Nothing is cuter than a baby animal playing with a stuffed animal, right? Did you know that playtime has some serious benefits for animals?
The scientific definition of play is “all motor activity performed postnatally that appears to be purposeless, in which motor patterns from other contexts may often be used in modified forms and altered temporal sequencing.” In simpler terms, play involves an animal practicing behaviors that they normally express, but for a reason that isn’t immediately apparent. Here at the Zoo, we see animals exhibit many forms of play, some of which happen on their own and some of which we stimulate.
From an oversized teddy bear to a squeaking giraffe to a peanut butter-flavored nylon chew, black bear cub Brody has quite the collection of toys that encourage running, chewing, climbing, foraging and other behaviors that will help him navigate the world as an adult.
“Playtime” also triggers exercise, provides mental stimulation and is thought to make young animals more resilient into adulthood by refining their stress response through safe interactions. A 2009 research study by Robert Fagen and Johanna Fagen examined the links between play and survival in young brown bears and found that cubs who engaged in more play were more likely to survive to independence.
We offer play-based enrichment to many other animals at the Zoo. The dingos are given lures to chase and dog toys to gnaw on, the macaws have bells and swings, the juvenile spider monkeys receive bright-colored rubber balls to play with, and the otters are presented with floating toys to push through the water and on land. Keepers may also stimulate play by adding foliage to habitats, creating opportunities for jumping or sliding, giving animals access to areas they are not typically in and changing up social structures.
Zoo animals express a lot of spontaneous, “unassisted” play behaviors, too. For example, we occasionally see our juvenile kangaroos boxing or kicking, and our grey foxes play-fighting or chasing each other. We’ve also observed the otters pursuing each other, doing flips and spins in the water and jumping in and out of their pools. This natural play helps these animals maintain their physical condition, develop their motor and cognitive skills, and train for the unexpected.
Next time you visit the Zoo and notice the animals playing, remember that it’s not only super cute, but great for them, too! If you are interested in helping provide enrichment to our animals, check out our wish list.