In a brief video scene that has already charmed thousands, a pair of unlikely animal companions — a dog and a lion — appear to be shaking hands … or paws.
A GIF shared to Reddit yesterday (Jan. 28) shows a dog and a white lion in an enclosure. The lion saunters up to the tail-wagging dog, scoops up the canine’s right paw and cups it briefly, then nudges the much-smaller foot with his muzzle before releasing it.
Since it was posted, the GIF has received 132,000 up-votes and nearly 2,000 comments. But what’s the story behind this interspecies “handshake?” [Daring Duos: Unlikely Animal Friends]
The lion and dog are Miki and Camila, and are in the care of the Black Jaguar-White Tiger Foundation (BJWT), a nonprofit based in Mexico that rescues and houses large cats and other wildlife, according to the organization’s website.
The footage was shot by Instagram user @toyquest101, who shared it in a post on that platform on Jan. 27, mentioning that the two animals “grew up together.”
Miki, a fully grown male lion, was a former illegal pet kept in an apartment and rescued by the BJWT in October 2016, the foundation wrote in a biography of the big cat. The lion had been raised with a dog companion named Camila “since they were babies,” according to the BJWT; they arrived at the reserve together and were placed in the same enclosure shortly thereafter.
A chance encounter between a lion and a dog in the wild would probably have a much more unpleasant and stickier conclusion. But animals of different species can sometimes form very unexpected partnerships, such as warthogs that enjoy the company of mongoose groomers in Uganda, and the tiny Turkish marsh frogs that hitchhike on water buffaloes’ backs, where the amphibians forage for flies.
It’s not unusual, either, for animals in captivity to form close bonds with species that they would otherwise avoid (or eat) simply because they enjoy the other’s company — particularly if they become acclimated to each other when they are still very young, Bonnie Beaver, a professor with the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A & M University, told Slate in 2013.
For example, a bear, lion and tiger rescued from a private collection when they were only a few months old are now closely bonded as adults in a reserve near Atlanta, and a leopard that was rescued as a cub in South Africa pals around with a golden retriever.
Many commenters on social media found the lion-dog “handshake” encounter heartwarming. And there is plenty more footage on BJWT’s Instagram and Facebook pages showcasing seemingly affectionate physical encounters between the foundation’s big cats and their human caregivers. In addition to rescuing wild animals from circuses, petting zoos and breeding facilities, BJWT works to raise awareness about the animals’ plight, in part by sharing photos and videos on social media, according to the foundation’s mission statement.
However, some people question if this level of physical interaction between humans and big cats — however well-intended it may be — causes undue stress for the animals and could present dangerous risks for their handlers, The Daily Beast reported in 2016.
Though the BJWT website describes the organization as a sanctuary, it is not officially registered as one, and its hands-on approach to animal care may be more harmful — and exploitative of the animals — than it is helpful, animal rights activists told the Daily Beast.