Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Offering a breast across the species barrier

Another one of my occasional forays into what might loosely be termed "weird stuff" (nursing from extra breasts, nursing by males etc.) This time, a look at the odd world of human women who choose to breastfeed other animals.

My recent search for "Amazon" (yup, it's Christmas shopping time again!) brought up a quirky news items about an indigenous group called the Awa in Brazil where the women often adopt wild animals and breastfeed them like babies. ("It highlights how far we have come from where we were. They are so close to nature. In fact, it is not even close--they are part of nature," goes the spiel.)

This bit of news was presented as a new and unique finding, but in fact cross-species nursing is a well-attested anthropological fact. Hawaiian women used to nurse puppies along with their children, as did Australian Aboriginal women with their beloved dingoes. Ainu women in Japan used to suckle bear cubs, bears being sacred to their culture. Indigenous women in the Americas breastfed bear cubs, monkeys, oppossum rats and deer. In Papua New Guinea (PNG), women still sometimes continue their traditional custom of adopting and nursing piglets, especially in the Highlands region, though I did not see this during my own travels in PNG many years ago.

Cross-species nursing does seem to be commoner in cultures which have historically faced population pressures (PNG and the Pacific region being just two examples), and my hunch is that this may not be a coincidence. Population growth has long been a problem for the New Guinea Highlands due to the salubrious climate afforded by its high altitude, and especially since the arrival of the sweet potato in the 18th century which caused a big increase in population. The lack of large fauna and the low protein content of the sweet potato and other local crops result in chronic protein deficiency. Limiting births has therefore been a major concern for this part of the world, and is believed to be a key reason for some of the more unusual aspects of traditional Highland culture--the superstitions that required men to eat, work and sleep more-or-less separately from their wives in men's longhouses, the foregoing of sex for up to two years following childbirth (the mysterious process of birth, like menstruation, was believed to be polluting and dangerous to men), as well as abortion and the abandonment of newborns, which caused mothers terrible grief.

I suspect that adopting and breastfeeding pet animals could have evolved as yet another way of limiting births; in women who work physically hard much of the day and eat meager diets, frequent suckling at the breast substantially reduces the chances of conception, thus spacing out pregnancies. Most people in developed countries have a "yuck" reaction of the sight of a woman allowing an animal to suck on her breast, and Christian missionaries have done their best to stamp out the practice along with many other Highland customs. But perhaps we could also see PNG women's cross-species nursing as rather a smart strategy by women who were doing their best to make their own lives easier and safer, and ensure better nourishment for their existing children. And let's face it, a piglet is a lot easier to take care of than a baby!

In addition to preventing the appearance of additional mouths requiring feeding, you can of course go one better by actually eating the animal itself. Although the Awa apparently refrain from eating animals that have ever been nursed by a woman, PNG villages are often not so solicitous and it is normal for breastfed pigs to be slaughtered and eaten at some stage; given that protein shortages in this part of the world were historically so severe that cannibalism of dead human relatives or enemies was commonplace, this is perhaps not surprising. Islands in the Clouds by Isabella Tree (a fascinating book, if you are interested in this part of the world) describes the slaughter of a pig thus nurtured in a Highland village, the ceremony being punctuated by cries of grief from the woman who was losing her "baby."

Pet-keeping is often seen as being exclusively a product of developed societies, but the affection that the women of PNG and elsewhere lavish on their beloved "fur-babies" is real and moving. That basic impulse--"It's so cute--I want to look after it!" ensures that isolated cases of cross-species nursing continue to crop up even in societies where such practices are no longer the norm, as we see in the occasional "well-who'd-have-thought-it" news feature on a pet-owner or wildlife-worker who has chosen to save the life of a baby animal by offering a breast across the species barrier. Breastfeeding animals may be a bit weird, but the stories and motivations that lie behind it are both interesting and touching.