#InternationalTigerDay: What big cat play can teach us about morality

24 June 2019

As apex predators, tigers are often considered solitary and ruthless, but in social groups they purposely leave themselves vulnerable to build trust.

Tigers are known for being fierce hunters and living an essentially solitary life. Yet, female tigers actually spend much of their time demonstrating care and compassion in a social setting while raising and caring for their young.

During this essential time in the lives of the mothers and the cubs, they will both experience extended periods of joy and engage in fun activities such as play bouts.

Play may appear to serve little obvious purpose, yet it is in fact a hugely important and complex behaviour for tiger cubs. It aids in learning essential life skills, such as hunting, escaping predators, mating, and of course being happy.

Playing just because it's fun has psychological and physical benefits for tiger cubs. Play increases the versatility of movements and the ability to recover from sudden shocks such as the loss of balance and falling over, and to enhance the ability of tigers to cope emotionally with unexpected stressful situations.

Play also helps in the development of a young tigers “social brain”, allowing cubs to explore the limits of fear, anger, lust, and care, as well as other subtle feelings such as the desire to explore.

The morality of play

Playing together in a group involves complex cognitive processes including communication, intention, roleplaying and cooperation.

It is also argued that communal play demonstrates that tigers’ possess a sense of morality.

Tiger play – which is often boisterous – has very distinct social rules which prevent fights and injuries.

For play to continue the more dominant, stronger individual must adjust their actions to meet the needs of the other individuals. In this, they make a moral decision not to harm the others to ensure continuation of the game and social harmony.

Individual tigers must self-handicap to maintain social play. Rather than perform to their full potential, they must behave in a way which allows play to continue. This most majestic and powerful of hunters must purposefully lower their defences and agree to make themselves vulnerable.

This concept of fair play demonstrates the fundamentals of moral behaviour. Each individual must know the rules and abide by them or risk upsetting the other.

Trust, vulnerability, fairness – these are not traits which immediately come to mind when we consider tigers roaming the jungle in search of prey, but this is the reality of their complex lives.

Tigers abide by codes of social conduct that regulate what is permissible and what is not – and the existence of these codes demonstrate the evolution of social morality.

Learning what is right or wrong – what is acceptable to others – is central to the development and maintenance of a social group, until the tiger cubs become independent enough to move away from the family group and go it alone.

Sadly, many thousands of tigers are abused in circuses and the tourism industry. These individuals can spend extensive amounts of time isolated in confined spaces.

We too understand morality and increasingly, we are coming to understand that exploiting tigers in this way is unacceptable. If you believe tigers should not suffer for our entertainment, sign the petition asking TripAdvisor to remove listings which cause cruelty to animals such as trips to bogus tiger “sanctuaries”.