This Mother's Day, as we celebrate our own mothers, we can also celebrate the many people who adopt other species, wild and domestic, and love them as their own. Sometimes it takes a village to practice this interspecies adoption.
In Nova Scotia, the village of Guysborough adopted an orphaned wild beluga calf they named Wilma. The two-year-old beluga swam lonely circles in the harbor. Wilma used floating buoys as her toys and rubbed up against boats so often that her white flanks were often gashed and scarred from propeller wounds. Yet true to the nature of this sociable species, Wilma continued to playfully approach boats to greet schoolchildren and tourists. So fishermen designed a protective box for their outboard motors. Village elders set their clocks by her and one couple said, "In the evening, we like to hear Wilma make noises like snoring. It's very reassuring."
Though Wilma was what scientists call a "lone, sociable," who had somehow lost her mother and her pod, she was rarely alone in the harbor. At a town meeting, the whole village of Guysborough turned out to hear how they could best adopt and care for Wilma. They brought in Cathy Kinsman of the Canadian Whale Stewardship Project and marine mammal biologist, Dr. Toni Frohoff. Villagers wanted their conservation help to protect Wilma from any outside captive industry who might condemn Wilma to life in a tank.
"Wilma trusts us, don't you know," a grizzled boatman said. "She's our responsibility. Just tell us what Wilma needs."
The Whale Stewardship Program helped educate Guysborough about how to best watch over their baby beluga in the wild.
When I visited Guysborough, the boatman took us out to meet Wilma. I was struck by how young she seemed as she exchanged a long, childlike gaze. In Wilma's eyes were all the loneliness and need, the dependence and trust of a human child. Wilma was alone of all her kind, yet surrounded by well-meaning people. She had the plaintive, engaging look of a child awaiting adoption. And this village had the earnest, anxious attitude of adoptive parents.
I realized that here was another kind of family model, an interspecies kinship new and fragile, awkward and inexperienced. But this was a model for what the future might be, between species that increasingly must meet. To adapt a scientific term, here was the human version of allomothering -- caring for non-maternal offspring.
Animals who allomother offspring other than their own include aunties, uncles, siblings, and even non-relatives who babysit, feed, and protect the infants from predators. Animal allomothers spend time with the infant so the mother can forage, rest, and meet her own needs. Infants who enjoy such cooperative care have a much higher rate of survival in the wild. And if the mother dies, these offspring are often adopted and their lives saved.
There are benefits to being allomothers. In baboon society, primatologist Barbara Smuts observed that young male baboons who offered friendship, babysitting, grooming, and companionship to elder matriarchs, were often chosen as mates.
When humans offer allomothering to other species, it often requires remarkable adaptability and advocacy. It's natural to love one's birth child. But what if the creature you are trying to mother is covered with hair, or bites you, or claws you, or has a grasping tail? What if that baby needs to sleep in a pouch, or in a tree, or requires a diet that includes moose scat or pureed fish? And what if that baby animal is endangered or weighs tons at birth?
In another village on the remote Baja peninsula, San Ignacio Lagoon, generations of villagers have protected gray whales in their birthing lagoons. Since the 1970s, when Renulfo Mayoral's father, Pachiko, first documented what scientists call "The Friendly Whale Syndrome," villagers have served as naturalists and boatmen to researchers and tourists who seek a unique encounter with the great gray whales.
As well as being the foremost naturalist in this lagoon, Renulfo is training the next generation in stewardship of the gray whales. He looks on proudly when his first young female boatman, Lupita, navigates the exhilarating encounter with baby gray whales practically leaping into our boat to be touched.
"My grandfather taught me to love las ballenas, the gray whales," Lupita says. "They are my relatives who visit every year."
Closer to home in my own Seattle neighborhood of Alki Beach, a group of dedicated volunteers, called Seal Sitters, sit vigil over seals who spend half their lives sharing our shores. On a busy urban beach like Alki, dogs off leash and curious people can disturb the pup's vital rest and scare him back into the water where he may not find his mother again. Weaned pups just learning to fish especially need to rest. Fifty percent of seal pups do not survive their first year. So the Seal Sitters, trained by NOAA, protect the seal and educate the many passersby until the seal can return to the water.
When we adopt another species, we reach out past the boundaries that keep us lonely and limited to just "me and mine." Now as we face massive extinctions of other animals, we can expand the way we love. In the words of the wise Mongolian family in the film, The Weeping Camel -- allomothers know that "the heart, whether human or animal, knows no borders."
Brenda Peterson is a National Geographic author of 17 books, including the memoirs I Want to be Left Behind and Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals. She is the co-founder of the Seal Sitters Marine Mammal Stranding Network. Her new picture book, Leopard and Silkie: One Boy's Quest to Save the Seal Pups is just out. For more: http://www.leopardandsilkie.com