love and play have deep roots

Trail Ridge Road cuts across Rocky Mountain National Park in north-central Colorado.

Trail Ridge Road cuts across Rocky Mountain National Park in north-central Colorado. Not far from its 3,713-metre crest on an early July evening about 25 years ago, our family came on the most unforgettable wildlife spectacle we have ever witnessed together.

A high alpine snow patch on a sheltered slope had attracted eight or 10 young elk. One by one they sat their rear haunches down on the snow at the lip of the incline. With their rear legs forward they pushed off with their front legs. After sliding down the 20- or 30-metre-long snow run with bent back front knees then would jump up and race back to the top and do it again, following each other in the round.

We watched the elk on that warm evening for a good long time. They were playing. The sight of fellow creatures playing was marvellous. They were totally oblivious of us enjoying their fun with them from 100 or so metres away.

Play behaviour, Gordon Burghardt, professor of psychology as well as in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Tennessee, notes in his book The Genesis of Animal Play, “is initiate when an animal is adequately fed, healthy, and free from stress (e.g. predator threat, harsh microclimate, social instability), or intense competing systems (e.g. feeding, mating, predator avoidance).” Properly nurtured and protected young animals, Burghardt would surely argue, play.

Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt, founding voice in the field of human ethology and an early research associate of the famed Konrad Lorenz, writes in Love and Hate: The Natural History of Behavior Patterns, that “there is also, with few exceptions, no friendship without parental care.”

Dr. Eibl-Eibesfeldt sees the origins of what we call love rooted in the parental care that evolved as our class mammalia did. A basic parenting instinct, he posits, “unites the parents with their offspring and is clearly excellently united in reinforcing the bond between adults. We drew attention to the fact that only animals that care for their young have formed closed groups. They all do it by means of behaviour patterns of cherishing which originate from parental care.”

Adding another expert voice to my list, Robert N. Bellah, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, in his book Religion in Human Evolution continues on this theme, writing that “nurturance, in the form of parental care, the earliest behaviour that we can call love, goes back to early mammals more than 200 million years ago.”

Though we, as Homo sapiens, are really different from our mammalian antecedents, he states: “We did not come from nowhere. We are embedded in a very deep biological and cosmological history.” It is a history that should lead us “to respect the world we live in.”

Nurturance and play linked to and supported by the very basic feeling of love allow us as humans to develop and thrive. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada gathering here a few weeks ago reminded us of how devastating the long-term consequences can be if someone is deprived of these fundamentals.

Our Yukon Child and Youth advocate, Andy Nieman, recently called for a mental health and addictions treatment centre for youth in the territory. How many other basic nurturing gaps do we need to fill here in the Yukon to insure our children have the chance to love and play?

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact