Why Do Animals Adopt?

boxer and lambWe have all learned that love comes in many different forms and sources.  This notion is shared with animals, too, as they also experience different forms of love.  Just as people adopt children from outside their family, so do animals!  Animals have the capacity to love and raise children of animals outside their families and species. Many types of animals have been seen to foster babies in need of parental love and protection just as humans do.

While the exact reason to choose adoption may vary, humans adopt because they want and love children, and ultimately, they want to be parents. So, why do animals adopt?  Since it is impossible to ask an animal this, we must use observation and educated theories on animal motivation to attempt to answer this question.

We see many unusually paired species of animals living together like parents and children.  Some of these wonderful stories include a dog who nursed a baby squirrel as part of her own litter, a mother hen that adopted a litter of abandoned puppies, a raccoon who generously adopted a tabby kitten, a pit bull adopting three baby turkeys, a group of sperm whales adopting a deformed baby bottlenose dolphin, and a cow adopting a baby leopard.  These stories are not alone as there are hundreds of examples of animals showing empathy and nurturing instincts toward other animals within their own species and outside of their species.  These stories prove that animals create bonds outside of the need for safety and security and simply bond over a need for caring and companionship. A great example of this involves the story of the leopard and the cow. The leopard came into the farm area that the cow called its home.  Most onlookers would be amazed that the leopard was not looking to eat this cow, despite its natural instinct to do so, but to befriend it for a social or nurturing reason.  Each night, the leopard would be seen nuzzling with the cow and the cow would clean the leopard as it would a baby.  This unique relationship cannot be explained outside of the pair’s need for companionship and caring.  Although this relationship cannot be explained, scientists have made observations and theories as to why adoption happens among animals.

Adoption is especially common among domestic animals because of the bond they develop when put together.  It is also common for many animals to adopt orphaned youngsters of their own species, in order to care for and protect their inherent, instinctual need for species protection. This is known as Kin Selection.  Animals take care of the young orphans of their own species in order to pass on family DNA.  They have inherent genes that lead to altruistic behavior so as long as the behavior enhances survival and reproduction of the self-sacrificing animal’s close kin.  This is especially true for orphaned animals taken in by a relative.  Along with Kin Selection, another reason for adoption may be mutual benefit.

Mutual benefit adoptions mean that animals are motivated by both parties benefiting in some way from the relationship.  This happens when both sides can gain an advantage by sticking together.  For instance, adding a member to a group of animals could help them secure more food or offer greater security.  Sometimes mutual benefit can also be as simple as social companionship as long as the conditions created do not generate unwanted competition or threats.  An additional way mutual benefit can be seen is when a young and/or nursing mother takes in a young orphan.  Mothering produces the hormone oxytocin, a bonding hormone from giving birth.  This may make them more apt to take in babies that are not their own.

Many scientists believe that most adoptions among animals happen due to their feelings of empathy for others.  While some argue there is no proof of empathy, their arguments are squelched by evidence presented by National Geographic scientists that, “mammals have the same brain structures, the same system, related to emotion that we, as humans, have…Sometimes we don’t give animals as much credit as they deserve for being complex, thinking, empathetic beings.”  This capacity for empathy leads animals to adopt others to relieve pain, hunger, or loneliness in themselves or in the babies.  This empathy is shown in well-documented examples of altruism.

Altruism among animals involves the sacrifice of an animal’s own well being for the benefit of another animal.  Kin selection is not included in these examples as it is for the benefit of its own species or group, and although they show their capacity to help others, it is not considered true altruism.  One example of altruism is often shown in dolphins.  A dolphin will support sick or injured animals, tirelessly swimming under them for hours and pushing them to the surface to breathe.  Walruses who adopt other marine species that have been orphaned or injured demonstrate another example of altruism.  African buffalos will attempt to rescue animals in their grazing herds that are captured by predators. While just a small sample, these examples show that animals are able to recognize, even experience vicariously, what other creatures are going through and react accordingly.

Many of these examples of animals helping and adopting other animals outside of their species go against the Darwinian theory of survival of the fittest.  By helping others or adopting additional family members, an animal is not only decreasing its own reproductive success, but it also using its own food and energy in aiding the addition.  So why do animals do this?  Sometimes the urge to nurture takes over.  For example, in Kenya, a lioness lost her own offspring, so she adopted an orphaned baby Oryx, normally a prey species.  The game wardens took the baby Oryx away from her, so she attempted to adopt another baby Oryx.  These persistent attempts to mother suggest compassion and desire to nurture despite species differences.

Such adoptions can be quite beneficial in companionship and survival but also in future relationships between the adopter and the adoptee’s species.  For example, kittens raised by a mother hen have been shown to grow up without the instinct to harm the hen or her own chicks.  Cats that are raised with rats are shown not to attack any rats of that particular species.  A cat raised by a parrot was shown to resist attacking any bird species.

These cross-species adoptions create friendships that aid parental instincts and positive social interactions among differing species.  If only all species, human and animal, could learn a lesson from the plethora of cross-species compassion shown by so many amazing animals adoptions.

By Megan Frison

For additional information and more amazing stories:

"Arctic Endurance Test." National Wildlife® Magazine. National Wildlife Federation, 2007. Web. 01 July 2013.

Dell'Amore, Christine. "Why Animals "Adopt" Others, Including Different Species." National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 10 May 2013. Web. 01 July 2013.

Dewey, Russ, Dr. "Cross-Species Adoption | in Chapter 08: Animals | from Psychology: An Introduction by Russ Dewey." Cross-Species Adoption | in Chapter 08: Animals | from Psychology: An Introduction by Russ Dewey. IntroPsych.com, 2007. Web. 01 July 2013.

Hoffman, Piper. "5 Mama Animals Adopt Babies of Different Species." Care2. Care2.com, 2013. Web. 01 July 2013.

Levy, Sharon. "Parenting Paradox." ECOLOGY - Reproduction - Cross-fostering Species. National Wildlife Magazine, Aug.-Sept. 2002. Web. 01 July 2013.

Vedantam, Shankar. "It Feels Good to Be Good, It Might Only Be Natural." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 28 May 2007. Web. 01 July 2013

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