I have always felt that being a good parent should be natural. We are hard wired to want two things (biologically speaking): Life and sex. It’s why we fear death and why we want to have offspring. But not all the animal world puts as much effort into parenting as we do. Here are some spotlights on the different types of animal parents out there.
Coots, or mudhens, are water birds that lay way more eggs than the parents can handle. When the eggs hatch, one at a time, mom and dad spend their days paddling like crazy, trying to provide enough food for their demanding children. Eventually they just get so pissed that the obnoxious little chick that cheeps for another bite gets pecked. And pecked again. Mama coot attacks her baby, pecking it so violently on the head that it leaves the group. Sometimes she forcefully kills it in her rage, but more often than not, the baby coot just gives up and never asks for another meal, wasting away. This goes on and on, chick by chick, until there are only one or two chicks left. It’s a cruel system, but it ensures that there are enough eggs to hatch successful chicks and then mom and dad ensure that they can still survive while feeding the babies.
Long a symbol of a gentle, peaceful mothering animal, the elephants are truly the badass example of how to not peck your children to death. Mama elephants trudge through all their trimesters with grace, for a grand total of 22 months. Then, surrounded by a circle of females, they give birth to their treasured little one, who joins their social community through a skin-to-skin trunk nuzzling session. The baby is nursed by its mother, but cared for and overseen by several other childless adult females in the group. They have their own mama tribe to look out for each other and this way, mama elephant gets more time to eat good food and make plenty of milk.
While pandas have no problem copulating in their natural (and decreasing) habitat, they do have a hard time getting it done under the watchful eye of zookeepers. Apparently not turned on by voyeurism, pandas would prefer the zookeepers to just leave and turn out the lights while they are at it. However, when it does work out and mama panda does get pregnant, she only wants one baby. If she has two, she will check them both out and then pick her favorite. She never feeds one of the twins. She lets it starve to death while she puts all her energy into feeding the lucky one. Mom really does play favorites.
This may come as a surprise (you know, sharks are fish and all), but some sharks give birth to little sharks that have been hanging out inside their bodies for awhile. And sometimes, depending on the species, those little sharks have spent the last few months eating all their brothers and sisters while waiting for their birthday. Yep. Cannibalism in utero, except that it’s not a uterus. It’s an oviduct. So anyhow, after enjoying the monthly snack of the next egg that mom releases, baby shark is born into the ocean and had better swim quickly. Because sometimes mom is hungry after all that pushing and she will gobble that little cannibal right up and start on the next one.
Several species of capuchins have a behavior called alloparenting. The females will take turns watching the young of other females from time to time. While mom is out, harassing macaws or eating breadfruit, if baby gets hungry, one of the other lactating females will nurse it. Wet nursing is fairly rare in the world of mammals and comes with tons of benefits. You can leave the baby with the sitter for longer, you can hang out in the high branches whenever you want (within reason), and so on. However, when it’s your turn to babysit, don’t forget that you need to nurse other hungry baby monkeys. Tit for tat.
In conclusion: Even when they drive you crazy, don’t peck your offspring to death; have a good mama tribe and a circle of doulas; eat food that is more nutrient-rich than bamboo so that you don’t have to pick your favorite twin; if you want to eat your cannibalistic baby, just swim away; if your friend leaves her baby with you for too long, feed it.