Sunday, July 26, 2009

BFFs: Owen and Mzee

When I was a kid, I loved stories about inter-species friendship. I remember one of my favorites being "The Dragon Wore Pink", about a girl and a dragon. A short perusal of a few books from my childhood found stories about a man and an elephant, a crocodile and a bird, and a mouse and a (vegetarian!) cat. I also remember a book about a girl named Emily (that's me!) and her friendship with, again, an elephant. Although I discovered the story of Owen and Mzee as an adult, it captivated me just the same: Owen is a hippopotamus and Mzee is a giant tortoise. They live together in Haller Park, an animal sanctuary in Kenya. During a tsunami in 2004, baby Owen was separated from his family and rescued by a group of humans. At his young age, he wouldn't have been able to learn to live by himself in the wild, so the manager of Haller Park offered Owen a place there.

One animal in Owen's large enclosure was a huge, crotchety, 130-year old tortoise, Mzee (his name means "wise old man" in Swahili). As soon as Owen got out of the truck, he made a beeline for Mzee. At first, Mzee wasn't happy with all the attention Owen was giving him. However, park staff soon found Mzee encouraging Owen to eat. Soon after that, they were spending all their time together. They sleep next to each other, rub noses and nuzzle each other. According to the book "Owen and Mzee", the reasons are unclear why these two animals seem to like each other so much. It's pretty much unheard of for a reptile and a mammal to form such a close bond. But to the many people who come to visit Owen and Mzee, it's obvious that they are, indeed, BFFs.

I find it surprising that in all my writings about relationships, I haven't covered the human-animal bond, besides identifying that asexuals like cats. Growing up, I felt really different from other kids, and I identified more closely with animals than with humans-- much like Owen identifies more with Mzee than with other hippos, even if it doesn't seem to make much sense. It sounds a little sad, but maybe non-human friends shouldn't be underestimated. In a 1998 study by Gail Melson at Perdue University, she found that "pets fulfill many of the same support functions as humans for both adults and support, like human support, is associated with less stress and better adjustment and that this relation holds across varied family characteristics." It's true that relationships aren't exclusive to relationships between humans. It seems as though since ancient times, some people have always felt the need to escape humanity, if only for a little while, among animals.


Anonymous said...

Yes, I believe that human-animal bonds are often hugely underrated.
On the other hand, we need to remember that they're animals, not people.
I love those kinds of stories too though. :)

Becky said...

Oohhh, your name is Emily. That makes sense. Cute!

Also adorable, the hippo and tortoise story I just learned! I am totally telling my friends about that the next time we wander into... animal BFF territory.

Ily said...

It's random, but I think tortoises are just the cutest thing ever. Especially when they eat. Chomp chomp!

Ellie said...

Tortoises are definitely adorable. I save my "cutest thing ever" for creatures with fur, but I think tortoises are amazing. I've definitely spent a good 45 minutes at the California Academy of Sciences watching the tortoises eat their food. Chomp chomp indeed!

This story (about Owen and Mzee) is amazing! I've also recently been reading news about all the dogs and cats that become surrogate mothers for tigers, lions, wolf cubs, etc when they're abandoned. Really, it makes me wonder why humans can't be that welcoming within their own species.

I know that as soon as I settle down into a somewhat predictable lifestyle, I'm getting a dog. I miss the feeling of coming home and knowing that there's someone there who WANTS to listen to how your day went, and will love you even if you're in a terrible mood because humanity is horrifying.

Anonymous said...

Best picture! I am a huge fan of inter-species friendships as well. I have a photo of a dog cuddling with a squirrel that I cut out of the paper taped above my desk at work.

heidi said...

Aye, I like cats and dogs well enough, but birds definitely make more sense to me. They occasionally preen (groom) each other, sit close to each other, but are not nearly as... rolling around like a mammal... as the other critters (certain seasons excluded, of course). Fish follow reptiles in the list of "awesome" - pretty darn asexy, the way they live. Anyway, critter bonding is entirely important, but I agree that they're not human and seriously don't need to be granted total access - see for reference!

gatto said...

Crow and cat friends: