Printed books Reflections

Just Playing

On Pet Rats, “Domestic Arthropods,” and the Importance of Play

By Alex Dimeff, graphic designer

Images from An Illustrated History of Domestic Arthropods by Harriet T. Burbeck.

In An Illustrated History of Domestic Arthropods, author and illustrator Harriet T. Burbeck builds a world in which humans are the last extant vertebrates living amongst gargantuan insects and arachnids. Centipedes and houseflies appear as affectionate companions and work animals. Exploring this alternate reality through the voice of a Victorian zoophilist, Domestic Arthropods lovingly limns the invertebrates we often consider pests, while inviting us to consider our own relationships to non-human animals. With illustrations that riff on vintage advertisements and classic works of art, it’s probably the most playful book we’ve ever published. And I consider playfulness to be serious business—for humans and for many other species. 

Whether in the form of wrestling bouts or board games or storytelling, play can help us hone complex abilities: motor skills, pattern recognition, problem-solving, imagination, even empathy. But the importance of play extends beyond its utility as practice. For animals with higher order cognitive abilities, play provides enrichment vital to psychological well being. That’s true of humans, parrots, and baboons. It’s also true of a highly intelligent mammal that, like the centipede or house fly, we often malign as vermin: the rat.

I’ve been thinking a lot about rats since my partner adopted one a few weeks ago. The animal’s original owner had purchased her as a feeder rodent for a ball python. The snake showed no interest, and the rat had to be rehomed. We named her Daphne.

Taking in an animal with Daphne’s background is an experiment in nature vs. nurture. She had to learn some behaviors. In her former life as a feeder rat, once weaned, she’d exclusively eaten industrial lab pellets. When we first adopted her, she didn’t recognize food that most rats would regard as treats. She’d sniff pieces of almonds, fresh spinach, and pizza with her ever-wriggling nose then turn away. 

Other rat behaviors came to Daphne automatically. The first time I presented her with a cardboard tube, she immediately squeezed herself inside. When she emerged from the opposite end, she spun around and dove back into the paper cylinder. She did this several times. She wasn’t just seeking shelter. She was playing.

Highly intelligent and social animals, rats play just like cats and dogs do, though they tend to prefer different games. So far, Daphne focuses less on individual objects than on spaces. She doesn’t bat at shoestrings or fetch toys. Instead, she scales the bed skirt so she can crawl behind pillows. There’s a reason why so many researchers have dropped lab rats into labyrinths. It’s not just that mazes present complex problems for the rodents to solve. It’s that these clever creatures are inclined to explore tight spaces.

It may seem self-evident that dogs and cats and rats are predisposed to play differently. After all, every species has its own unique needs, abilities, and survival strategies. But when I watch Daphne tunnel through the folds of a bath towel, what was once axiomatic suddenly feels profound: this little white rodent experiences reality in her own way, a way I can never access entirely. 

And yet, her modes of processing this world are not completely foreign to me either. While Daphne’s preferred games reveal something about her uniquely rodent cognition, the general impulse to play is a behavior she and I share. She may prefer mapping mazes, and I may prefer speculating the plot of a murder mystery, but the two of us both experience a certain compulsion to solve puzzles.

The animals around us can teach us a lot about ourselves—what’s unique about our species, what’s more universal. After all, as the narrator of Domestic Arthropods remarks: “despite the enormity of the differences between our natures, we are all part of the same kingdom.” Whether you’re living amongst dogs and rats or amongst giant centipedes and houseflies, when you observe other species closely, you can begin to imagine their realities. From these new perspectives, the world you’ve known for years becomes something different, a place alien and yet still familiar.

An Illustrated History of Domestic Arthropods by Harriet T. Burbeck is available here.

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