Tassel-eared squirrels: Do you know them? They are fluffy gray squirrels with a rust-colored back, a downy white tail and (during the winter) furry tassels on their ears.
A tassel-eared squirrel lives in the ponderosa pines beside my home. He’s rather a funny critter. Here he is now, bounding across the needles. His paws seem to barely touch the earth, as if the exuberance of being young in the forest in autumn has freed him from gravity.
What’s this? A pine cone! All at once the squirrel “trips” on the cone. Pretending it attacked him, the squirrel tumbles over and over, caught in its clutches. Oh, the vicious cone. For a few seconds it is touch-and-go: Which of the two will win?
Finally, the brave squirrel bests his craven-hearted attacker. Off he scampers on a victory lap, up a tree and down without pause, up the next and down again, only to be tripped by a branch. Now this evil tree branch is the enemy … and on it goes.
Have you watched a cat play this way? My cat sometimes “trips” over a tennis ball, turns and grabs it, then falls on his side to disembowel it with his back paws. The way I see it—and I love this cat like a member of the family—he can’t possibly believe the tennis ball is alive; and yet he pretends it is. Why else, but for the sake of fun?
I do think animals have fun, don’t you? Meaning I think they do things just for the pleasure of doing them. Sure, my cat is acting out a behavior that helped his ancestors take down prey. But Viggo isn’t going to eat the tennis ball, just as the squirrel knows the pine cone and the branch aren’t really his mortal enemies. So, they can play.
Now and then I get to write about the pleasures of watching wildlife. I’m privileged to see a moment in a wild animal’s life, and even more privileged to share it. And what can I say about a squirrel that behaves as if a pine cone has attacked it? What else can I say, but that it’s fun to see him suspend disbelief, for the sake of a momentary joy. It’s fun to see a squirrel at play.