After watching Dr. Stuart Brown’s excellent TED talk “Play is more than fun”, I’ve been thinking a lot about my experiences with play, and how they might showcase some of the more interesting properties of the phenomena. Today I’d like to share with you a short story from my life which demonstrates the extraordinary power of play to break down the boundaries between not just people, but between people and other animals as well.
I hope it’ll be as enlightening to you as it was to me. So, without further adieu:
This, is Gus:
Gus is a feral kitten that my wife and I trapped at a local feral cat colony. Our hope in catching him was first to get him neutered and vaccinated, and second to see if he could be socialized and placed in a home, so he would no longer have to live out on the street. The first task turned out to be easy enough, but the second was another thing entirely.
When we first trapped Gus he was somewhere between 6 and 8 weeks old.
He was young and impressionable. This was a pivotal time in his life. He could either develop a fear of humans, and become incapable of ever living with one, or learn to become comfortable around humans, and lead a much more relaxed and enjoyable life. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Gus had already begun to develop a fear of humans, no doubt ingrained in him by his experiences living outside in a busy city district. Since Gus already had this fear, our task was made exponentially more difficult. We had to think of some way to build up trust with an animal who was both afraid and insecure.
We came up with a number of exercises which we hoped would help us build trust with Gus. We pet him from a distance using a back scratcher, wrapped him in a towel and nestled him, gave him toys to play with, fed him treats, and spent long hours sitting by his cage, all in the hope that he’d become more comfortable around us. However, as the weeks passed, Gus became more and more aggressive. Eventually we couldn’t get within a few feet of him without him hissing and lashing out. It was at this point that we tried something which we should have been doing from the start.
We played with him.
I tied a small ball that he was particularly fond of to the end of a long piece of yarn so that I was able to manipulate the ball by pulling the yarn. I then placed the ball in his cage and started moving it about. His eyes lit up almost immediately, and it was as if he were a completely different cat. We quickly developed a kind of game, where I would place the ball on the shelf in his cage, slowly inch it to the edge, then suddenly drop it. He would watch the ball intently as it inched its way across the shelf, and when it fell, he’d leap up and grab it from his position on the bottom of the cage. As we played I slowly shortened the yarn so that I was getting closer and closer to him. Toward the end of our game, I was nearly touching Gus, but he didn’t even mind, he was so entirely engaged in the act of play. We played like this for over an hour, both of us completely engaged in the act.
After we stopped playing, Gus returned to his usual self, hissing and lashing out once again. It was as if the only thing that could break through the communication barrier between us was play. Unfortunately, Gus wasn’t tame enough to live the life of a normal house cat, so after months of trying to socialize him, we eventually decided that it would be best for Gus to return to the feral colony he came from to live out the rest of his days.
While some might write this off as simply a failure, I think that this experience is a great example of how play is exceptional at breaking through fear, and, more extraordinarily, the barrier between species, if only for a short amount of time. We see this all the time with our companion animals: people throwing a ball for their dogs, having their cats chase a laser pointer, etc. While playing, two different species of animal can reach an understanding with one another. When you throw a ball for your dog, the dog knows that it’s their job to catch the ball, and it’s your job to throw it, even though you have no language with which to communicate. In the future I’d like to explore the depths of this topic in more detail.