Being from Texas, where the unofficial state sport is high school football, I am very excited about the start of the new NFL season. As I was watching a preseason match, I began thinking about all the things humans like to do just to have fun.
If you think the human race is the only living organism that enjoys having a good time, think again. Yes, scientists will tell you that children at play are simply practicing skills and talents they will need to survive into adulthood, but most of us aren't thinking about boardroom negotiations when we watch a child outmaneuver an opponent in the championship game.
Spectator or participant, people like to have fun, and I have a hard time ignoring the interesting choices some animals make that simply appear to be for no other reason than to have fun.
I challenge you to spend just a few minutes observing our lion cubs and not crack a smile or a giggle. The endless pouncing on mom's tail, vicious attacks on dangerous sticks and rolling in pungent grass may serve to teach these youngsters to be more proficient hunters as adults, but the amount of time spent in these activities and their motivation to find new and interesting ways to pass the day lead me to believe they are having fun.
Zoos give animals food and items called "enrichment" to provide mental and physical stimulation. Enrichment may consist of balls, favorite treats hidden throughout the exhibit, interesting textures to rub against and many other inventive things that serve to encourage natural behaviors.
Among other enrichment items, our sloth bears have a large ball in their exhibit. One afternoon, I discovered one of the bears had pushed the ball into the shallow water and was standing on it with all four feet. I had never seen anything like this except in circus acts. The bear eventually began walking backwards on the ball with great balance! I had to laugh. What purpose does this activity serve? I'm thinking fun!
YouTube is chock full of videos of parrots of every shape, size and color busting loose to a groovy tune. Parrots are known for their uncanny ability to find a beat. I've never heard of wild parrots forming a band or battling over a territory by having the best dance crew. So why do parrots dance? As far as I can tell, they're just having a good time.
In recent studies, it appears that a sense of rhythm is a unique trait humans share only with parrots. For ancient humans, rhythm was the beginning of music, and music is something that is so fundamental to every cultural identity. Perhaps the same is true for parrots? Who knows? Most of us just know it's fun.
DNA shows us that humans and chimpanzees share a lot of genetic material. Another thing we share is laughter. If you tickle a young chimp under the arms, there is no denying the reaction that occurs. The chimp will open her mouth wide and emit a scream that sounds little different from the squeals of delight you'll hear from a human child. In studies of this behavior, the chimp often will grab the experimenter's hands and place them back under her arms to ask for the fun to continue.
How many times have you gone out to play Frisbee with your dog, only to find that your dog can play for many more hours than you? Do you really think your favorite shoe attacked dear, old Scruffy, forcing him to tear it to shreds? Play is a huge part of puppy development, but domesticated dogs get stuck in arrested development.
Play behavior lasts much longer in our pet dogs than it does for wild canids. This is just one reason why adopting a dog is a serious commitment. You must be prepared to provide that stimulus and help divert play into less destructive behaviors by providing adequate exercise and play time as well as a good selection of toys.
As you go about your busy day, ask yourself, "When was the last time you had fun?" Host a block party; enjoy a good book; take the whole family to the zoo! Be sure to carve out a little play time. Even our wild counterparts know that!
Visit our award-winning Web site at www.garden-city.org/zoo.