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Sometimes an old goat is just the friend you need

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Depending where you stand on the dog/cat/budgie/pot-bellied pig continuum, you may or may not agree with the notion that dogs are man's best friends.

Still, there's no denying the shared affection humans have with their canine companions. But what's interesting about the new PBS/Nature documentary Animal Odd Couples is that it might also be possible for a dog to have a BFF relationship with a deer or a cow or a cheetah.

This engaging, educational and, at times, heart-tugging film challenges the long-held scientific notion that animals (other than humans) are incapable of demonstrating compassion, creating deep emotional bonds and cultivating long-term friendships.

If the footage presented here is to be believed, animals are, indeed, capable of complex relationships involving emotional connections that extend far beyond basic self-preservational instincts and the pursuit of food.

Animal Odd Couples opens at Busch Gardens in Florida, where keepers paired two orphaned animals -- Mtani, a golden-retriever puppy and Kasi, a cheetah cub -- to see if a mutually beneficial relationship would evolve. Watching the two animals -- one that would traditionally prey on the other -- frolic and play makes it pretty clear that something special has occurred.

"It's an interesting relationship," says assistant curator Tim Smith. "Dogs and cheetahs are so close, overall, in their disposition, the way that they're socially structured, and their length of life, that they can coexist in a space even though they're at different places in the line of carnivores."

The same is true for Anthony and Riley, best-friend residents of Keepers of the Wild sanctuary in Arizona -- Anthony, a lion, and Riley, a coyote, were introduced to one another as newborns and, through years of shared play, developed an obvious level of trust that has endured into adulthood.

"Anthony and Riley's relationship makes them healthier," says one of the facility's staff members. "It's kind of like humans -- if you've got a good relationship, more than likely, you'll be happier, everything in your body functions better, and mentally, you're more stable. I think it's the same thing with the lion and the coyote."

The documentary is peppered with comments and observations from Temple Grandin, the now-famous animal-behaviour expert who was portrayed by Claire Danes in an award-winning HBO movie.

"When it comes to some of the emotional things and cognition in animals, I think scientists are going to prove that little old ladies in tennis shoes who say that little Fifi really can think are right," she offers.

The most touching among Animal Odd Couples' fascinating stories is a segment that focuses on Wild Heart Ranch (Oklahoma) residents Charlie and Jack, a blind horse and a male goat that took it upon himself to become his "friend's" eyes, leading him to and from a distant pasture each day to allow the horse to graze.

"Jack gets nothing out of this relationship," says curator Annette Tucker. "Charlie can neither protect him nor provide for him, so what Jack is doing is protecting his friend, period, end of story. There is no Charlie without Jack -- all of the things that a normal, sighted horse would have, he has, based on a relationship with an old goat."

Whether it's these oddball pairings, or other relationships involving a deer and a dog or a goose and a tortoise, there's plenty here to make you reconsider what it means, in human and animal terms, to be somebody or something else's best friend.

Your heart will be warmed.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald0

TV REVIEW

Nature: Animal Odd Couples

Tonight at 7

PBS

4 stars out of 5

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 7, 2012 D3

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