Spring is the season of new beginnings and budding romance, and the animals at the Conservators Center sure are feeling affectionate! There is no one way to love here at the Center, and the ways in which our animals display affection are vast and varied. Each species in our care has a different way of expressing tenderness, both with their four-legged companions and their two-legged friends who do their best to reciprocate the affection appropriately.
There are many commonalities in how felines display affection to one another, from indoor domestic cats to wild striped tigers. Although specific behaviors will vary between individuals and among species, many of the cats here at the Center have two universal affectionate greetings which can be described by the flip of a coin – heads or tails.
Our youngest couple is a pair of bobcats (Lynx rufus) named Muraco and Arya. They are the epitome of young love and a striking example of characteristic feline greetings. Interactions between the two typically start with a pleasant head bump, similar to how your house cat might greet you after a long day of work. After a few affectionate headbutts interspersed with a series of low trills and soft mews, the young bobcats will turn 180 degrees and present raised tails and fluffy hindquarters to one another. Members of the Lynx family, which include only bobcats and lynx, use their tails as a primary mode of communication, flicking them rapidly during times of excitement and slowly waving them in front of familiar individuals as a friendly greeting. Muraco and Arya certainly engage in “tail talk,” sometimes flitting their tails so rapidly during the interaction that it looks like they could lift off and fly away!
Bobcats share a few affectionate behaviors with their close cousin, the lynx (Lynx lynx), such as greeting with their tails first and head bumps, but we have also observed some pretty interesting discrepancies between the young and immature interactions between Muraco and Arya and the older and more refined behaviors displayed by a newly introduced couple of Eurasian lynxes, Luga and Annika. The older, stately lynxes are much more reserved in their displays of affection, calling softly to one another from a distance and communicating their pleasure or discomfort with subtle tail flicks and ear twitches that are sometimes hardly discernible to human observers.
Other felines on the small side of the park, like our servals, caracals, and Geoffroy's cats, also engage in tail talk and head butts, although not as prominently as the members of the Lynx family. Our friendly servals will approach humans and each other head first, starting the interaction with a gentle head nudge followed by a raspy “meh” vocalization or soft hiss, indicating that they are content and inviting further social interaction.The caracals are more likely to engage in flirtatious body language, slithering their silky pelts against one another in an almost serpentine dance when they’re feeling sweet, or cuddling up together in a hammock or den box so tightly sometimes that it’s difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins!
The heads or tails rule applies to our big guys as well, although most of the large cats don’t tend to engage in “tail talk” as often as our smaller felines. However, it is a well-known fact around the Center that when a male lion sees something that he really likes or wants, he will turn around, lift his tail high in the air, and proceed to spray urine in a powerful stream directly towards the object of his affection. Urinating as a sign of affection is not uncommon among the cats at the Conservators Center, and sometimes even our female felines will empty their bladder or attempt to spray when their favorite people are nearby. Our four brother servals (Mojo, Obi, William and Sammy) are also renowned for lifting their tails and spraying objects of their desire (mostly their fellow enclosure mates and favorite humans), sometimes dousing them from head to toe without warning!
Other than affectionate spraying or dismissive tail flips indicating they would like to be left alone, our lions and tigers don’t do much else with their tail end, but they are notorious for aggressively affectionate head butting and love nips. Despite the fact that lions and tigers are two distinct species who come from adjacent but distinct regions of the world, our Mixed Pride (which includes three lions and one tiger) has figured out how to communicate affection across language barriers in such a way that their tender displays are unmistakable even to the untrained eye. For example, when our big male tiger, Wic, saunters over to his adopted lion brother, Calvin, and uses the top of his head to gently nudge his brother’s chin while softly chuffing, and in response Calvin nuzzles Wic’s striped face with a low “oof,” they may not be speaking the same vocal language, but the message of affection is clear.
Whether it’s a tail tug or head nudge, tiger chuffle or lion “oof,” all of our animals have their own special way of displaying affection to one another and to their human caretakers. We may not always understand the language that our animals speak, but sometimes actions are louder than words. The ability to recognize when an individual animal is showing signs of affection and know how to reciprocate appropriately is an essential skill for anyone who works with animals, but it is especially important for our keepers. Engaging in social interactions (re: socializing) with individuals who show clear signs of desiring affection strengthens the bonds and level of trust that our keepers have with the animals in their care. Socialization can also significantly enhance the quality of life for our resident animals for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, if a person has developed a mutually trusting relationship with an animal through many hours of training and socialization, then they will be far more capable of recognizing when a health issue arises. The people who spend time socializing and engaging in affectionate behaviors with our animals have a comprehensive understanding of their normal behavior and are therefore better equipped to notice when an animal is acting abnormal or out of character, which could signify an underlying health issue. Human socialization with our resident animals also provides an invaluable benefit known as social bonding, which is an important part of providing holistic care. Mammals are social creatures by nature and require a certain amount of social interaction in order to thrive, which is our goal for all of the animals in our care. Socialization is not only essential for wild animals living in captivity - your domestic dog or cat at home needs your affection too! So next time your cat tucks his chin and head butts you, go ahead and offer a gentle bonk back. He may just enjoy it even more than you realize!