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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Trouble in the Peaceable Kingdom

Several months ago, through reliable sources, I learned of two amicable ventures between species. The first involved a skunk cavorting with cats after dark in the Holy Cross College neighborhood of Worcester, Massachusetts. The second, revealed to a friend by a park ranger at Yellowstone, paired a fox and a badger [shades of Beatrix Potter], who on opposite sides of a slope drove moles into the middle toward an ignominious fate.

I’d forgotten those revelations until, in a doctor’s waiting room last week, I stumbled upon Unlikely Friendships (Workman Publishing), by Jennifer Holland, a well-meaning senior nature writer at National Geographic. The book collects color photographs of  47 unlikely interspecies dyads—a gorilla and a kitten, a sled dog and a polar bear, a cat and a rat—you get the idea.  Friendships even manages a few ménages a trois—including the extreme turn-on of a rhino, a warthog, and a hyena. (Visit this link for the full line-up of pairings and titillating photos.)
At first, these pairings proved beguiling. But in a Darwinian moment I asked,  Are  such longings for a “peaceable kingdom”  in our best interest? Who are we kidding  by celebrating liaisons between species—many of them natural-born predators—that have evolved as separate but not equal? It's no mystery who's in the fool's cap--it's Homo sapiens, of course.

As usual, Grandville got it right.

Our failure to respect interspecies boundaries (excepting, of course, co-evolved, domesticated ménages) can lead to mayhem—with humans frequently getting the worst of it. Recall the disfiguring 2009 attack in a Connecticut household by Travis the Chimp, who decided to show his owner who was boss. Or Timothy Treadwell, a.k.a., Grizzly Man, whose overconfidence with ursines in the Alaskan wilderness got him and his female companion killed back in 2003.

The Wig & Pen jury, then,  is in:  Think thrice before allowing aesthetic delight, seductive cuteness, or aspirations for a world-peaceable kingdom to erode hard-earned interspecies boundaries. They offer a modus vivendi that is usually a better deal for all. In the very least, then, Jennifer Holland’s book should sport the warning label, Don’t try this at home or, for that matter, on the road!

The W&P Jury Is in.