The Human Side of Animals: Chapter 3 - Animals at play by@royaldixon

The Human Side of Animals: Chapter 3 - Animals at play

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Royal Dixon

The Human Side of Animals

The Human Side of Animals by Royal Dixon is part of HackerNoon’s Book Blog Post series. You can jump to any chapter in this book here: [LINK TO TABLE OF LINK]. Chapter III: Animals at play


"... About them frisking, played
All beasts of the earth, since wild, and of all chase
In wood or wilderness, forest or den;
Sporting the lion romped, and in his paw
Dandled the kid; bears, tigers, ounces, pards,
Gambled before them; the unwieldy elephant,
To make them mirth, used all his might, and wreathed
His light proboscis."
—Paradise Lost.

That "one touch of Nature makes the whole world kin" is shown in no clearer way than by the games and play of animals. Recreation is as common among them as it is among our own children; and they seem always to be artistic and even skilled in their play. Young goats and lambs skip, jump, run races, throw flips in the air, and gambol; calves have interesting frolics; young colts and mules have biting and kicking games; bears wrestle and tumble; puppies delight in biting and tussling; while kittens chase everything from spools of thread to their own tails.

But animal children grow up, and stop playing to a certain extent as age advances, precisely as human children do. Each settles down into a more practical condition of life. They dislike to have their games and play disturbed, and if the mother dog growls because her playful son has continuously tumbled over her while she was sleeping, or the cat-mother slaps her kitten because he plays with her tail—it is a display of the same kind of emotion that prompts a human mother to rebuke her child in the nursery for making too much noise, or for throwing toys out of the window. Animals, like ourselves, feel every sensation of joy, happiness, surprise, disappointment, love, hope, ambition, and through their youthful games an entire index of their future lives may be obtained.

This play has much to do with the physical and mental development of the animals; and it is strange indeed that so few writers have considered the subject of play in the animal world. Most of those who have noticed the subject at all, drop it with a few remarks, to the effect that it is "highly amusing," or "very funny," or "unbelievable," or "so like the play of children," without even a word of explanation of the whys and wherefores of it.

All animals have some kinds of play. Plutarch speaks of a trained elephant that often practised her steps when she thought no one was looking. No one who has ever visited a zoological park and seen the crowded monkey and baboon cages can have failed to note the wonderful play of these animals. Seals seem never to tire of chasing one another through the water; while even the clumsy hippopotamuses have diving games.

Kittens begin to tumble and play before they are two weeks old. They will roll and toss a ball, hunting it from the dark corners, lay in silent wait for each other, and suddenly spring upon an unsuspecting fellow-cat-baby's back, just as they will do later in life, when seeking their prey. I have seen them play with a catnip mouse for hours at a time, just as the mother cat plays with a real mouse.

Brehm says that this is noticed in their earliest kittenhood, and that the mother cat encourages it in all ways possible, even to becoming a child with her children from love of them, as a human mother does in the nursery with her child. The mother cat begins the play by slowly moving her tail. Gesner considered her tail as the indicator of her moods. The kittens, while they may not understand what this means, are greatly excited by the movement, their eyes sparkle, their ears stand erect, and slowly one after another clutches after the moving tail. Suddenly, one springs over the mother's back, another grabs at her feet, while a third playfully slaps her in the face with his tiny, soft, cushioned paw. She, patiently and mother-like, lovingly submits to all this treatment, as it is only play.




American Museum of Natural History, New York


Many scientists have claimed that this so-called instinct should not be classed as real play. However, such an authority as Darwin thought it was play, and Scheitlin said that the cat let the mouse loose many times in order that she might have the experience of catching it each time. No mercy is shown the helpless mouse, which is the same to her as the toy ball—in the same way as a real beetle and a toy beetle are the same to a small child. Evidently the cat does not play with the mouse for the delight in torturing it, but purely for practice that she may become skilled in the art of catching it. The cat also exercises in springing movements, and by studying the mouse's probable movements, learns to acquire a knowledge and skill in mouse-ways otherwise impossible.

The same cruel practice is found among leopards, panthers, and wild cats. Brehm verifies the observation that many members of the cat family practise torturing their victims in a horrible manner, pretending to liberate them, until the poor creatures at last die from their wounds. Lenz tells of a marten that would play with its prey for hours when not hungry. Especially was this true when marmots chanced to be his victims, and around these he would leap and spring, dealing them terrific blows first with one paw and then with the other. When hungry, however, he proceeded differently, devouring them at once from teeth to tail.

All the cat family, it seems, are fond of human companionship, and take almost as much delight in playing with human beings as with their own kind. This is especially true of the puma. Brehm tells of a tame one that delighted in hiding at the approach of his master and springing out unexpectedly, just as the lion does. Hudson claimed that the puma, with the exception of the monkey, was possibly the most playful of all animals. Travellers tell many interesting tales of the play of these animals, especially on the Pampas of South America.

Gross relates the experience of an Englishman who was compelled to spend the night outdoors on the Pampas of the La Plata. At about nine o'clock, on a bright moonlight night, he saw four pumas coming toward him, two adult animals and two young ones. He well knew that these animals would not attack him, so he quietly waited. In a short time they approached him, chasing one another and playing hide-and-seek like little kittens; and finally leaped directly over the man several times. The mother cat would run ahead, calling to the little ones to follow her. But she never disturbed him.

At times an animal at play with another uses the same tactics and methods employed on its prey. Of course, the value of such practice for the tasks of later-life is evident. Dogs play hide-and-seek, tag, and various chasing games for hours without resting. Among the negroes of the South it is not uncommon to see a hound playing hide-and-seek with the little pickaninnies. I have seen a hound peeping in and out among a pile of brush to discover where the little ones were hiding, and at the first sight of a little black face, he would lay low in anticipation of a playful spring, or a sudden dash-away, with the expectation of being chased by his friends. At times he would suddenly disappear toward his home, and slyly slip around and approach the playground from an opposite direction.

Every one who has owned fox terriers knows how they will crouch in the open grass and remain motionless, with quivering expectation for the other playfellow to arrive, and when the one in ambush sees the other coming he springs toward him, as though he were going to destroy him! And when the two come together, they attempt to seize each other by the necks, as they would do in a real conflict. A wrestle and tussle ensues and when utterly exhausted from this play, the tired dogs, like two fatigued children, run to their homes.

Dogs are fond of playing ball, and will readily bring a ball or stick to their master when he has thrown it. They will also go into the water to bring out sticks that may have been tossed in for amusement. Eugene Zimmerman had a young fox terrier that would set a ball in motion, when there was no one to pitch it for him, by seizing it in his mouth and tossing it up in the air. Monkeys and jaguars will also play ball, and tame bears take great delight in wrestling, playing ball, and fighting mock battles.


American Museum of Natural History, New York



Beckmann wonderfully describes the play of a badger, whose only playmate was an exceptionally clever dog, who from his earliest youth had been taught to live with different kinds of animals. "Together they went through a series of gymnastic exercises on pleasant afternoons, and their four-footed friends came from far and near to witness the performance. The essentials of the game were that the badger, roaring and shaking his head like a wild boar, should charge upon the dog, as it stood about fifteen paces off, and strike him in the side with its head; the dog, leaping dexterously entirely over the badger, awaited a second and third attack, and then made his antagonist chase him all round the garden. If the badger managed to snap the dog's hindquarters, an angry tussle ensued, but never resulted in a real fight. If Caspar, the badger, lost his temper, he drew off without turning round, and got up snorting and shaking and with bristling hair, and strutted about like an inflated turkey-cock. After a few moments his hair would smooth down, and with some head-shaking and good-natured grunts the mad play would begin again."

Young animals are strikingly like children in their craving for amusement. A young bear will lie on his back and play with his feet and toes by the hour, while a young pup can have a great game with only a dry bone, or by chasing his shadow on the wall. Rabbits come out in evenings on the sand-hills to play hide-and-seek with their young, and squirrels never weary of this universally popular game. I know of a young fox that used to come from a nearby woods every evening to play with a young fox-terrier. They became great friends and were often seen in the woods together.

A friend who owns a ranch in Texas once raised two young wolves that romped and played with the neighbour's dogs just as if they were dogs themselves. There are other animals, like the weasels, that will also play with strange friends. But they prefer their own kind as playmates. They take the greatest delight in playing with their parents, and nothing is more beautiful or strange than to see several of them playing in a valley on a sunny day. Out pops one little head, with twinkling eyes glancing from side to side, and then as if from nowhere, the little brothers and sisters begin to appear, chasing each other as though they were playing tag. These exercises give them much agility which they will need in later life.

I once owned a tame raccoon, and often kept him chained in the back yard. When he could not find a young chicken or duck to torment, he devised all kinds of schemes to relieve the monotonous hours. He would pile up a number of small stones, and carefully await his chance to fling one into a group of young chickens. He seemed to understand that he was more apt to make a hit when he threw into a crowd than when aiming at a single chick. At other times he would lie on his back, madly waving his tail as though he were signalling for some one to come near. If we chanced to pass by without speaking, he would growl or whine in some way to attract attention. After hours of self-amusement he would lie down as if life were useless, and wait until something or somebody came along to amuse him. His greatest delight was in fishing things out of a pan of water, and he would wash every pebble or plaything that he owned and carefully lay it out to dry. One day he pounced upon a rooster who insulted him by drinking from his water vessel, and plucked a long feather from his tail so quickly that we could hardly realise what had taken place. He then had great fun in attempting to stick the feather in his head or by planting it upright in the ground. Another day, in winter, he broke his chain and made straight for the kitchen, where he found a snug warm place in old Aunt Moriah's kitchen oven. The old negress came to cook dinner and when the raccoon suddenly sprang out of her oven, she vowed, "I'se nevah gwine to cook in dis heah kitchen again; dis place is hoodooed fo' life!"

Once we gave him a pail of hot milk, and it was evidently hotter than we realised; he started to drink it, and suddenly stopped, and in anger grabbed at a very young puppy that was following us, and before we could stop him, dipped the puppy's head into the hot milk. Fortunately, however, the milk was not hot enough to injure the puppy. But the raccoon had taken his revenge out on the little animal, and was evidently satisfied.

It is interesting to note that all animals seem to play games and take exercises that will be especially helpful to them in later life. Badgers, for example, delight in turning somersaults; deer like to jump and leap; foxes and raccoons practise stealing upon one unnoticed; tapirs and crocodiles play in the water as night approaches; mountain goats, sheep, horses and mules run, leap, jump, and play follow-leader. Animals that live in the high mountains practise all kinds of high-jumps, which would be unnecessary if they lived on level ground, but are highly essential in mountainous countries.

Brehm claims that in summer the chamois climb up to the everlasting snow and take much delight in playing in it. They will drop into a crouching position on the top of a very steep mountain, work their four legs with a swimming motion, and slide down on the surface of the snow for a hundred and fifty metres. As they slide down the snow flies over them like a fine powder. As soon as they reach the bottom, they jump to their feet, and slowly climb up the mountain-side again, while many of their comrades silently stand by and watch their coasting approvingly, first one and then another joining in the sport, like human coasters would do. It is not uncommon for a number of them to tumble together at the bottom, like romping children. This coasting is very remarkable, and through skill in it, no doubt, the lives of many chamois are saved from frightful accidents later in life. Alix tells us that dogs of mountainous countries are also often skilled in the art of coasting.

Our tame fawn used to delight in playing with our old rabbit-dog, Nimrod. They were the best of friends, and the fawn would begin the chase by approaching Nimrod as though he were going to stamp him into the earth, and then suddenly leaping quickly and safely over the dog, he would run away. At this signal for a game, if Nimrod was in the mood, he chased the fawn, who would delight in jumping over fences and hedges and waiting for poor Nimrod to get over or under just in time to see his playmate leap to the other side.

Wolves, if taken when quite young, have a most unique way of showing their affection at the appearance of their master. They will spring into the air, tumbling over, with whinnying cries of delight, falling to the ground they pretend to bite and snap at everything, until their friend finally comes very near them.

Prairie dogs are fond of all kinds of races and jumping games; they will each appear at the entrance to their underground homes, and will play a simple form of prisoners'-base for long periods of time. With defiant calls at each other, one finally approaches the home of the other, which is a signal for the third to attempt to slip into the entrance to the second one's home before he can return. Many join in the game and it usually ends in a regular roll-and-tumble for their respective homes.

Perhaps the strangest of all forms of play is that in which young duckbills indulge. They are slightly like puppies in their methods of roll-and-tumble, but the way in which they grab one another with their strange bills, as they strike with their fore-paws is quite original. They seem to have an unusually good disposition, and if one little playfellow falls in the game, and desires to scratch himself before arising, the other patiently waits until he arises, when the mock battle begins anew.

Antelopes have chase and marching games which are beautiful. They seem rapidly to follow an invisible leader over the plains, suddenly forming themselves into pairs, fours, eights, sixteens, until the entire herd thus form one line, like an army of soldiers marching. While this game is progressing, certain of their number stand as sentinels and spectators, and the slightest approach of an enemy is the signal for all play to cease, and for them to disappear over the plains.

When we witness these abundant evidences of the need and prevalence of recreation in the animal world, we are confronted with one more argument for the existence of real mental and moral faculties among our four-footed friends.

About HackerNoon Book Series: We bring you the most important technical, scientific, and insightful public domain books. This book is part of the public domain.

Dixon, Royal, 2006. The Human Side of Animals. Urbana, Illinois: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved May 2022 from

This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at, located at

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