“A happy family is but an earlier heaven.”
George Bernard Shaw
by Greg Hague
Animal dads. Human dads. Different in ways. A lot just the same.
Most dads face similar challenges. Wives who know more than we do. Kids who don’t have a clue. (They probably do. What do we know?) Some dads (animal & human) risk life and limb just to mate. And some — well, they’re just total flakes.
From awful to awesome, let’s take a look at a few animal dads. The good, the bad, and the savviest of those non-human heads of their home (or pack). We humans may not always do right, but hey — at least we don’t gobble our young with an un-fatherly bite.
The Good — Wolves
Wolves are playful, protective dads. They’re also loyal, loving partners. The usually monogamous alpha male may stay with his alpha she-wolf for life. The alpha male and female are typically the only ones who will breed in a pack, until the “crown” is passed on to a new pair.
During courtship, the young “lovers-in-wait” grow close and affectionate. They often play together, even sleeping side-by-side. As mating season approaches, their bond becomes ever stronger.
Dad takes his parenting duties seriously. After Mom gives birth, she lays low in her den for several weeks, looking after her fragile brood. While she does, Dad stands guard. He also hunts, bringing much needed food back to his fledgling family. He’s generous, not greedy — sharing huge portions of meat with his mate and pups.
Alpha Dad is the dude in charge, protecting and guiding other members of the pack — his young included. But once those kids leave the den, he cooperates with pals and neighbors, as the pack pitches in with pup-care. As pups mature, dad takes on the role of a stern mentor, but still frolics and plays with his kids. He also helps integrate his maturing offspring into the pack. Wolf dads are good dads, good citizens, and good partners, too.
The Bad — Lions
Lions are notorious deadbeats. As stepfathers, they’re downright terrible (once he takes over, a new alpha male will kill the cubs fathered by previous suitors). Males laze around in the shade by day, waiting for mom to bring home the bacon (or, more likely, zebra or antelope). Dad eats first; cubs and moms get the scraps.
A slow day in the bush? Too bad for the kids. To save his own skin, a lion dad doesn’t mind letting his family starve. (Pa grizzly bear may even be worse. So protective of his turf, he’ll sometimes kill and eat his own kids. So not only do females care, feed and protect their young, they have to teach junior how to avoid the biggest threat of them all… Dad.)
The Savvy — Emperor Penguins
Emperor penguin males act as both Mom and Dad to their chicks. In fact, they are its offspring’s first caregiver. The Emperor Penguin is the only species that breeds during the Antarctic winter. And, no wonder. Temperatures may reach −40 °C (−40 °F), with wind speeds up to 120 mph.
After the female lays her egg, she passes it gingerly to Dad. And with that, Mom is off — pregnancy and birth have taken so much out of her, she needs at least two months at sea to feed and recharge.
For those two harsh winter months, Dad keeps his cherished egg warm, balanced between his feet. He blankets it with the warm, feathered skin of his “brooding pouch.” Concentration is key. A sudden misstep could expose the egg to the cruel weather, killing his chick in mere seconds.
Penguin dads are protective, skilled and quite smart. They really try hard. Not a bad example for every dad, human or not.