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In search of ponies: Animals have it figured out

link Sharna Johnson

Sometimes it may feel like a distant memory, but once upon a time life was all about laughing, tumbling, running, climbing and a series of other things that had absolutely nothing to do with anything at all.

Children still indulge of course. They can be spotted breaking into spontaneous giggle fits and fiddling and fidgeting with things whether sanctioned or not.

For those who do remember, those — the days when goofing around and playing were expected — were the good old days.

Denial of the desire and need to play, however, is a largely human convention.

Other animals are not so quick to give up their fun sides, with store rows of chew toys, balls, feather sticks, catnip mice and countless other implements of entertainment serving as proof of their insatiable drive to keep playing.

The propensity for play among the furred ones is no secret.

Cattle can be seen romping in fields, horses buck and race one another, dogs run after Frisbees and tussle in parks and yards, cats bat at strings, even caged birds ring bells and make funny eyes at mirrors and mice and ferrets amuse themselves with balls and wheels.

In nature the picture is much the same and wildlife footage abounds with images of big cats wrestling and chasing each other, monkeys taunting one another as they play hide-n-seek in trees — you name it, play is an ongoing part of life for countless animals in an array of circumstances and habitats.

Until recently, the majority of play activity observed and studied in the animal world has been focused on mammals; however evidence now exists that even fish have their amusements.

Conducting a two-year study, University of Tennessee’s Gordon Burghardt and his team found that cichlid fish engaged in play behavior within their tank habitats.

On hundreds of occasions, three male cichlids repeatedly attacked a freestanding, bottom-weighted thermometer, then spun around and deflected it, repeating the behavior when it returned to its upright position.

Burghardt — who defines play as voluntary, less than functional repeated behavior by creatures in a relaxed or low-stress setting — has a history with the subject, looking for evidence of it in unlikely places and has documented play behaviors in species such as wasps and lizards.

Play in young animals is easily explained as preparatory, activities that help them develop the skills they will need when they grow into the more serious and necessary tasks of hunting, foraging, defending territory and even rearing young of their own.

However true play, the kind that is indiscriminate of age and function, is something else entirely. Those small activities that amuse and pass time, distract from the routine and engage the mind without apparent purpose are actually quite necessary.

A fish repeatedly ramming a thermometer that bounces back up every time may seem meaningless, however, it is anything but to folks like Burghardt, who believes regardless of species, playing is one of those little things that make life worth living.

Whether it’s making funny eyes in a mirror, ringing a bell just ’cause, jumping like a fool in the yard or batting at a string, if Burghardt is correct, human adults might just learn a thing or two from their feathered, furred, and, thermometer-ramming, finned counterparts.

Sharna Johnson is a writer who is always searching for ponies. You can reach her at:

[email protected]