Just for Fun

Do animals have a sense of humor? Of course they do. Not only can they sense our humor, but they also have a sense of their own. I was pouring myself a cup of coffee when I noticed Lefty by the coffee-maker. He shook his head as I walked by. Was that a flea he was shaking off, or was it a playful gesture to gain my attention? Maybe with encouragement he would do it again. In a voice reserved only for the company of animals (hopefully when no human is present), I squealed, “Oh you handsome fellow!” (I like to call him handsome since he has only one ear.) He shook his head again.

I continued with a higher pitch, “Oh, you handsome, handsome fellow!” This time he shook his head and propelled his body straight up a foot off the floor. We repeated this funny banter several times before I had to answer the phone. Lefty interacts with us on his own terms. On this particular occasion he was in the mood to engage me in a game, and I’m always grateful when he engages me at all.

Clowning Around

When Samantha came into our foster home, she was distrustful of humans. She had endured an untreated broken leg, which had to be surgically repaired. Because of her shyness, we thought it best not to let an8-month-old human guest touch her. With his small fingers gripping the cage, the toddler thrust his face tight against the wire and laughed at the mere sight of the bunny. Samantha did a sideways kick. The youngster laughed harder. Samantha did two side kicks and spun around. Still more excited shrieks of laughter followed. Then even sillier antics followed after that. Fortunately the cage was large enough for the spirals and 180 degree flips. We finally had to intercede for the safety of both the performer and the spectator. The child was breathless with laughter, and the bunny was overdoing her mended leg. We had never seen Samantha behave in such a way. She was transformed from a shy bunny into a slapstick comedian. Whatever triggered her performance must have been an intuitive cue she received from the child.

Let’s not assume that all bunnies instinctively love the presence of all children. But somehow this non-invasive, non-threatening situation brought a moment of magic where their minds met in a game-a sharing of humor.

I contend that sharing humor is one of the highest forms of communication. Often you hear of human friendships, “We have a lot of laughs together.” Why should we think this kind of communication is limited to humans?

Your non-human companions know when you’re playing games. No one disputes this when you toss a ball for your dog to catch, or drag a paper “butterfly” on a string in front of your cat. But when you tell your acquaintances of your rabbit grabbing a paper from your hand and playing catch-me-if-you-can, they will smile and nod in courteous disbelief.

Plans and Strategies

I’ve played silly games with cats and dogs all of my life. Yet I was guilty of surprise when Herman, our first house rabbit, accepted my invitation to play. My perception changed forever when I crouched down and wiggled my fingers in a ghoulish manner (a regular jest with our cat) and said mischievously, “I’m going to get you.”

With that information, Herman kicked up her heels and playfully flung her large frame from side to side for the whole length of our living room, leaving me gaping in astonishment.

“She gets it!” I said. “She really gets it!” I never underestimated her sense of humor after that. A game of retaliation occurred daily with her cat friend, Nice. After being ambushed from behind the door a few times too many, Herman restrained herself until the cat was asleep.

An uninitiated observer, seeing a cat comfortably curled up in front of the fireplace, wouldn’t have the faintest clue that a game was going on. That peacefully dozing cat was about to have her slumber interrupted by the whomp of a 14 lb. rabbit landing squarely in her middle. Rabbits can be calculating and prankish. They respond to mental stimulation, initiate games, and interact with other living beings. These are things that people who live with rabbits already know.

A porch on a summer morning. A nose-to-nose message passes between Jerry (left) and Laurie Half a second later Jerry shakes his head and kicks up his forelegs. Tom (in hay box) receives Jerry’s message and kicks up his heels.
Laurie begins to get the joke and launches a vertical jump.
Laurie twists in mid air and then concludes the frolic.

Officially Playful

In a two-year study, staff members, technicians, and veterinarians at U.C. Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine observed that cage enrichment(in the form of toys and/or another rabbit) “increases the animal’s activity, suggesting enhanced psychological well-being….”1 They found a continued high level of interest and interaction among the rabbits studied.

Having their psychological needs acknowledged scientifically is a victory for rabbits. I find this especially satisfying after my personal experience with another university lab a few short years ago. My proposal that toys be given to rabbits in solitary cages was considered ludicrous, since “rabbits don’t have the capability of playing with toys.”

A preponderance of evidence says otherwise. Our files are full of delightful stories of bunny games from members all over the country.

Marinell Harriman

House Rabbit Journal Volume III, Number 1, Winter 1994

Frame grabs courtesy Drollery Press