When Animals Adopt: Lessons of Love and Adoptive Stewardship

“Love has no bounds” is an old cliché. Everyone loves “love”–from Valentine’s Day paraphernalia to sappy greeting cards. And environmentalists say they love nature, love the Earth, love a place or animal.

Obviously, nature is often “red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson puts it.1 However, nature also has its soft-and-fuzzy side, which provides a wonderful lesson and model for how humans in general and environmentalists in particular can relate to nature. A particularly splendid example of this is animals “adopting” other animals.

I have been watching a pair of cardinals parenting a baby cowbird at my bird feeders recently. Cowbirds (like other birds, such as the cuckoo) will lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and let the foster parents do the dirty work–changing dirty diapers, wiping runny noses, feeding at all hours of the night and day. And so along with the little baby cardinals flapping flopping and squawking like mad, this little cowbird is right there with the rest getting dutifully fed by the cardinals. I am sure all pet owners can recount endless tales of cats adopting dogs, dogs adopting cats, and so on.

In a somewhat similar vein, the March-April 2008 issue of Audubon featured a fabulous picture of a baby macaque in China hugging a pigeon that had adopted it. Separated from its parents, the little tike was near death and could not be revived by human zoo workers. Only after buddying up to the pigeon did he perk up and find life again.

This inter-animal adoption, for lack of a better term, seems to call out to the human heart. Thus we have a wealth of legendary/fictional instances where animals actually adopt humans: Romulus and Remus (traditional founders of Rome suckled by a wolf), Mowgli in The Jungle Book (raised by wolves), Tarzan (raised by apes), George of the Jungle (raised by apes, spoofing Tarzan), etc. Although fictional, these stories reveal the truth that humans still feel their wildness and still feel connected to their animal brethren.

It might be easy for us to say in all these cases that they are just “stupid animals” and do not know any better. The witless critters are no more than instinct machines and so only know that it is time to feed the kids and that these funny-looking interlopers came out of their nests.

Perhaps. But perhaps these animals, “dumb” and “pea brained” as they may be, make up for their little brains and low IQs with hearts so big they would make a whale sink. Perhaps animals are able, even willing, to “adopt” animals of other species (even other orders and families!) because their love is truly boundless, truly natural. Perhaps they take upon themselves the burden of providing for animals not like them because they “know” that the greatest gift of love is life, that life is love, and so they do what they must to ensure the life and well-being of another animal. That is, they become truly natural parents.

Why does this matter for humans, and especially environmentalists? Because, according to many signs and forecasts and data, we are running out of time to save the life of planet Earth. Like overly needy children, we have sucked Mother Earth nearly dry. Whether we love nature or we love what we get from nature, we have lived mostly in dependence upon Earth’s resources for our entire history.

So when we say we love nature, we love the Earth, we certainly feel a life-giving motivation to save nature, to save the Earth. We want to save the lives of every living thing and the places we cherish.

But I think that inter-animal adoptions can provide a new sort of paradigm for human stewardship. Rather than seeing ourselves as children of Mother Earth, perhaps it is time for us to shift our perspective.

We might give new strength to the environmental movement if we took a new approach to the Earth and saw ourselves as parents tending for Baby Earth, not just as children of Mother Earth. This kind of “adoptive stewardship” might lead us, like Ma & Pa Cardinal with the little cowbird chick, to nurture and tend everything in nature as parents caring for children–no matter what the kiddies look like or where they come from.

As parents give love, they get love in return; as parents give life, they get life in return.

Maybe we can “adopt” the Earth and all of its little (and big!) life forms and become parental stewards who want our children to have the very best, to have all the things we have had and more, to have wonderful and glorious and love-filled lives even after we are gone.

Image credit: Romulus et Remus (1614) by Pieter Paul Rubens, via Wikimedia Commons.
1. Tennyson, Alfred. “In Memoriam.” Alfred Tennyson: A Critical Edition of the Major Works. Ed. Adam Roberts. The Oxford Authors. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. 236.

What inter-animal adoptions have you seen, be it in the wild or in your home with pets? How might this sort of parental, “adoptive stewardship” be applied by environmentalists? How might it be beneficial, and what potential drawbacks might it have?

  1. Tim

    Nice piece, Justin.

    A couple of years back a female elk had a baby in my back yard and I watched the pair around my neighborhood for the next week or so. And then the mom disappeared completely. Kind of sad, because I would see (and hear) the young elk crying for its mother back at the spot where it had been born – and this lasted for a couple of weeks. And then, the elk started hanging out with the local deer- following them around, grazing with them, trying to jump over fences with them, etc. The deer were tolerant, but they couldn’t quite figure it out. The elk was totally clueless and the poor little thing was convinced it was a deer.

    The elk (which by now the entire neighborhood knew about) was trying so hard to do the things that the deer were doing, but couldn’t quite keep up all the time. For the next several months the elk that thought it was a deer was an active member of the local deer community and then it vanished. I’d like to think it reconnected with the elk herd, but since that herd is usually several miles away, I’m not so sure what happened.

  2. Justin Van Kleeck

    This is a touching story, Tim, but also a bit sad in its uncertainty about the elk’s fate. On the lighter side, we have to wonder what the deer were thinking!

    The potentially tragic fate of that elk also speaks to the importance of adoptive stewardship, I think, in a metaphorical way. If the deer had been more fully “parental,” then perhaps the elk (or elk-deer) would have done a lot better overall…and might still be wandering around your backyard acting like a deer. We can only hope it still is wherever it is.

  3. Kendra

    One of the most amazing animal stories I witnessed firsthand was the time I rescued a fledgling mockingbird lying in the road. I drove two hours home to another city and put her in my backyard as I called a local wild bird rehab center. While I sat on hold, a mockingbird pair heard her distress cries and came along and fed her and took her under their wings and adopted her. So heartwarming!

  4. Bobby B.

    Must resist temptation…try to keep quiet…fight the urge…oh, to heck with it.

    When R&R and Mowgli were hanging with the wolves, do you honestly think they were raised vegan? How do you balance the kindness shown these human kings with the lessons they must have been taught? The lessons of hunting in packs and slaughtering the weak, especially the young of other caring parents. The lesson that “might makes right” and ascension to pack leader is only achieved through mortal conflict. You are referencing stories that only show one side of the raised-by-wolves theme.

    And if Tarzan and George had been raised to be proper apes, why did both seek human mates? Why did they both make attempts at living in man’s world? Yes, they both realized that they needed to return to the wild but not before realizing that their wild existence was incomplete without regular human interaction. And isn’t it interesting that both Jane and Ursula were society girls who brought civility to their respective Kings of the Apes.

    In regards to your openness about Gaia worship, I will borrow from an earlier post of mine:

    “Is anyone else amazed that religion is moving away from man needing God to save him to god needing Man to save her?”

    To borrow from another story, in “Star Trek V” Captain Kirk asks a supernatural being who is pretending to be God the following question, “What does God need with a starship?” I would ask, “Why does God need me to save His creation?” Is He no longer capable? Oh, where is that line in the sand?

  5. Justin Van Kleeck

    Bobby, I can see you are indeed thinking (too much???) about this. Seriously, thank you for your comments.

    I would respond by saying that, first, animals are not just love machines, of course. Yes, they can be downright brutal, and not just when it comes to getting their next meal. But too often we focus only on that aspect–the beastliness of the beasts–without also acknowledging the ways they show kindness…even brutal beasts like wolves. So that is what I was emphasizing and celebrating in my post. And I was trying to get humans to recognize how nature’s parental aspects can provide us with a model of stewardship.

    As a vegan, I would answer your comments about lessons of the carnivore by saying that at this point is where rationality and human choice comes in. Yes, humans as animals could join the feeding frenzy and eat those creatures below them on the food chain. But some of us choose to take another path, the path of compassion, to join up with the herbivores and let the creatures keep living. Perhaps it is nothing but sentimentality. But even if so, I still feel better knowing I am doing my best not to contribute to animal suffering.

    And Gaia may or may not be able to save herself (or God himself), but I want to do all I can to help her out. It is the least I can do.

  6. Bobby B.

    One must “think” beyond the two-dimensional world of animals in literature or on the screen to grasp reality. Same rule goes for most topics.

    Stewardship via conservation I agree with. Stewardship via human regression – or equating the beasts to humans – I despise.

    I totally respect your decision to become a vegan. Heck, even Ben Franklin gave it a try. However, we human carnivores do not deserve to be vilified for our decision. We have different views when it comes to animal suffering.

    If helping Gaia makes you feel good, that’s fine with me. Just realize that others do not worship her and try to resist the temptation to quash the religious expressions of others.

  7. Justin Van Kleeck

    Right on! Keep on thinkin’ on!

    Humans are animals, but we need not be “beastly” animals. So I am not promoting regression per se as much as looking for examples of kindness in our approach to preserving resources.

    I would agree totally that meat eaters should not be vilified. I am a vegan, but that does not make me a fanatic or an extremist or a paint-slinger.

    And again, I totally recognize and respect different opinions on all topics, even “Gaia worship.” I do not believe I have, in any of my posts, tried to lord it over anyone who does not agree with me. I am simply stating my perspective as best I can based on what my heart feels and speaks. I hope this does not come across as judgment, criticism, or condescension. For me, it is, in truth, all about CELEBRATION!!!

    And I celebrate diversity of opinions along with that, too! ^_^

    Thank you again, Bobby.

  8. Andy B

    On the Pocahontas trail West of the birthplace of rivers just north of the Cherry River in Mahongahalia in 1965 I (7 year old) was engulfed by a fog bank. It was just before dawn. My father was heading for a trout stream to do fly fishing. Something(s) were near by. I could hear the wild hay move in circles around me. Then a gentle breeze lifted a small fog area in front of me. A small redish looking german shepard was growling and staring at me in an attack mode. From my strong background of listening to great speaches by Dr. Rev. Evans (FUMC Huntington). I knew that this canine was one of God’s creatures. Instintively I thought that this was my chance to have faith in God, so I smiled. The canine returned a smile and biddid me to follow. The tail lead me by trail through the heavy fog. This canine knew the trail well to where it beakoned me where to go by raising its head twice to where it knew my father went. Then two other canines apeared near my friend, One looked back at me and growled viscously giving me horror, the other grabbed my friend and pulled it away from my father’s sent trail. They disapeared into a fog bank. Then I realized that these were not dogs, They were wild wolves! Latter I called the park ranger even though my father told me that red wolves had been extinct for over 75 years. The ranger was immediately interested in my story. He had heard of a simmular story near the same area in the late 50’s and early 60’s. They must be part of the rescued wild red wolves that no longer exist in the wild.

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