Bottlenose dolphin mothers whistle continuously when they deliver their babies. Why? As the newborn emerges to swim amid a sea of dolphins, each with its own whistle, it will be better able to locate its mum. This is just one of the fascinating observations animal behaviorist Jennifer L. Verdolin discovered in her work learning about the births, child-rearing and leaving-the-nest habits of animals in the wild.

Verdolin, a biologist and adjunct professor at Duke University, shares her knowledge in her coming book, Raised by Animals: The Surprising New Science of Animal Family Dynamics. In it, she compares animal behaviour to human behaviour and explains how we can use this information to be better parents.

We spoke with Verdolin to learn more.

Q: In the wild, you say, animal parents typically ignore tantrums.
A: Prairie dogs start throwing tantrums when they don't want to be weaned. Just like our kids they throw themselves to the ground, they yell, they scream and cry.

Advertisement

For a prairie dog [mother] who was not keen on continuing to nurse, the mom was having none of it. She started walking away with the youngster attached to her, bouncing upside down on the ground. It was a very nondramatic way of saying "I'm not going to feed you anymore."

Q: What surprised you the most in your research?
A: There was so much that I found remarkable. The patience animals have and how they are so careful to never be physically aggressive with their offspring unless there is something wrong with the parent or to protect the child.

Q: Would you explain this more?
A: The Barbary macaques - they can have a tantrum, and it's usually around weaning, and the parents pretty much deal with it by basically ignoring them. They don't get into a fuss about it. They might give in to them or they might ignore them, but there is no real fuss.

Q: But they are not physically aggressive.
A: It doesn't make sense to physically harm your child. It's relatively rare for an animal to physically reprimand their offspring. It's pretty common in humans. For animal parents, there are many steps before they ever get to a physical correction; that is usually to protect the animal from even greater harm - basically yanking them out of the street, an emergency situation.

Q: What does this say about human parents?
A: We underestimate the degree of patience that is required to raise a child without physical or verbal aggression. It gets compliance perhaps, but it's compliance based on fear, not learning. Animals are more focused on teaching.

Jennifer L. Verdolin, a biologist and author of a forthcoming book on wild animal family dynamics. Photo / Astrid Cabello Photography.
Jennifer L. Verdolin, a biologist and author of a forthcoming book on wild animal family dynamics. Photo / Astrid Cabello Photography.

Q: What do animals seem to know about parenting that humans don't quite get?

A:

They know that everything about their life is to devote everything they do to raising kids that will go on to be successful adults. We underestimate how much it really takes of our attention and focus.

Q: Such as?
A: If it is an elephant, they are in close physical contact 24/7 between the infant and its mom up until a certain point. And we have created situations where we expect infants to cope with being alone, and we are not built for that. We are wired as infants to have adults close to us all the time. Cortisol, the stress hormone, in infants goes up when separated from the mother or father. If you put an infant in a separate room and you are not sleeping in the same room - not the same bed, the same space - the research shows their stress hormones go way up.

An orangutan mom does not put her infant in a separate nest. . . . We have created a society where we can't take our babies to work with us. And we have very giant houses where our babies are in a room down the hall instead of in a room with us. We've had a lot of changes with modern society, and infants haven't changed that much. Animals don't have to deal with this problem.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from your book?
A: I hope they take away that there is no right way to parent and no perfect family. They can take away some thoughts and ideas and some new strategies that we can borrow from animals. I hope they take away feeling less guilt and resentment about being parents and understanding this is huge undertaking to successfully have a child and raise them to be everything you wish for them to be in the world - to be well adjusted and happy and successful. And that they get some humor out of it and some laughs and feel more of a kinship.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.