Great Simulations and a Kitten

Approximate Reading Time: 3 minutes

Do Animals Play Games?

I guess it is always possible to discuss definitions, but if one is willing to accept a common-sense definition of play, then animals absolutely play.

Kittens (and almost all adult cats) often ‘play’ when alone, which sort of eliminates the notion of led training. Watching animals is one of my favorite pastimes, and there is no doubt in my mind that they are sometimes playing. There are characteristic postures that differentiate play from other behaviours in any animal I have observed. A watchful eye can also detect when play turns into something else, which it occasionally does.

Cats, dogs, and most predator species play (I don’t think anyone can convince me that otters don’t play). Some prey animals play also, although to a lesser extent, it seems. Horses, donkeys and goats play all throughout their lives; sheep and cows, not so much. I’m not sure I would call what baby ducks and geese do ‘play’, and I don’t think adult ducks play at all (I wouldn’t call enjoying a great bath ‘play’) – on the other hand I’d have trouble calling some of what parrots do anything *but* play.

Some gorillas and elephants like to paint. There’s even one gorilla ( who named his paintings.

I’ve been living and working with animals all my life, and have learned that what makes me happy does not necessarily make them happy – nor do my needs or feelings necessarily translate to theirs. My donkey and horse react and behave quite differently – and they require different approaches in handling and training. That’s even true with different breeds of dog. I don’t think that’s anthropomorphising.

Knowing that there are distinct differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’ doesn’t necessarily preclude some remarkable similarities.

The view of cats (and other animals) teaching through simulation touches on a number of things here – from what level of fidelity is necessary (and how it might need to change as experience/learning does) – to ‘constrained reality’ – to how deeply some of this may be rooted in what appear to be natural behaviours.

Cats seem to like teaching – I think we could do worse than take a model like theirs as a starting point. I’ve had several cats try to teach my dogs to catch mice with varying degrees of success – but they always took the same approach: drop mouse (I never saw them try this with anything but a small, still lively rodent), step back and watch. Dogs do not see well below the level of their noses, so if the mouse goes between their legs they’ll often loose it. When the mouse gets away from the dog, the cat retrieves mouse and tries again – each time dropping the mouse closer to the dog. If this goes on long enough, the cat eventually takes the mouse away and leaves. I never once saw the cats try to make it easier for the dog, just give her another chance. My dogs are quite large (and all have been female), so I can’t say if this behaviour would be the same if they were trying to teach a small dog (or even a male dog). And only my current dog (the 4th pupil) has learned any mousing skills – she is otherwise quite neurotic – but the best gopher hunter we’ve ever had.

In and of itself this behaviour is not especially remarkable (fun to watch though). What I think is noteworthy is that the cats’ ‘teaching behaviour’ is different when they are teaching kittens. In the examples I’ve seen the cat will teach the kitten using what might best be described as graduated examples (constrained reality?). First, baby mouse, dead. Then baby mouse, less dead. Then baby mouse, quite lively. As time progresses (and I would assume the kitten’s skill – level up?) the cat brings bigger and bigger prey – each time starting with a dead (or nearly so) specimen. If the kitten couldn’t cope, the cat would ‘dial back’ the difficulty (unless of course, the challenge managed to escape). Gophers and birds were last. I’ve seen both male and female cats do this, although the females I’ve seen were way better at it. In one case the endgame involved bringing a very lively gopher nearly the size of the kitten into my utility room (ack!). The kitten won. Kind of sounds like “Mouse Hunter – the Game”.

So, a new question: forgive me in advance if this is too obvious, or pedestrian. Is the success of the ‘standard’ game structure (multiple levels, with increasing difficulty within levels) simply a natural ‘teaching’ format?Hunting behaviour is a pretty complex behaviour (is it just a skill or does it also have a cognitive aspect?). Are there known examples of this teaching format being used by other animals to teach other things? What other formats exist? Are we using any approaches (successfully) that *don’t* have a natural counterpart?

Oh and out of curiosity, if we view the cat-teaching-dog-to-mouse thing as a game, who is the player?

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