A Dog and Her Many Cross-Species Pals

Interspecies Frenemies
By Mat Zucker, January 2018
Photo by Mat Zucker

Photo by Mat Zucker

In her two-year life, our Shepherd/Labrador mix, Nora Ephron, has already enjoyed a rich, diverse set of friendships.

In addition to her weekday playgroup in the city, weekends in the country connect her to an array of species far beyond canine. I’ve read about dogs adopting other animals to care for them, but from what I’ve seen with Nora and her growing dance card, she’s more of a social butterfly. Like the five minute stories of interspecies friendships in the Scholastic kids’ book, Animal BFFs by Stephanie Pearmain, these are relationships.

Donkeys. Since they first met at the fence separating us from our neighbor’s farm, there’s been an almost romantic interaction between 10-year-old donkey Ernie and our little Nora. Ernie gallops from his outdoor shed to see her, and she jumps up to his face to say hello. Sometimes, he returns the affection with a demonstrative kick. Nora always wants to visit Ernie, tugging me up the hill to his field at least twice a day. We bring carrots to him and his buddy Bert (who seems oblivious to the courtship), which I feed to the two donkeys as well as to Nora. Everyone quietly, happily chomps away. Goats. In every social circle, there’s always the “funny friend.” With their curious faces, horns and spontaneous behavior, goats are, to me at least, absolutely hilarious. The goats across the road often scatter when Nora approaches, but they also seem curious; they size her up and she returns the favor. A protective parent, I’m worried about one of them head-butting her, but I know it’s not fair to suspect the worst from a kid on the playground. If you read horoscopes, you might already know that goats and dogs have a lot in common, including an interest in home and comfort. Both, however, also are prone to emotional insecurity; it’s not clear if they can provide what the other needs. I want Nora to be happy, but I also want her to be satisfied long-term.

Sheep. Nora’s fascinated by the mild-mannered sheep who live on neighboring farms, but it’s tricky to build friendships, since they run away if she gets too close. As a shepherd, she has protective instincts and talents. One weekend last summer, for example, there was a break in the farmers’ fence while they were away. My husband, Brian, discovered six sheep standing smack in the middle of the country road. They clearly had made a break for it, but being sheep, were waiting for direction. Our little Nora helped Brian herd them back, then loyally stood guard out front until a relative came by to repair the fence. The farmer has gently asked us to keep Nora away from the sheep lest they cease to be afraid of dogs, and by extension, wolves, but Julie Hecht, an animal behavior PhD student at the Graduate Center of CUNY (who also writes for The Bark), doesn’t think sheep who are afraid of dogs would transfer this fear to a predatory wolf. Either way, it’s been a bit hard to explain to Nora that she’s a far better friend to the sheep by, well, not being one.

Fowl. Nora chases chickens, guinea hens and sometimes even ducks around the farm, and unfortunately, occasionally catches them. To me, it’s hardly innocent rough play but rather, preying on someone smaller than you. I have to either keep intervening or teach her to stop. Unfortunately, she and I both know the truth: chicken is delicious.

Cats. A mystery to Nora, cats are neither friend nor foe. One study found that high percentages of dogs and cats living in the same household can exhibit friendly nose-to-nose contact, but our friend Lucinda’s cat, Russell, pays Nora no mind, and my parents’ cat, Webster, hides in the back hallway when Nora visits. The 20-plus farm cats taunt Nora by exploring our property, unafraid of her. She barks and sometimes gives chase to the fence, but they mostly shrug as one might on a neighborly stroll: “It’s just the donkey’s girlfriend.”

Mat Zucker is a writer, husband, dog parent and digital strategy consultant based in New York. He has also written for The Forward, Tablet and Forbes.com.

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