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Liz Bonnin on Animals In Love: How a pair of greylag geese could rival any great romance

Liz Bonnin


Filming Animals In Love was an eye-opening experience in so many ways. Not only did I witness animal behaviours I hadn't seen before, but it also allowed me to understand a lot more about emotional intelligence in animals. 

Until very recently we believed animals were not capable of emotion. But over the past two decades great advances have been made in the study of animal behaviour and we now know that many animals experience emotions like fear and joy.

Visiting Lola Ya Bonobo Sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo was particularly moving for me. Far too many orphaned bonobo babies are brought here on a regular basis because their mothers are killed for the bushmeat trade.

One orphan, only a few months old, was cowering with its adoptive 'maman' (as the dedicated carers of these orphans are called), its eyes as big as saucers as it watched our soundman's boom hovering above us. I asked the 'maman' why he was so scared, and she said that the boom probably reminded him of the guns that shot his mother.

Like humans, bonobos use laughter as a communication tool

To see such intelligent social animals left so traumatised at the hands of humans is a very difficult thing to watch. The 'mamans' will devote the next five years to earning the trust of their orphan and caring for them day and night, so that they can become psychologically and physically well enough to live with a larger bonobo group. And having experienced how loving bonobo infants are, seeking out a cuddle at every opportunity, it's not difficult to see how important affection is to these animals.

One of the most extraordinary behaviours we filmed is the mating ritual of alligators. Male alligators produce a mesmerising, deep and powerful bellow to denote their territory and attract females. Their deep rumblings produce vibrations which cause the water on their backs to dance in delicate little fountains.

Once a male attracts a female, the courtship dance begins. It's probably one of the gentlest, most delicate interactions I have ever seen. The male and female nuzzle each other repeatedly, moving ever so slowly alongside each other. For such powerful, fearsome predators it is quite a surprising behaviour to witness! 

One of the most touching stories of the series came from one of the most unlikely sources: the greylag goose. The story of Tariq and Judith could rival any Disney classic. The two formed a very close bond, as all greylag couples should to be successful in life, but two years into their relationship, Judith disappeared in a violent storm. According to the scientists studying the geese, Tariq's behaviour could only be described as grief-stricken. After some time he did appear to move on and find a new mate, but a year after their separation, Judith unexpectedly returned. Tariq's response was undeniable. He immediately returned to Judith and they have been together ever since.

Judith and Tariq have since had a family of goslings together

Learning about the elephants of Thula Thula Reserve in South Africa was really special. Conservationist Lawrence Anthony's close relationship with the herd he rescued was already heartwarming, but hearing about Frankie, the matriarch of the herd, making a concerted effort to support and befriend another female in distress (ET), convinced me all the more about elephants' capacity for emotional intelligence.

I couldn't believe our luck when, after days of searching, we finally came across the herd. Frankie and ET approached our jeep, side by side, with ET's tiny young calf almost hidden from view, squashed between them. It was an emotional moment to see these elephants thriving, thanks to Lawrence and his team.

Science has shown us that elephants are capable of extraordinary behaviours we still don't fully understand. They grieve their dead, and somehow always know which watering holes to visit, even if they are hundreds of miles away and only just full again after years of drought. I would not be surprised if in the future science were to make more exciting discoveries about the cognitive and emotional capacities of these extraordinary animals.

Is it possible for animals to love? For one thing, we still can’t fully define what love is even in us humans. But all across the animal kingdom, the chemicals involved in attraction and attachment are very similar. Although of course we can’t say whether this feels the same in a human as it does in a goose, the physiology is the same. And if we can call that love, then love is more common across the animal kingdom than we first thought.

I’m very excited to see what else we will discover about the emotional lives of animals.

Liz Bonnin presents Animals In Love

Animals In Love starts on Sunday, 1 February at 6pm on BBC One and BBC One HD in England and Scotland. It is also on at 6pm on BBC Two Wales and 7pm on BBC Two NI.

For further programme times please see the upcoming broadcasts page.

More on Animals In Love:
Radio Times: The world's five best places to watch cuddling creatures

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.