Why Do Animals Play?

Even though it is quite a pain to protect all our bushes, trees, flowers and vegetable garden from our local white tail deer herd, we are also rewarded with getting to see a newborn fawn that mom brings to show off to us, or the changing of coats from summer to winter and then back again to the summer coat, or to watch the antlers grow each year, starting with the velvet stage. It is also fun to watch the fawns seemingly play a game of tag and zoom through the fields and around the trees. Recently we observed a group playing “king of the mountain” on our neighbor’s big manure pile. It began with several yearlings. One of them would be on top of the pile spinning around and kicking up its heels until another—or more often a couple—would come up and force it down and take its place. This went on for 5-10 minutes until a doe, probably the mom of one of the yearlings, decided to get in on the game. She charged to the top, pushing the reigning yearling off. When anyone challenged her, she reared up on her hind legs and pawed them away with her front hooves. It was very entertaining!
     One of the places we like to go for walks in the area has numerous ponds where we get to see turtles, ducks, geese, deer, eagles and an occasional river otter, one of nature’s most fun-loving creatures. Although catching food is a serious matter for most wildlife, to the otter it is fun. Often the otter is more interested in the sport of the chase than in securing a meal and will play with a fish and release it after it is caught!  Otters also love to make mud slides down to the water and spend many hours sliding down and flinging themselves with abandon into the cool waters of a river or stream. In the winter, the otter can be seen tobogganing down snow banks.
     In the May issue of the Alaska magazine, is an an article entitled “Bears Just Wanna Have Fun”  relating Nick Jans observation of big Kodiak Brown Bears playing with plastic gas cans and big plastic floats from fishing nets. Nick wrote: “I don’t figure bears thrashing our gear are operating out of some deep-seated malice or vicious nature; in fact, pretty much the opposite. I’ve watched a half dozen bears fooling with human-made objects, and every time, my impression was that they were, above all, thoroughly enjoying themselves—engaging in the sort of play a dog would.
     Of course we are all familiar with the playful behavior of cats and dogs. Dogs are generally fond of frolicking, either with people, other dogs, or even other animals. I’m sure you have all received e-mail videos of unusual animal relationships such as a National Geographic video documentary series “Unlikely Animal Friends,” which included the antics of Surya the orangutan and Rosco the hound dog at a river park, as the two carried on wrestling, running, hugging, rolling, and being silly.
     Many animals play, and possibly all mammals do. Birds too seem to get in on the fun. Crows play pranks on other creatures, and even team up to play. One report stated that a group of crows “Would fly toward each other, drop a tin plate and a member of the other team would swoop down and catch it in mid air, turn and fly back toward the other team, drop the plate and continue this game while they were being very vocal. What fun it was to watch.”
     Animal play has challenged scientists and researchers for a long time. If one has an evolutionary bias and presumes a Darwinian history of life in which all traits, and behaviors evolved in response to selection and survival of the fittest, what purpose can play possibly have? Does play really do anything to help a young (or old) animal become a fitter survivor, especially considering the energy and risk that it involves? If indeed animals play for pure enjoyment, then evolutionists have no answer to their question. If animals play just to be silly, then Darwinism is at a loss to explain the behavior’s origin, for if animals evolved by purely natural forces, as they believe, then every creature’s features should be purely pragmatic. Fun doesn’t fit this formula.
     But, if indeed, God is Creator of all things, then we observe that, just as parents enjoy watching their children at play, and we enjoy watching animals frolic and deer play “king of the mountain,” God created animals, and mankind, with the ability to enjoy play and recreation and He delights in watching His creation at play. Psalm 104:24-26 states: “O LORD, how many are Thy works; in wisdom Thou hast made them all; the earth is full of Thy possessions. There is the sea, great and broad, in which are swarms without number, animals both small and great. There the ships move along, and Leviathan, which Thou hast formed to sport (play) in it.” Exactly what kind of creature the leviathan is or was, we don’t know for sure, but it was apparently made to play. It can also be translated “fashioned for sporting jest.” Animals—indeed all things—were made by our all-wise, all-powerful Creator God, designed not just for survival, but to display the attributes of the Creator.
     As we observe animals at play, we need to realize that our lives too should include both times of fun and times of hard work. The Bible says, “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones” (Pr. 17:22).   
                Forever His,
                    Pastor Dave

About Pastor Dave

Until my retirement 2 years ago, I pastored an independent Bible church in Northwest Montana for nearly 38 years. During that time I also helped establish a Christian school, and a Bible Camp. I am married and have children and grandchildren. The Wisdom of the Week devotional is an outgrowth of my desire to share what God is doing in my life and in our world, and to challenge you to be a part.
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