Anyone who has raised puppies, kittens, monkeys, horses etc — and children, of course — knows how important play is to their little lives. Exploding with surplus energy, these little animals prance, jump, mock-wrestle and chase each other madly enough to make you dizzy. Play is vital for human children, but what about animals? We know that play ‘slows’ down as animals (and some humans) mature. But yes, your dog will continue to play with you (and other dogs) well into dignified adulthood — and you can see from the happy grin on its face, that it’s hugely enjoying itself. So why do animals play and do they have a sense of fun?
I got intrigued by this after a recent visit to the Yamuna Biodiversity Park where for over an hour I watched with astonished delight as black-and brown-headed gulls played what I discovered was called ‘drop-catch’ (not in the cricketing sense!) with each other. For the ‘ball’, they used black pods of some aquatic plant (possibly water lily or hyacinth, it was hideous anyway) which they picked up from the water’s surface. A gull would snatch this up and swiftly wing away, chased by a couple of others. It would gain height and then deliberately drop it, as the others tried to catch it again in mid-air. Up and down they flew tirelessly across this section of the river-front; there were several such games going on simultaneously amongst the flock. It was clear they were having a ball!
If you still doubt that birds are capable of having fun, watch crows. I remember watching pahari (jungle) crows near Kasauli flying straight towards the steep hillsides — suddenly, they would be wafted high by the up-currents of wind hitting the mountainside. Up, up, up they would climb, cawing hoarsely with what sounded like laughter, and then, fold their wings and dive, dive, dive, whiffling and tumbling and seemingly out of control before spreading their wings and straightening up and catching an oncoming updraft again. They were having the time of their lives, like kids at an amusement park on hair-raising ‘rides’.
On several occasions, I’ve watched (and have been patriotically outraged, of course) crows deliberately pull the tails of such a gorgeous national dignitary as the peacock as well as of such plebs as the common Indian moorhen. You can see the wicked glitter in their beady eyes as they hop slyly towards their victim from behind, jerk their beaks forward, yank the tail and then hop backwards with a throaty chuckle. Other tail-pullers include baboons, which pull the tails of cattle from the safety of fences, knowing full well that the cattle can’t get back at them — like a child pulling a face at you from the window of a passing school bus.
Parakeets and parrots, too, are known to be free-spirited. The wild ones screaming and shrieking outside with delight certainly seem to know how to enjoy themselves. (And they certainly know how to French kiss!) Mynas, apart from being extremely talkative, also appear to enjoy a play-fight. One morning, I heard a sudden thump on the grass close to the swimming-pool and discovered a pair of mynas locked in what appeared to be mortal beak-to-beak combat. I was about to run home to fetch the camera when there was another thump: just nearby was another pair of mynas, also locked in a similar wrestling hold. Both pairs glared at each other, and then, suddenly, without so much as a by-your-leave, disentangled and whirred off with a happy chirrup each.
Researchers have probed in to why (and if) animals play and have fun. While one study with meerkats discovered no connection between play and improved survivability or socialisation, studies with other animals have shown that animals that play more as youngsters are better equipped for life — they are physically more dexterous, get on with their peers better, know their place in their society and so keep out of serious trouble and can deal with stress better.
Play also improves the functioning of brain-circuitry. Baby rats that played together were less prone to bursts of ‘rat-rage’ in adulthood, and even if an ‘isolated’ rat was allowed to play for a just an hour every day, its temper improved considerably. (This may just hint at how much damage solitary confinement do to us.) It’s so simple, really: Play makes for happier societies. The sooner the killjoys in ruling dispensations realise this, the better.
Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher.