Last fall, Norwegian photographer Torgeir Berge packed up his camera equipment, put a leash on his German Shepherd Tinni, and headed for the woods nearby for a walk. Little did he know that he was about to have a photo opportunity that would go viral worldwide.
The first series of pictures he took that day in the woods turned out to be the beginning of a story — the story of an "unnatural" friendship between natural enemies: a dog and a young fox. The fox appeared out of the brush, made a beeline for the dog and stopped in front of it, lifting its face and sniffing Tinni’s muzzle. The dog didn’t move. There they were, dog and fox, nose-to-nose.
Berge says that since he knew foxes were shy animals, his first thought was that the animal had rabies. But the fox didn’t bite Tinni, in fact, he made it quite clear he wanted to play. The two animals ran around together, romped, wrestled, and ran some more. After that day every time Berge went to the woods with his photo equipment and his dog, Sniffer the fox was there to greet them.
Tinni and Sniffer — Photo: Torgeir Berge
One day Sniffer left the forest and made his way to Berge’s house to visit Tinni. Soon after that, Sniffer set up his den near the photographer’s shed.
Although Sniffer has since moved back to the woods, he still drops by regularly. And when he does, he always wants to play. He doesn't come the bowl of food Berge puts out for him: He comes for Tinni. It’s an animal friendship that goes against what biology textbooks teach us — a friendship that, according to the laws of nature, should not exist.
Human nature vs. animal instinct
We are all familiar with the term "animal instinct." But could it be that some animals are capable of the same spontaneous feelings that human have? The matter would have long since been researched if the subject were not almost taboo in the scientific community.
In the 1960s when British researcher Jane Goodall began her work on the behavior of chimpanzees, she was criticized by colleagues because she gave her subjects names instead of numbers. Goodall gave in and made some concessions. In her publications she no longer wrote that Wounda, an ape, was "happy."
Instead she used a round-about sentence that conformed to scientific convention — "Animals don’t have feelings" — of which she later said that it sounded silly: "Wounda behaved in such a manner that had she been human would have been described as happy."
Meanwhile, more and more scientists are coming round to admitting that yes, animals do have feelings. Not all of them are as direct as Dutch primate researcher Frans de Waal, who states that "of course all mammals have feelings of connection, affection, and friendship."
Even sober-minded and unsentimental conservative researchers like New York neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux have pointed to the similarities between human and rat brainstems. He concludes that rats too must be capable of feelings such as joy, love, hate, and sadness.
Tinni and Sniffer even have a song written about them! For the English version, click here.
So, what about friendship?
Marburg-based biologist Anja Wasilewski has come up with a scientific definition of friendship among animals. A few years ago she published one of the first works on this sensitive subject. For Wasilewski, friendship is a "voluntary and reciprocal non-sexually motivated socio-positive bond between two unrelated individuals that has subjective value for both and is characterized by positive affect (that could, for example, be described as sympathy)."
In other words: an affinity between two beings who are not related and for whom sexual motives are not the issue. Wasilewski conducted her research in the UK, studying herds of horses, cows and donkeys. She noted that donkeys and cows particularly were capable of establishing relationships.
Animal friends (always the same sex) seek proximity to their buddies. Elephants, dolphins and apes are also capable of friendship, as are female bats. Gerald Kerth of the University of Greifswald in Germany describes in a recently published work how animal "girlfriends" enjoy "hanging out" together — and even give each other support during childbirth.
What does all this mean for Tinni and Sniffer? Scientific research is at a loss when it comes to giving a clear-cut explanation. "Animals are capable of friendship across the boundaries of species," says anthropologist Barbara J. King of the University of Oklahoma. But friendships between domestic and wild animals are so rare that it is impossible to make a scientific statement about them.