Animal antics

It was part of my job to set exams. One year I decided on a new approach – I would write questions that came at the curriculum from new angles. Within an hour of the exam finishing, angry students had arrived at my door. I had tricked them. Generations of students before them had analysed past papers, calculated the odds of certain questions arising and targeted their revision accordingly. By setting novel questions, I had undermined years of tradition. What I saw as original and challenging, they saw as unfair. I argued that in this particular situation, their knowing possible questions beforehand seemed to defeat the issue. I got no sympathy, as far as they were concerned I had overstepped the mark.

It may be argued that playing tricks is underhand and unacceptable but in reality it is legitimate, common and a recognised part of everyday life. Working within recognised rules of engagement, outwitting the opposition forms the basis of all competitive games. It is essential in commerce and politics and in many aspects of policing. And for me they were essential when dealing with difficult bureaucrats or colleagues. Moreover, human beings are not unique in having this capacity, if Alley and Willow are anything to go by.

I met Alley in Kenya where she was reclining in the bushes. She was not like the other chimpanzees in the colony. While they would amble over when the keeper called, Alley would simply nod her head; here was an independent being.

Unlike the others, who had been brought from Rwanda when civil unrest threatened their survival, Alley had come from a ‘good home’.

Their compound was surrounded by a three-metre high, electric fence – quite a challenge for Alley who was bent on escaping. Outmanoeuvring was her forte and when the mood took her she would press adjacent live wires together with two sticks,  shorting the circuit and blowing the mains fuse, allowing her to slip through the fence with impunity. Sometimes she was seen holding the wires apart to let others through.

She and her co-escapees were always re-captured but her desire for the challenge did not waiver. When the keepers discovered her trick, they separated adjacent live wires, interspersing them with dummies to make short-circuiting more difficult. Alley learned to bridge the wider gap by using branches rather than her original sticks and escaping resumed. Her ingenuity was respected by her keepers. But, of course, for her such respect was probably unimportant. Apart from escaping, a beneficial effect of her activity would have been the respect gained from her peers and the possibliity of climbing the colony’s highly competitive matriarchy.

Willow, in his youth a sprightly tabby, had a similar thirst for outmanoeuvring. Presumably to amuse himself,  he would deliver live mice to our bedroom in the dead of night and then chase them around the bedroom floor. Usually I got involved, rushing around trying to swat the mouse with a shoe so that I could get back to sleep. According to my wife, the sight of man in pursuit of cat and mouse was the stuff of cartoons.

In readiness for the performance, Willow would carry the evening’s plaything up to the first floor via the wisteria. He and his ill-fated stooge would then enter the room through the half-open window. We eventually tired of his nocturnal antics and left the window closed, leaving only an inch or so for ventilation. A few nights later we were woken by a thud as a new would-be plaything hit the floor. Willow, who was sitting outside on the window sill, had posted the ‘toy’ through the slot, presumably so that I could play with it by myself. Over the next weeks he delivered several moribund mice, a bird and a frog, just to be sure.

Obviously there is a risk that I am anthropomorphising. But why shouldn’t these two animals want to outmanoeuvre like we do? The behaviour of both of them seems so very reasonable to me. Moreover, if this is not the explanation, how else can one explain what went on? After all, it was from animals that we evolved, and from whom a desire to outmanoeuvre would have been inherited.

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