It’s the classic tale of romance: uptown boy meets downtown gal.
Benjamin comes from two proud North American families. Dating back to the 16th century, his father’s relatives made their mark in the fishing industry in St. John’s, Nfld. Benjamin’s mother’s ancestors built their reputation in the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896.
Benjamin was born in a lush suburban neighbourhood in North Delta. He moved to Squamish when he was eight weeks old.
Ellie’s lineage is muddied. There’s a string of young pregnancies in her family, often with multiple fathers. She and her siblings were seized by a welfare organization when she was a month old. Her single mother notoriously roamed the rugged Prince Rupert streets, struggling to make ends meet.
But things were about to change for Ellie. Under the care of officials, Ellie moved to Squamish. That’s where she met Benjamin.
When Jennifer Gibson brought Ellie to her home in Paradise Valley, she could fit Ellie into the palm of her hand. She was a tiny kitten — the runt of the litter. At the time, Benjamin was two years old. The Labrador/Husky Malamute cross weighed 100 pounds.
Gibson placed Ellie in the loft, while Benjamin, with tail wagging in full swing, circled around the open-concept house. Within 20 minutes, Ellie fumbled down the ladder. At the bottom she came nose to nose with Benjamin. They’ve been inseparable ever since.
“They just started playing right off the bat,” Gibson said. “One of Benjamin’s paws was the size of her body.”
Ellie is Benjamin’s partner in crime. She can reach food bags high up on the top of the fridge. With a few shoves of her slight body weight, they’re on the floor, where Benjamin waits. He then jumps into action, ripping the bag open. The duo groom each other, sleep together, and travel together on Gibson’s and her husband Chris Malone’s camping trips.
While Gibson has seen dog-and-cat relationships before, she said she’s never seen one like that of Ellie and Benjamin. They actively engage one another. They antagonize one another. They’re just like siblings.
“They trust one another,” Gibson said.
As in all relationships, trust is a key trait in the formation of cross-species relationships, clinical ethologist Dr. Rebecca Ledger said. In some animals it’s harder to come by.
Cats, for example, usually display higher levels of anxiety. They also tend to be less forgiving once the trust is broken, the Vancouver animal behaviour consultant said.
Dogs are more socially motivated. Having evolved from packs, they have a larger pool of social communication signals to draw from, Ledger said.
“They’re used to making up,” she said.
It’s only been a few hundred years that cats have been drawn together, congregating around food sources, she noted. Scientists are starting to see the development of lifelong bonds between sisters; having litters together and cross-suckling.
There are synergies between the two animals. Dogs like to be touched. Cats like to mark their territory. As far as a dog is concerned, when a cat rubs its scent glands on either side of its forehead against a dog, the cat is stroking him.
Animal relationships are complex, Ledger acknowledged. But researchers have made some big steps and the field of ethology — the scientific study of animal behaviour — is in the midst of exciting times, she said. Fifteen years ago, Ledger would have been laughed from her profession if she talked about the emotional life of a cat. With the help of new technology, which has allowed scientists to read physical measures, that’s all changed.
Today, it’s broadly accepted that animals have emotions. In relation to animal welfare, emotional health is viewed as a key factor, Ledger said. Scientists are now delving into the emotional states of animals — grief, guilt, happiness.
Gibson already believes animals feel love. Before Ellie, Benjamin co-existed with another cat. But they weren’t friends, Gibson said. Ellie’s and Benjamin’s relationship is not based on survival or food or competition, she said. It’s something simpler and deeper.
“They’re just buddies,” Gibson said.