When last I left you, I posed the question, why will Boris respond to invitations to play, but absent enticements, like food, getting him to do anything else ranges from unlikely to absolutely-don’t-count-on-it? And, having answered that, does it give us a clue as to the evolution of adaptive behavior, not only for cats, but for humans, too?
My acquaintance with Boris has led me to the conclusion that behavioral traits of cats and people (probably between all sorts of animals and people) are far more related than we think. I thought a lot about Boris’ inclination to engage in play and exactly what that play is all about.
First, if you’ve never given it much thought, “play” is a creative activity. It requires imagination and pretending. The “play” is representative of some other highly meaningful behavior. So, take Boris, for example. When he’s chasing a rope across his cage he exhibits the sort of behavior you’d expect to see in the wild. Bobcats use ambush as a primary means of creating advantage. They hide behind things, get prepared to pounce and when the moment is right, accelerate at warp speed, surprising the unsuspecting prey with overwhelming power. Isn’t that something? That’s how Boris plays, too! He LIKES to play that way! It’s innate. He takes to it naturally. It’s what comes out when he scratches the itch to play.
There are a couple of interesting elements to this. First, of course, is the very fact that bobcats and domestic cats, have an imagination, as humans do. And, I’ll bet cats aren’t alone. Up and down the food chain are animals that like to play. Some aren’t too smart and, compared to humans, can’t hold a candle to our computational ability. But still, they’re imagining, and that’s the point. I think imagining is essential to learning. It allows organisms that are capable of imagining to extrapolate beyond their immediate experience, into the future. And, by the way, I can think of a few species of fish that are that way, too.
Second, when I think of Boris when he’s playing I think I can define what he’s imagining. He’s usually thinking about hunting. For purposes of this discussion, let’s decide that’s what he’s up to. Hunting is the primary means by which wild cats feed themselves. If they don’t hunt, they don’t eat. If they don’t eat, they don’t live. Pretty straight-forward, right? OK, here’s the million dollar question: Even if I agree that cats that don’t hunt don’t live, what is the primary motivation for cats to hunt? This is Steve’s opinion, remember. And, I’m just an accountant who happens to hang-out with a wild cat. But, I think the reason cats hunt is so beautifully adaptive and rooted in evolution that I’m about 100% sure I’m right.
The real reason cats are motivated to hunt is not because they have to, it’s because they like to. And, it’s a darned good thing they do. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be much good at it. Which leads me to a companion question: All things being equal, which cat is a better hunter? The cat that really, really likes to hunt or the cat that’s luke-warm about it? And finally, the ultimate question: Which cat — the one that really, really likes to hunt, versus the one that can take it or leave it — is more apt to survive and reproduce?
There. I rest my case.