Games Animals Play
A LARGE atoll of rubber bands defined the outline of where the refrigerator had stood. The two moving men looked at me with disbelief and inquiry competing for a place on their faces.
“They’re the cat’s,” I sputtered. “She collects rubber bands.”
It is true, however. My cat has some special feeling about rubber bands. Twirl one between your thumb and forefinger, and two little black paws and a black nose converge on the scene. If she claims it from you with extended front paw spread wide like a tennis racket, she will batter it about, or she will chase it hockey-style, guiding it with alternate paws, until it disappears beneath the electrically purring “goal” designed to keep our food fresh.
Do animals play? Naturalists do not agree about this. Lack of agreement is mostly because they cannot agree on how to define play. The anti-animal-play theorists are inclined to view what we call play as hunting practice. Yet, as I look at Nefer (that’s my cat’s name) I can hardly believe that even she looks upon the attack, capture and storage of rubber bands as a serious occupation. Too, at age ten, she can hardly be described as “practicing what will later become a serious adult activity.” If called upon to do so, Nefer is capable of stalking an unwanted rodent. That’s serious business. Rubber bands? They’re only used for her recreation.
So much for animals that normally tent with us humans, eating of our tidbits, sleeping on or under our furniture, and perhaps being encouraged by us to play.
What about animals a degree more removed from human environment? Let us go into the barnyard to a creature remote from usual human contact. Few people are dazzled by pigs, and thus few hang over fences to watch their performances. Chance circumstances brought a piglet into the family of some friends of mine in Indiana. In the months that followed, they learned that pigs indeed do play! My friends had named her “Priscilla.” This Priscilla (surnamed Pig) would do most things a cat would do. But her compact body and lack of feline flexibility changed these cat maneuvers into something very different. Cats may run and whirl, and chase their tails. But visualize, if you can, this same activity being carried on by a small rubbery-hided animal, with a taut little body the shape of a keg perched on short stiff legs! Also, pigs love to have their backs scratched. Priscilla would present her back to any human foot dangling from a knee-crossed leg. If rebuffed, she worked out her huff in a manner that explains why pigs are spoken of as doing jigs. She would stamp her little feet, squealing in frustration and rage.
Many animal behaviorists shy from attributing to animals such emotions as “frustration” and “rage.” Nevertheless, it is of note that well-known naturalist Jacques Cousteau, while warning against attributing human qualities to animals, says, “Yet we must not demean animals by denying them all expression.”
Playful Kittens of the Wild
Well, do we find the playful traits so common among the young that live close to humankind also displayed by the young of animals totally untamed? Let us leave the barnyard and travel to the African veld to ponder this question. Here we find a mother lion lounging in the grass, cubs about her, lazily activating her tail. To a cub, the tail, once in motion, is no longer mother’s terminal appendage. It obviously becomes some monster needing to be subdued. Watch that little fellow, his pupils widen, his eyes glaze with inward-turning thought. He crouches, hips quivering as though the rear portion aims the front. Perhaps it does. Then, POUNCE! He’s got it! His sister has perhaps misaimed, and now she has him! They tumble, hissing and mewing in a flurry of paws and bodies.
Playful Water Creatures
Not many of humankind have seen young wild whales at play. Biologist Victor B. Scheffer, in his book The Year of the Whale, takes us to sea to observe a conglomerate creature he names “Little Calf.” At birth, Little Calf emerges from his mother tail first, for the practical reason that a cetacean, such as he is, is air breathing. Reversed, he would simply drown before the birthing process could end. At last his blunt head appears and, as he separates from his mother, all his fourteen-foot length, weighing a ton. Four months along in life, far at sea he and his contemporaries may find such an interesting thing as a log that may have drifted thousands of miles southward from Alaska. One young whale “takes the log in his mouth and whips it from side to side, growling in whale language, as if enjoying an imaginary conflict with a fearsome creature of the deep. What fun!” So writes Scheffer.
Naturalist Gerald Durrell, in The Whispering Land (which lyric title refers to Argentina’s Patagonia), tells of another creature’s playful frolics. Concerning a fur seal pup, which for ease of description he names Oswald, Durrell says: “What he lacked in inches he more than made up for in determination and personality. When I first noticed Oswald . . . he was busily engaged in stalking a long ribbon of glittering green seaweed. . . . A slight wind twitched the end of the seaweed, and . . . Oswald turned and lolloped off as fast as his flippers would carry him. . . . Carefully he approached it again, . . . giving the impression that he was almost tiptoeing on his great flat flippers.” Finally, with mustered-up courage, Oswald lunged at the seaweed, and, as Durrell observed, he strutted off with his trophy—“the seaweed dangling from either side of his mouth like a green moustache, looking very pleased that his first bite had apparently disabled the enemy completely.”
Games Others Play
Again, Durrell tells how he once observed, at close range near his camp, a couple of foxes playing with a roll of bright-pink toilet paper. “Having proved that it was not edible,” he says, “they danced and whirled on slender legs, hurling the toilet roll to and fro . . . The whole camp site was taking on a gay carnival air.” When the show was over, a hundred and twenty feet of pink toilet paper was left fluttering in the breeze!
The otter dwells in the northern forest. It is one creature that most naturalists agree does play. He plays for the sheer joy of it! If you hear a swoosh! followed by a splash!, and repeated time and time again, you are probably on hand for the best free animal act you could ever see. The swooshing sound comes from the otter as he goes tobogganing down a mud slide he has built, and from which he has painstakingly removed every stone, and which he has wet down with his fur to make it slippery. The splash comes at the end of his slide when he catapults into the pond or river. He never seems to tire of the repetition. Wintertime finds him using seasonal toboggan material, snow, for the same thrill.
Peter Marler and William J. Hamilton III say: “Play behavior has been recorded from all the vertebrate classes except fish.” Still, I have watched flying fish race an ocean liner on the Pacific, and I have seen giant blue marlin erupt from the sea off Florida, seeming to stand on their tails for seconds above the waves before crashing down again. This, when done by a fish not trying to dislodge the pain of a hook, looks like fun! Mr. Scheffer speaks of “dolphins at play” (cetaceans, to be sure), “bursting the placid sea and scattering a million jewels behind.” If this is pleasant to the creature, even if he is a fish, could it not be his version of play?
Australia’s budgerigars, masquerading in other parts of the world under the name of parrakeets or lovebirds, offer a similar example of bird play. Haven’t you seen them in captivity use the wire of the cage to slide down, like a fireman down a pole?
Let us see, we’ve looked at creatures in our own homes, in the farmyard, in the veld, the sea, the woods, and in the air. What about in the jungle?
In the jungle a mother chimpanzee will tickle her baby. He will squirm and roll over, and she will tumble him about in play. And so among the animals, play is not just within a peer group. As with humans, the older ones enjoy the younger, and many times they instigate the play.
What is play? As mentioned, not everyone agrees. A consensus would indicate that it is activity without an immediate practical end in view. Even though it may include functions that are used at other times for practical purposes (such as crouching or stalking), it does not include the full chain of action needed in the work activity. Certainly, it must include the element of pleasure—fun! Thus, as indicated in Mechanisms of Animal Behavior, cats, foxes and mongooses when young stalk inappropriate objects—a leaf, a piece string, something that in itself is not threatening. They will approach it, and then jump vertically into the air.
Cervantes said: “Those who’ll play with cats must expect to be scratched.” I would paraphrase it this way: “Those who’ll play with cats, or others of God’s creatures, must expect to have their funny bone tickled.”—Contributed.