We have all seen parrots talk, lionesses work as a team to hunt, and apes use tools to get the job done. Humans tend to assign many behaviors a “human only” label; however, in reality, talking parrots are only the tip of the iceberg.
To those of us who have interacted with dogs, it is abundantly clear that animals take part in playful activity in the same way humans do. But just how common is animal play, and why and to what extent do they do it?
While humans understand and expect that all animals play, we also grossly underestimate animals’ abilities to just relax and hang out. Perhaps there is a “survival of the fittest” rule in nature, but sometimes these rules don’t apply—unless playing makes you “fit!”
When Brian La Doone’s sled dog Hudson approached a wild, hungry-looking polar bear, La Doone thought that was the end of Hudson. But instead, he was in for a pleasant surprise. Hudson and the bear began playing with each other, rolling around and wrestling in the snow, even embracing and nipping at each other. Apparently the two playmates enjoyed each other’s company so much that they met for a playdate every night for a week!
The most amazing thing about this story is not the fact that polar bears and dogs are not the same species, but that dog and bear are natural enemies and the hungry bear, by the rules of nature, should have charged down the dog and made Hudson its next meal. Instead of getting its meal then, the bear waited for an entire week for the ice to thicken enough for it to return to its hunting grounds, all for the sake of play.
Evolutionary psychologists believe there must be benefits to play, because usually it makes you less fit than you were at the start: animals could become injured, expend energy, and become distracted from predators. Some biologists believe play could prepare you for survival activities, such as dogs and lions pouncing with each other and gazelles running to become speedier, and others have discovered evidence that play is good for the brain and for building social connections. Some scientists even think that humans should play more as adults, and that we would benefit enormously from doing so.
So while it may not be a good idea to try to engage a polar bear in a wrestling match if you come across one, perhaps we would all be a little bit better off if we made a little time for play every day—I know I would!
Stuart Brown’s TED Talk: “Play is More Than Fun, It’s Vital:” http://www.ted.com/talks/stuart_brown_says_play_is_more_than_fun_it_s_vital.html
Book on animal play: http://mitpress.mit.edu/books/genesis-animal-play
BBC: “Why Do Animals Play?” http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130109-why-do-animals-like-to-play
Wikipedia: Polar Bear: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polar_bear
National Institute of Play: Introduction: http://www.nifplay.org/science_intro.html
National Institue of Play: Bibliography: http://www.nifplay.org/biblio_fin.html