Life

What we can learn from animals about love

What we can learn from animals about love
Photo: Shutterstock

For the majority of animals, Valentine’s Day is no more than a day like any other (though some lucky cats might delight in the added presence of sniffable flowers and swatable heart-shaped boxes). Although most don’t celebrate the occasion, year-round, they certainly do practice what it honors, both within and beyond their particular species: love, care, bonding, and affection.

Animals remind us that the gender binary is entirely human-made; that sameness need not be the sole glue holding pairs together (demonstrated by the incidence of intra-species bonding); and that interconnectedness benefits all, for which reason rigid heteronormative relationship ideals disservice so many of us (queer people especially).

Here’s more of what our animal teachers have to remind us of when it comes to love.

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1. Play’s important role in strengthening it

In human couples, playing together has been found to increase bonding, communication, conflict resolution, and relationship satisfaction. Play can also “promote spontaneity when life seems routine, serve as a reminder of positive relationship history, and help couples to unite in order to overcome differences.” Some studies have even cited it as the most important factor in maintaining marital satisfaction.

Animals seem to recognize this, engaging in play as a means of strengthening their own social bonds. White-winged choughs play follow the leader. Chimps in Uganda have been seen entertaining themselves with stick dolls, crocodiles providing piggyback rides to smaller reptiles, and young elephants utilizing riverside embankments as waterslides. The narrator in My Octopus Teacher observed his friend shimmying her tentacles towards the fish in her surroundings. She wasn’t trying to hunt them; instead, her gestures seemed playful and whimsical.

2. It can encompass sexual diversity

Bisexuality can be witnessed across many species, as the book Biological Exuberance explored. Bluegill sunfish, mounting bison, goats, koalas, and ostriches, are among the many that exhibit gay behavior. Ninety percent of observed sexual activity amongst giraffes is homosexual (the males, in particular, rub their necks along each other’s bodies, sometimes for hours). And Amazon river dolphins were once spotted having gay group sex.

Polyamorous animals also make up some of the sexual diversity.

“Measure after measure, it’s the same,” wrote Robert Sapolsky in his book Behave. “We aren’t classically monogamous or polygamous. As everyone from poets to divorce attorneys can attest, we are by nature profoundly confused—mildly polygynous, floating somewhere in between.”

Look to the animal world and see examples supporting both relationship styles. Bonobos and penguins mate for life. Elephant seals, spotted hyenas, gorillas, house wrens, and Bengal tigers take on multiple sexual partners. It’s hard to argue that one is more“natural” than the other.

3. That words of affirmation are only one of several love languages

One night I woke to the sound of my neighbors having sex. In reaction, I pulled the covers over my head and attempted to ignore it— but ten minutes later, sleep continued to elude me. The more I tried to block out the noise, the louder it seemed to become.

My mind entered panic mode. I knew that in seven hours I’d need to be awake to interpret an important surgery. So I took deep breaths. I attempted to meditate. I practiced all the “tips on getting back to sleep” I’d given to myself in the past—but still, sleep wouldn’t come.

A slumbering ball of black and white cat napped between my legs amidst all this.  As anxious thoughts continued racing, I felt that ball begin to stir. As if hearing my call, he uncurled himself from his roly-poly position of repose. He then slowly crawled his way up toward my left ear (the one absorbing the majority of the sex noise). Once there, he laid down over it, blocking the sounds with his purring body.  Not long after, I fell back asleep.

There are myriad ways love can be communicated— wordless gestures, physical presence, and acts of consideration. Grooming is another. Beyond practicing it to maintain hygiene, animals clean each other to strengthen bonds. Ponies, vampire bats, lions, meerkats, and yellow-billed babblers engage in social grooming (also known as allogrooming), which has been proven to lower heart rate in macaques and reduce tick load in wild baboons.

Animals’ love language might not be words of affirmation, but acts of service, quality time, and occasional gifts.

4. There are other forms of love beyond the nuclear family and committed monogamous relationships

As Sara Eckel wrote, “our society is structured around couples and families—and if you don’t fit neatly into one of those units, you often have to build a support system from scratch, which is a big task. Friends move, marry, or disappear into time-sucking work projects. And they usually don’t consult you about it. For many of us, living alone in a society that is so rigorously constructed around couples and nuclear families is hard on the soul.”

The pedestalization of romantic love and trappings of compulsory monogamy haven’t shackled the animal world quite as hard. Examples of animals that take a more collectivist approach to love include vizcachas, who live in communal burrow systems (using branches and heavy objects to cover the entrance). Elephants, wired to act empathetically towards other members of their herd, are another. According to Entrepreneur, “If any member of the herd is injured or sick, the others will try to pick them up with their trunk. If a member is dead, the rest of the herd mourns for the one gone.”

Meerkats also subsist on deep trust, solidarity, and interdependence between their group members. While the rest of the group feeds, one member is assigned to guard and protect.“The amount of trust the mob places on each other is massive; one slip of alerting the mob can be the difference between life and death, but they still do it with a high rate of success,” Entrepreneur wrote.

In the human world, friendship and community are essential to emotional health and vitality. For many LGBTQ+ people, chosen queer family is vital, made up of bonds held together by viscerally felt unspoken understanding. My queer community in college helped significantly in replacing shame with pride. And yet still so much emphasis is placed on individualism and insular partnership in our world today. Increasingly now, we’re more superficially connected to others, lacking face-to-face time and sustained by validation that isn’t on the same level as a true connection.

The New York Times, sadly, has found that although friendship in America has declined for years, it sank even more during the pandemic. According to the authors, “Three decades ago, 3 percent of Americans told Gallup pollsters they had no close friends; in 2021, an online poll put it at 12 percent. About a year into the pandemic, 13 percent of women and 8 percent of men age 30 to 49 said they’d lost touch with most of their friends.”

Animals with communal habits remind us of the real benefits of living and loving inter-connectedly.

5. That it doesn’t mean finding a carbon copy

My childhood parakeets Coco and Limon were as distinct (energetically) as could be. With his blue body and white head, Coco was the more dominant of the pair. The expression on his face was a perpetual scowl (like Rabbit’s from Winnie the Pooh), and he bit often.

 Meanwhile, Limon, green-bodied and yellow-headed, veered more passive and docile. He never laid a beak on us, even when it would’ve made sense to in the name of self-defense against the grabby, obnoxious hands of over-eager children.

And yet the two really loved each other. Coco never quite bonded with another bird in quite the same way—not even Hermese, the parakeet we adopted after Limon passed away. Hermese was temperamentally more similar to Coco.

Examples of other animals who didn’t require carbon copies of themselves to bond deeply include, according to the book Unlikely Friendships, a bobcat kitten and a fawn; an elephant and a stray dog at an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee; Koko the gorilla with Ball the kitten, and Humphrey the Hippo with a pygmy goat in South Africa.

It’s not always clear why animals form intra-species bonds—just as it’s not always clear why dissimilar humans occasionally feel drawn to one another. What is clear though, is that, according to author Jennifer Holland, “the animals are arguably better off—more confident, physically stronger, in higher spirits—after finding each other than they were before.’

6. Love need not be limited by gender roles

Not all humans fit entirely into either gender box. Still, often we attempt to—rather than relish in our full expression of interests, tendencies, and proclivities—because binary is the air we breathe. Gender in our society is organized into a black-and-white structure that leaves little space for categorical blending.

Back in the 1950s, after choosing either a butch or femme identity, lesbians faced pressure to adhere to a code. At bars, the butch was to approach the femme, while the femme was to wait for the butch. Many bars even had separate bathrooms labeled “Butch” or “Femme.”

Many creatures couldn’t be bothered by the human-made gender binary and prescribed sex roles. In the animal kingdom, it’s not always the ladies who flaunt their beauty to attract a mate, for instance. Male peacocks court using their grand and colorful tails. Blue-footed boobies woo their women with a dance that draws attention to their vibrant blue feet. And according to National Geographic, “During mating season, male quetzals grow twin tail feathers that form an amazing train up to three feet (one meter) long.

Singing is also far more common amongst males in the bird world, with male birds producing longer and more complex vocalizations (while females’ calls tend to be shorter and simpler). Female birds often judge their mate by the quality of his singing. And among crickets, chirping is solely a guy thing as well.

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