to identify an aggressive animal, but if they can be protective and fearful, why can’t they fall in love, too? (And luckily for the animals, they don’t have money or politics to fight over like human couples do).
That love, however, comes in different forms of expression. Just like humans can have different relationships—open, monogamous—animals can too. Some animals practice “obligate monogamy,” where both the male and female raise their young together. Others are serially monogamous, taking in different partners for long periods of time. (97 per cent of birds are monogamous). Others are more like casual daters, taking in different partners. “They ‘cheat,’ if you will,” says Dr. Bekoff. Rascals!
And that love isn’t restricted to same-species relationships either. Last year, PBS made a documentary on these unorthodox relationships called “Animal Odd Couples”. It highlighted romance between a cheetah and a retriever, a dog and a deer, even a tortoise and a goose. Love knows no bounds. “What you find with the cross-species [is] love, empathy, and compassion,” Dr Bekoff says. Not only do animals love, but they have compassion for others, and will grieve at the loss of a loved one.
Same-sex relationships aren’t a rarity in the animal kingdom either. It’s difficult to estimate how many relationships there are, but Dr. Bekoff suggests that if we find it in humans, we’ll find it in animals too.
Romantic love isn’t the limit, either: Dr. Bekoff studied a mother and wife coyote in Wyoming, who would sometimes leave her family and vanish for a few hours, then return like it was normal. Her family would sometimes look for her, or follow her for a moment. When she’d return, her children would lick her, wag their tails, frolic in front of her.
One day she left and didn’t return. Another female entered the pack and took over the role as mother and wife, but it seemed that the children still pined for Mom. They’d take short sojourns in the direction she left in, always returning alone.
Sometimes, you just want your mom back.
Unfortunately, we can’t sit down a pair of monkeys and ask them how they felt the first time they laid eyes on each other. Animal love differs the way human love does. “Your joy and my joy and your grief and my grief have some shared characteristics, but it’s possible that they’re very different,” says Dr. Bekoff. “I don’t know what it feels like to an individual dog.”
So if your cats seem to be together all the time, seemingly intent on spending the rest of their lives together, purring at the sight of another, they just might be in love. Or they’re just cats that purr a lot. There’s no test for true love—in human or non-human animals. That would make it all too easy, wouldn’t it?
(Image Source: Matt Carson)