Animals and Adoption: It’s Not So Unnatural

     Sometimes, in our frustration with the secrets and lies inherent in closed adoptions, particularly in the past, some of us have declared that adoption itself is an unnatural thing, that it doesn’t exist in the animal world and shouldn’t happen, or very rarely should, in the human world.
     First of all, not every human social situation is mirrored in the animals’ worlds, such as legal marriage (though many animals do mate for life, or nearly so, and some also cheat on their mates!), surnames, and money; yet the existence of these things is not invalid. As for adoption, while it is obvious that other animals do not have legal or perhaps spiritual ceremonies to make adoption “official,” adoption does exist in the animal world in various ways. It probably has existed among humans ever since there were humans, too, because parents might die, leave, or even abandon offspring.
     Studies of elephants have found that female elephants in a family group will almost always “adopt” a baby or young elephant, whose mother has died or disappeared, such as when killed or taken by poachers. One recent program about elephants said that female elephants seem to have an overwhelming need to nurture and protect, and do not hesitate to adopt or to help another female raise her young. Elephants tend to travel in female-dominated groups, nurse the offspring for an extended period, and, because they have long pregnancies, long childhoods, and long lives, and apparently long and detailed memories of each other as individuals, they keep the young around quite a while, although they do tend to send the young males off at an earlier point, probably the equivalent of adolescence.
     On the darker side, some chimpanzees seem to be “child-stealers.” Jane Goodall, who has been studying chimpanzees in the wild since 1960, has followed many individuals and family groups for all those years. In the August 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine, there is an extended article about many of these individuals, in which Ms. Goodall discusses how some mothers would take an infant away from another one, even her own daughter, because she wanted another baby, even though she already had a nursing infant, with the sad consequence that she was unable to raise two infants at one time and so one died. If you’re interested in family and community dynamics, this is a fascinating article, complete with many pictures and details of 54 years of family history.
     There are, of course, many other examples of adoption among animals, even some cross-species adoption and nurturing. It is not frequent or common, or we would not see mention of it, but it does exist and does not seem to be abnormal. Probably only our silly human attempts at secrecy concerning adoption are truly abnormal.

Excerpted from the October 2014 edition of the Operation Identity Newsletter
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