T HE watcher of wild animals never gets used to the sight of their mirthless sport. In all other respects animal play is entirely human.
A great deal of human play is serious—desperately serious on the football-field, and at the card-table, as when a lonely player is trying to kill time with solitaire.
I have watched a great ungainly hippopotamus for hours trying to do the same solemn thing by cuffing a croquet-ball back and forth from one end of his cage to the other. His keepers told me that without the plaything the poor caged giant would fret and worry himself to death. It was his game of solitaire. In all their games of rivalry the animals are serious as humans, and, forgetting the fun, often fall to fighting—a sad case, indeed. But brutes are brutes. We cannot expect anything better of the animals. Only this morning the whole flock of chickens in the hen-yard started suddenly on the wild flap to see which would beat to the back fence and wound up on the "line" in a free fight, two of the cockerels tearing the feathers from each other in a desperate set-to.
You have seen puppies fall out in the same human fashion, and kittens also, and older folk as well. I have seen a game of wood-tag among friendly gray squirrels come to a finish in a fight. As the crows pass over during the winter afternoon, you will notice their play—racing each other through the air, diving, swooping, cawing in their fun, when suddenly some one's temper snaps, and there is a mix-up in the air.
They can get angry, but they cannot laugh. I once saw what I thought was a twinkle of merriment, however, in an elephant's eye. It was at the circus several years ago. The keeper had just set down for one of the elephants a bucket of water which a perspiring youth had brought in. The big beast sucked it quietly up,—the whole of it,—swung gently around as if to thank the perspiring boy, then soused him, the whole bucketful! Everybody roared, and one of the other elephants joined in with trumpetings, so huge and jolly was the joke.
The elephant who played the trick looked solemn enough, except for a twitch at the lips and a glint in the eye. There is something of a smile about every elephant's lips, to be sure, and fun is so contagious that one should hesitate to say that he saw an elephant laugh. But if that elephant didn't laugh, it was not his fault.
From the elephant to the infusorian, the microscopic animal of a single cell known as the paramœcium, is a far cry—to the extreme opposite end of the animal kingdom, worlds apart. Yet I have seen Paramœcium caudatum at play in a drop of water under a compound microscope, as I have seen elephants at play in their big bath-tub at the zoölogical gardens.
Place a drop of stagnant water under your microscope and watch these atoms of life for yourself. Invisible to the naked eye, they are easily followed on the slide as they skate and whirl and chase one another to the boundaries of their playground and back again, first one of them "it," then another. They stop to eat, they slow up to divide their single-celled bodies into two cells, the two cells now two living creatures where a moment before they were but one, both of them swimming off immediately to feed and multiply and play.
Play seems to be as natural and as necessary to the wild animals as it is to human beings. Like us the animals play hardest while young, but as some human children never outgrow their youth and love of play, so there are old animals that never grow too fat nor too stiff nor too stupid to play.
The condition of the body has a great deal to do with the state of the spirit. The sleek, lithe otter could not possibly grow fat. He keeps in trim because he cannot help it, perhaps, but however that may be, he is a very boy for play, and even goes so far as to build himself a slide or chute for the fun of diving down it into the water.
A writer in one of the magazines tells of an otter in the New York Zoölogical Park that swam and dived with a round stone balanced on his head.
Building a slide is more than we children used to do, for we had ready-made for us grandfather's two big slanting cellar-doors, down which we slid and slid and slid till the wood was scoured white and slippery with the sliding. The otter loves to slide. Up he climbs on the bank, then down he goes—splash—into the stream. Up he climbs and down he goes—time after time, day after day. There is nothing like a slide, unless it is a cellar-door.
How much of a necessity to the otter is his play, one would like to know—what he would give up for it, and how he would do deprived of it. In the case of Pups, my neighbor's beautiful young collie, play seems more needful than food. There are no children, no one, to play with him there, so that the sight of my small boys sets him almost frantic.
His efforts to induce a hen or a rooster to play with him are pathetic. The hen cannot understand. She hasn't a particle of play in her anyhow, but Pups cannot get that through his head. He runs rapidly around her, drops on all fours flat, swings his tail, cocks his ears, looks appealingly and barks a few little cackle-barks, as nearly hen-like as he can bark them, then dashes off and whirls back—while the hen picks up another bug. She never sees Pups. The old white coon cat is better; but she is usually up the miff-tree. Pups steps on her, knocks her over, or otherwise offends, especially when he tags her out into the fields and spoils her hunting. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals ought to send some child or puppy out to play with Pups of a Saturday.
I doubt if among the lower forms of animals play holds any such prominent place as with the dog and the keen-witted, intelligent otter. To catch these lower animals at play is a rare experience. One of our naturalists describes the game of "follow my leader," as he watched it played by a school of minnows—a most unusual record, but not at all hard to believe, for I saw recently, from the bridge in the Boston Public Garden, a school of goldfish playing at something very much like it.
This naturalist was lying stretched out upon an old bridge, watching the minnows through a large crack between the planks, when he saw one leap out of the water over a small twig floating at the surface. Instantly another minnow broke the water and flipped over the twig, followed by another and another, the whole school, as so many sheep, or so many children, following the leader over the twig.
The love of play seems to be one of the elemental needs of all life above the plants, and the games of us human children seem to have been played before the dry land was, when there were only water babies in the world, for certainly the fish never learned "follow my leader" from us. Nor did my young bees learn from us their game of "prisoners' base" which they play almost every summer noontime in front of the hives. And what is the game the flies play about the cord of the drop-light in the centre of the kitchen ceiling?
One of the most interesting animal games that I ever saw was played by a flock of butterflies on the very top of Mount Hood, whose pointed snow-piled peak looks down from the clouds over the whole vast State of Oregon.
Mount Hood is an ancient volcano, eleven thousand two hundred twenty-five feet high. Some seven thousand feet or more up, we came to "Tie-up Rock"—the place on the climb where the glacier snows lay before us and we were tied up to one another and all of us fastened by rope to the guide.
From this point to the peak, it was sheer deep snow. For the last eighteen hundred feet we clung to a rope that was anchored on the edge of the crater at the summit, and cut our steps as we climbed.
Once we had gained the peak, we lay down behind a pile of sulphurous rock, out of the way of the cutting wind, and watched the steam float up from the crater, with the widest world in view that I ever turned my eyes upon.
The draft pulled hard about the openings among the rock-piles, but hardest up a flue, or chimney, that was left in the edge of the crater-rim where parts of the rock had fallen away.
As we lay at the side of this flue, we soon discovered that butterflies were hovering about us; no, not hovering, but flying swiftly up between the rocks from somewhere down the flue. I could scarcely believe my eyes. What could any living thing be doing here?—and of all things, butterflies? This was three or four thousand feet above the last vestige of vegetation, a mere point of volcanic rock (the jagged edge-piece of an old crater) wrapped in eternal ice and snow, with sulphurous gases pouring over it, and across it blowing a wind that would freeze as soon as the sun was out of the sky.
But here were real butterflies. I caught two or three of them and found them to be vanessas (Vanessa californica ), a close relative of our mourning-cloak butterfly. They were all of one species, apparently, but what were they doing here?
Scrambling to the top of the piece of rock behind which I had been resting, I saw that the peak was alive with butterflies, and that they were flying—over my head, out down over the crater, and out of sight behind the peak, whence they reappeared, whirling up the flue past me on the wings of the draft that pulled hard through it, to sail down over the crater again, and again to be caught by the draft and pulled up the flue, to their evident delight, up and out over the peak, where they could again take wings, as boys take their sleds, and so down again for the fierce upward draft that bore them whirling over Mount Hood's pointed peak.
Here they were, thousands of feet above the snow-line, where there was no sign of vegetation, where the heavy vapors made the air to smell, where the very next day a wild snowstorm wrapped its frozen folds about the peak—here they were, butterflies, playing, a host of them, like so many schoolboys on the first coasting snow!