Nature & Animals

The Other Springwatch debate: do animals enjoy play?

I’ve got a problem with Chris Packham. It’s not, I hasten to add, a personal one: I’ve never met the Springwatch presenter who, as far as I can tell, is a thoroughly decent bloke.

From The Secret Life of God book blog
Were you bittern?

In fact, as my generation’s answer to David Bellamy or David Attenborough, I’m profoundly grateful to him for his work as a brilliant communicator about the natural world, and I’m counting on him being around, explaining and enthusing, for a long time. My ‘problem’ is with his insistence on a scientific orthodoxy that prescribes how we should think about other animals.

The issue came to the fore in the second week of this year’s series, with Packham’s assertion that animals don’t enjoy their play. Commenting on the footage of the urban fox cubs being monitored in Brighton, Packham insisted that, despite their frolicsome behaviour, foxes were not ‘playing’ in a human sense – since play has the exclusively biological function of teaching them the skills necessary for survival, animals cannot be said to be enjoying themselves.

The issue has become something of a running debate, coming up in Springwatch 2013 and raised again this year as part on the ongoing discussions the programme has with its viewers. In these discussions, Packham likes to correct the nation’s sentimentalism, reminding us that the carnage we often see on our screens is part of an ecological system in which the destruction of life goes hand in hand with its creation. Sometimes his observations are truthfully helpful, but at others they tip into a sterile superiority typical of a broader set of attitudes that serve to distance us from the natural world.

These attitudes exaggerate the division between humans and other animals, elevating us into a position of infinite superiority. On this scientific worldview, we, the rational species, are the knowers; the natural (aka the rest of the) world is the object of our study. The point of activities which engage us in nature – bird surveys, trapping mammals to track them, studying invertebrates through magnifying glasses – is to increase our knowledge, and they should be carried out with appropriate scientific coolness. As Tim Dee, describing the ringing of birds in his wonderful ornithological memoir The Running Sky, confesses: ‘The first living wren made me feel I had caught a falling star but, since it was science that had brought us together, I didn’t own up to this.’

Of course, increasing our knowledge of the natural world is vital for conservation work. But this practical understanding, with all its gathering of data and accumulation of facts, shouldn’t define our relationship with nature. It doesn’t have to rule out the sense of kinship with other animals that Charles Darwin was referring to when he wrote: ‘There is no fundamental difference between man and the higher animals in their mental faculties … The lower animals, like man, manifestly feel pleasure and pain, happiness, and misery.’

Or, as contemporary thinker of nature Esther Woolfson suggests, despite our all-too-human projections and misconceptions, ‘is the relationship humans have with other species a universal human feeling, a need, innate and instinctive, to have a bond with the natural world, a need that has evolved over the history of the development of humans and other species together on earth?’

With its patient monitoring of wildlife, lyrical mini-documentaries and boundless enthusiasm, Springwatch, does in fact do a brilliant job of meeting our need for a relationship with nature. But let’s not kid ourselves that it’s all in the name of science: for underneath that is the need, to misquote E. M. Forster, to ‘only relate’.