Is Mothering Learned or Instinctive?

Clouded Leopard Cub, 2 Weeks Old, Denver ZooI was reading one of my many news sources this morning, the Boulder Daily Camera, and found a fun story about how a mating pair of clouded leopards at the Denver Zoo have produced some cubs, tiny baby clouded leopards two weeks old the day I write this article.

The pics are super cute, as you can see, and they’re the first clouded leopard cubs to have been born at our zoo, which is good news as the Himalayan-based species is classified as vulnerable to extinction.

What struck me as I was reading the article once I stopped ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the baby pics was this paragraph:

The cubs’ mother, Lisu, gave birth to the pair in a private stall. Lisu did not tend to the cubs, however, and zookeepers moved them to another building to provide for their care. Zookeepers believe because first-time mother Lisu was hand-raised, she “lacks the experience to rear her own cubs.”

This isn’t the first time I have heard of baby animals having to be raised by humans but usually it’s because the mother has abandoned the young or has been hurt or killed. But “not knowing how to raise her cubs” strikes me as odd.

It takes us to the great debate of nature vs. nurture and begs the question: is mothering instinctive or learned?

Clouded Leopard Cub, 2 weeks old, at Denver Zoo
I challenge you not to say “ooh, sooo cute!”

My belief is that it’s instinctive and that the vast majority of mothers have a hardwired biological imperative to nurture and raise their children to be successful. Maximizing your chances in the ole’ gene pool if nothing else. In the same vein, I believe fathers have a biological imperative to clear the path for their offspring to be successful, though in many species the relationship seems to end with the completion of copulation (and sometimes, alas, with us humans too).

If mothering, parenting, is a learned behavior, though, what implications does it have on the media portrayals and cultural values we hold towards mothers and parenting in general? Could it explain some of why a culture that demeans fatherhood creates a world where there are less involved fathers?

What’s your take: Is mothering an instinctive behavior (and if so, what happened with the clouded leopard mom Lisu?) or is mothering a learned behavior (in which case what the heck are we teaching young women about being a good mother?)

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