Flights of Fancy

by Belinda Recio

Apparently humans aren’t the only ones to engage in imaginative play and creative thinking

I would like to start the new year with a story about a young female named Viki, who enjoyed playing with an imaginary pull toy. Viki moved and gestured as if she were dragging her toy around the house, and sometimes even appeared to pretend that it had become stuck on something. She would act out the movements required to get the toy unstuck, such as tugging on the invisible string, until she had freed it.

On one occasion, Viki went even further. Again acting as if her pretend toy was stuck, she sat down and—placing one fist on top of the other on the imaginary string—leaned backward as if she were pulling with all her strength. Feigning defeat, Viki then called out for her caregiver who came over and participated in the game by pretending to untangle the imaginary string to free the toy. Viki then happily resumed pulling her imaginary toy around the room.

One of the hallmarks of human play, especially in childhood, is the use of imagination to invent things, and to attribute to them qualities and conditions that don’t exist. A child might assert that a dragon lives in her closet, a stuffed bear talks, or tea fills an empty cup. Imagination allows us to form images of, and ideas about, objects and actions not physically present.

Children do this all the time. What is so surprising about Viki is that she was a chimpanzee. She was raised by Keith and Catherine Hayes in the 1950s as part of an ape language-learning experiment. As special as Viki was, she was not unique among captive apes when it comes to demonstrating behaviors that suggest imaginative thinking. In the past 60 years since Viki first played make-believe, other captive chimpanzees, as well as bonobos, gorillas and orangutans, have consistently demonstrated similar behaviors. Some pretend to eat food depicted in photos or play-act biting and being bitten by toy animals or even photographs of animals. Apes have also kissed, hugged, stroked, tickled, bathed, fed and vocalized to dolls and stuffed toys; pretended to be monsters or other animals and characters while wearing masks; hidden invisible objects; and given imaginary objects as gifts to others.

But it’s not just captive apes that engage in this kind of behavior. More recently, scientists have observed wild juvenile chimps pretending that sticks and small logs are infants. Researchers Sonya M. Kahlenberg and Richard W. Wrangham documented numerous instances of wild chimps treating sticks as dolls. They cuddle, cradle and put their stick babies to bed in nests they make for them. Some even carried their sticks into their nests to sleep with them, the way children sleep with stuffed toys.

The researchers also observed the chimpanzees playing a version of the “airplane game” with their sticks—lying on their backs with their stick balanced across their upraised hands. Mother chimps play this same way with their babies. Captive dolphins have been observed engaging in imaginary play, too: pretending to clean the glass walls of their aquariums and miming other gestures they witness on a daily basis in captivity. Performing dolphins have even demonstrated the ability to use their imaginations in inventive ways to create new routines for their shows. In one study, dolphins were taught the command, “show me something new,” in which the dolphin had to perform a trick it had not been taught to do previously, in order to get a reward. One dolphin was especially good at this trick and consistently performed a series of novel behaviors that hadn’t been performed before by itself or any other dolphin. Its trainers believed that it must have used its imagination to come up with the new tricks.

Crows and ravens have also demonstrated imaginative thinking. These birds have been observed creating tools—and toys—by manipulating objects in novel ways. In Gifts of the Crow, John M. Marzluff and Tony Angell describe a group of ravens gripping curved pieces of tree bark in their talons and using them to windsurf strong gales in the Rocky Mountains. The ravens spread their wings, launched into the air, and used their feet to adjust the angle of their “surfboards” to soar, dive and slide along the wind currents. These ravens must have imagined this unique use of tree bark, perhaps based on their experience of carrying bark when flying in a strong wind.

Finally, we’ve all seen our cats and dogs chase and bite toys, balls and even their own tails, as if those objects were prey. There are also anecdotal reports of dogs treating their stuffed toys as if they were puppies, offering them a drink at their water bowl and covering them with blankets.Learning that other animals engage in imaginative play and creative thinking surprised many scientists, who have long believed that one of the major features that sets humans apart from other animals is our imaginative capacity. As we all begin a new year, let’s remember to keep an open mind when it comes to animals. Who knows what new discoveries 2019 will bring?

Adapted in part from Inside Animal Hearts and Minds by Belinda Recio, published by Skyhorse Publishing, 2017

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