Unlikeliest of Friendships: Owen and Mzee by Craig and Isabella Hatkoff and Paula Kahumbu
The story of Owen and Mzee reads like a fantasy tale for children. A 600-pound yearling hippo with his family group is washed down a flooded river to the sea and orphaned and stranded on a reef by the Christmas tsunami of 2004, only to be rescued by a variety of concerned humans and released in an animal sanctuary where (get this!) he is adopted as the best friend and constant companion of a 130-year-old giant Aldabra tortoise.
The media story of orphan Owen and ancient Mzee began as a newspaper article and photo by BBC photo-journalist Peter Greste as a follow up to the tsunami's aftermath. The story was read by six-year-old Isabella and her father Craig Hatkoff, who turned it into a WNBC segment, a photo-essay e-book. and eventually a series of what are now one All Aboard Science Reader board book and two conventional print books on this surprising friendship.
Following a harrowing and difficult rescue on the coast of Kenya, Owen (named for one of his courageous rescuers) was deemed too young to place among other hippos and was released into a comfortable enclosure with a natural pond, mud wallow, and vegetation, and--among several smaller animals, a four-foot-long giant tortoise. The terrified youngster immediately huddled behind the tortoise, perhaps drawn to him by his resemblance in color and shape to his mother. At first Mzee hissed and tried to creep away from Owen, but by morning the two were found huddled together, sleeping. Soon they became constant buddies, eating, swimming, sleeping, and roaming their area in companionable consort to the amazement of naturalists and the public alike.
In the time since the publication of the first book, animal behavior and intelligence experts have had opportunity to observe Owen and Mzee, particularly as their association and ways of communicating have evolved. Owen and Mzee communicate physically through a language of nips and nudges which guide each other around their area. For example, Owen pushes against Mzee's right hind leg to get him to go to the left and the left hind leg to move him to the right. Mzee blocks Owen's way to deflect him in the direction the old tortoise chooses, and each is not shy about nipping the other's tail to get attention. Even more amazing is that both animals have developed what is described as "a deep, rumbling sound," not natural to either animal, to call to the other. The 2007 book, Owen and Mzee: The Language of Friendship describes their observable communication and also discusses questions about the future of their relationship as Owen grows to a powerful and potentially hazardous 7,000 pound friend.
It's mind boggling to contemplate how a young hippo and an old tortoise, separated as they are, not by species, like, say, a dog and cat, but by biological class--a mammal and a reptile--could learn to communicate and relate to each other as what we humans call friends. With radically different bodies and brains, how can they, why would they become fond companions?
The authors say, "The reasons are unclear. But science can't always explain what the heart already knows: our most important friends are sometimes those we least expected."
It's a tritest of truisms that we humans have a lot to learn from our fellow creatures, but we surely have much to gain in understanding the relationship of living things from these two. If Owen and Mzee can find common ground, surely there's hope for the rest of us.
Labels: Animals (Grades K-4)