Tough Love: How Animals Educate Their Young
The first day of school can be hard — but human kids don’t know just how lucky they are.
When it comes to raising and educating their offspring, there are some parents in the animal kingdom who dole out some pretty tough love.
Preparing Those Puppies
Dogs may be man’s best friend, but they’re not the kind of parents who want to be buddies with their kids.
When it’s time for puppies to stop nursing, mama dog isn’t exactly gentle about delivering the message: She gives her pups fair warning, starting with just a look. If that doesn’t work, a snarl or a growl follows. And if the pups persist in suckling with their needle-sharp teeth, she’ll muzzle-punch them.
“Usually, the first time this happens, you’ll see the puppy scream and fall down,” says Michelle Yue, a certified professional dog trainer based in Washington, D.C. “It’s a really dramatic ordeal.”
The ordeal is necessary because the puppies are learning important lessons about dog life, including what kind of look from another canine means “keep away,” and which body language they can use to deflect a threat, such as groveling and showing their bellies.
These skills are so important, in fact, that moms also set up lessons outside of weaning. “Some dogs regurgitate food in front of their puppies just so they can attack them when they get close, or they’ll carry in a bone and do the same thing,” says Yue.
Leaving the Nest
It’s the most familiar example of animal tough love: A bird pushes its baby out of the nest, so it can learn to fly.
But it’s a myth. They’re not pushed — they jump.
Once young birds are big enough to abandon the nest, you’ll see them testing their wings. When they’re finally ready, “they’ll literally just take that plunge,” says Jason Martin of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, who leads a citizen science project called Nest Watch.
The parents provide some care to the newly departed fledglings, but it doesn’t last long. Gradually, the relationship shifts, and the adults start to see the growing birds as competition, so they chase them away!
“Usually, mom has been feeding them more, and dad has been protecting the territory, so he’s a little bit more aggressive toward the offspring,” says Martin. “Eventually, the mother will stop feeding them, as well.”
Although leaving the nest turns out to be a gentler process than the myth would have you believe, what’s really tough is how the youngsters get to that point — or don’t.
“When parents bring food back, they’ll put it in the first mouth they see,” says Martin. “Once that bird’s full, the other birds get their turn.”
So what happens if the food is gone before everyone gets some? The first baby gets bigger and stronger, allowing it to muscle the others out of the way. In lean times, some of the babies may even starve.
It may seem cruel, but ask a bird expert and they’ll say that it makes sense because, when times are tough, the babies wouldn’t all make it as adults, anyway.
“It’s about setting the young up for success,” says Martin. “It makes it better in the long run for the babies that do survive.”
If you remember your dad as being stricter than your mom, be glad that at least he did something. Among most animals, dad doesn’t help raise the babies. In fact, only 6 percent of mammal species show any kind of fathering behavior at all.
One member of the 6 percent is the red fox, who not only provides food several times a day to the female and her newborn pups, but also plays with his young. Eventually, they’ve got to go out on their own, so after three months, he still brings food back to the den — but instead of handing it out for free, he hides it. It’s the only way that the pups will learn to look for food on their own.
Hunting isn’t the only thing that dads teach the hard way. Robin Saunders saw this firsthand at a zoo where she once worked. The zoo’s snow monkeys lived on an island, encircled by a moat. There was no other fencing because none of the monkeys knew how to swim — until a new male arrived, and took charge of the situation.
“He pitched them off the island into the water,” says Saunders. “He’d let them hang on while he paddled around, but then he’d shove them off or shove their heads under water.”
He was throwing them into the deep end, for sure — but it was to their eventual advantage, as Saunders realized late one night as she drove her car through the zoo grounds. She spotted two small figures zipping across her path, and when she got out to survey the scene, she saw that they were young snow monkeys out for an adventure.
“They were getting off the island, and raiding the trash,” she says. “And sitting on the bench, eating popcorn.”