Friendly Cross-Species Interactions in the Animal Kingdom

Divorce and Family Mediator, Susan Ingram, discusses cross-species interactions and how it relates to mediation.

If They Can Do It, Why Can’t We?

{3:17 minutes to read}

The NY Times published a fascinating article recently in its Science Times section on friendly cross-species interactions. You can see the article here.

The article provides video and commentary on several of these unlikely animal relationships:

  • A 100-year-old tortoise and an orphaned baby hippopotamus
  • A donkey and a German Shepherd-mix dog
  • A longhorn calf and a one-horned rhinoceros
  • A baby monkey and a baby boar

and so on. I know… a lot of people, myself included, love animals, but this article has substance to it, as it explores more than just the novelty and “cuteness” of these unlikely animal relationships.

The article cites critics who point out that these relationships took place in a human-controlled environment and are not necessarily indicative of what might happen in the wild. Even though that may be true, there’s no question that something special is going on here.

What interests me most is how these unlikely pairs, when given the encouragement and opportunity, formed and sustained their unusual bonds. Barbara J. King, an anthropologist who is quoted in the article, defines the criteria for a friendship between members of two different species as requiring (1) a mutuality in which both animals engage in the interaction and (2) an accommodation or modification that takes place (in behavior or communication) in service of the relationship.

One example given is that of a donkey and a dog (owned by a primate researcher quoted in the article) that played together for hours each day on a ranch in Wyoming. At first, the donkey charged and kicked at the dog, fearful that the dog posed a threat to it. The dog initiated most of the friendly advances in the beginning (think of all those millenniums of dogs learning how to relate to us humans). Eventually, the two became best buddies and even developed a way to communicate “apology and acceptance” when the donkey would accidentally kick the dog during play.

I guess you know where I’m going with this…. Hey, if animals of different species can learn to get along and “communicate,” why can’t two or more humans, who are not even of different species, do the same? I believe we can, BUT it takes work, whether you’re dealing with two people trying to communicate in a divorce situation or warring nations that are at each other’s throats.

Look again at the language I’ve highlighted in bold letters above. Those criteria also happen to describe two of the main requirements for humans to resolve their differences through the mediation process. The parties first have to agree to come to the table and mediate their controversy. Then, a shift in communication or behavior needs to take place.

I have described this “shift” in a number of my prior blog articles. It’s the shift that occurs when, through mediation, the parties let go of their rigid positions and identify their deeper needs and interests. That’s when they move from a Win-Lose situation (where there’s a clear winner and loser) to a Win-Win scenario (where both/all of the parties are winners).

I welcome your thoughts on this subject. Do you think we humans can learn a thing or two from the animal kingdom? Please share your comments in the box below.


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I think most humans are very good at cross-species interaction (well with those species that aren’t poisonous or aren’t likely to eat us) and very good at inter-species interaction….until something happens or something is said/not said that creates a threat response/triggers fear and we react by hurting, avoiding or trying to dominate the other person. Other animal species do this too – just that as humans we have the capability of overriding this instinct – and sadly many don’t/can’t when the threat feared is (after logical analysis) not a major issue.

Catherine Gillespie, Workplace Conflict Resolution


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2 responses on “Friendly Cross-Species Interactions in the Animal Kingdom

  1. Charlotte Carter

    Great observations, thank you! All living things must seek to balance cooperation and competition. It is interesting to note that as women gained experience and credibility in the field, we all learned much more about inter and intra-species collaboration.

    That magical shift you described often happens when mediation creates a safe place for our instincts as social animals to emerge and express themselves. Competition sharpens our game, but we all tend to do better when we can trust and cooperate.

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