I confess I am not big on social media, but occasionally I see something that I can’t stop watching. This short clip caught on a wildlife camera in San Jose, California shows a coyote leading a badger though a culvert under a highway. And I am not alone in appreciation as this post has gone viral with millions of views! Simply put, this duo is absurdly cute. I can’t stop watching. While it is well established scientifically that coyotes and badgers hunt together, this video conveys so much more. The way the coyote leaps playfully, tail wagging, beckoning his short-legged little friend to follow conveys friendship. It conveys two buddies out for an adventure.
There are so many examples of non-human animals, individuals of the same species and of different species, interacting in complex ways that reveal their unique personalities, friendships, kindness, and dare I say, love. Traits or expressions we tend to confer only to humans for fear of anthropomorphizing, a big no-no in science. (For example, see this national geographic blog about this coyote-badger video). And yet I would argue that the most apt description of these behaviors is to describe them with the same words we would use to describe them in humans. Our brains are similar. These arguments are well developed by ecologist Carl Safina, in his best-selling book Beyond Words, and summarized here in this powerful TEDX talk.
A recent study about African grey parrots also captured the surprise of scientists. African grey parrots were very helpful in sharing tokens to other parrots so that parrot could exchange the token for food. The helping parrots did this without any direct reward for themselves. This type of helping behavior, most simply described as generosity or kindness, is surprising to scientists and many expressed doubt that it is real. Why? Other creatures are our close kin. We share the same nervous systems. It makes sense that we also share feelings and thoughts, emotional and social lives too. I think this is obvious to anyone who has a pet. For this badger and coyote pair, why shouldn’t we all, scientists alike, call it a friendship? Which raises another question: if we start calling these behaviors friendship, without fear of anthropomorphizing, might this help us to better empathize with our fellow animal kin and take better care of them and the Earth?
Nicole Heller is Curator of Anthropocene Studies for Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences working at the museum.
This video was captured by Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST), a land trust nonprofit where Heller worked as the Director of Conservation Science prior to joining the museum. POST is doing terrific conservation work to make the busy San Francisco Bay Area safe for wildlife to move around, find habitat, and successfully reproduce in the face of daily human traffic and long-term urban growth and climate change.