Tuesday, April 27, 2010

When cats monkey about

When you live close to wildlife you learn to expect the unexpected.
But today something really surprising happened.

The weather was cool and dreary, so I decided to stay in and analyse my daunting stockpile of mongoose video tapes. However, my highly playful cat, Silver, had other ideas. He was in a mischievous mood and spent the entire morning leaping at the TV to paw at the on-screen mongooses, wrestling my video camera, scuffing up my check sheets and batting my pen under the sofa. Eventually, in exasperation, I took a break outside. Silver came too, slipping under the back fence to race about wildly, tearing up and down the trunk of a large buffalo-thorn tree.

I wasn't paying him much attention until I noticed the surrounding trees were suddenly alive with vervet monkeys. I thought at first I must have disturbed them (the troop often sleeps the night in the trees outside my house) but then I realised they were bounding towards us, not away. And they were all heading for Silver. My cats normally stay on the garden side of the fence; had Silver breeched some unwritten rule of monkey etiquette?

                 Vervets staring at Silver.
There were about six monkeys and they were all youngsters. They came excitedly gathering around Silver (who was now sitting sedately on the garden wall), slithering down trunks or dangling precariously from drooping branches to get close to him. They completely ignored me, although I was standing quite close. I thought they must be curious about Silver's previous absurd behaviour. But then I looked more closely. They were lounging coyly on their backs, heads upside down and wiggling back and forth. And some of them had their eyes half shut and their mouths open in the classic primate 'play-face'.
They were inviting Silver to play with them!

If you're good at spotting wildlife, you'll find a monkey at the very top edge, centre, of this photo.

 After about five minutes, when Silver had made it clear he wasn't going to oblige them, they just melted off into the trees, presumably to rejoin their troop. Had they played with Silver before? They certainly seemed to expect him to join in. Where would they have got the idea of playing with cats, if not from mine? Having spent five years of my life studying play behaviour, you'd think I'd know better than be surprised at anything, but this really was unexpected!

A young vervet monkey (Cercopithecus aethiops) in play invitation mode. Photo taken by Megan Bradfield and borrowed from here.


  1. That's really neat. I too wonder if it was the first time they invited him to come play. This whole sequence would make a great cartoon, with the last frame showing the cat yawning cooly and replying to the monkey, "Not now, man, my old lady is watching."

  2. Sciencetrio,
    I love the notion of a cartoon!
    I'd be a bit surprised if Silver has played with them before, because he's a cautious cat, and most of the monkeys are bigger than he is.
    Maybe young vervets are 'play junkies'; attracted to anyone that's obviously playing. I've certainly seen them romping about amid playing impala lambs.

  3. Oh my word! That cat is a body double for my own one. Is he pucka Russian Blue or also a mixed blood like mine? Don't you just love their feline 'vervet' fur? I call him the vervet kitty.

  4. Chanti,
    I suspect my cat Silver is entirely mixed blood since I adopted him as a kitten from the White River SPCA.
    I think you're spot on about the 'vervet' fur; even the vervets think so! I'm beginning to suspect that they think he's some kind of weird monkey. I was sitting in the garden last week, with Silver on my lap, when the local troop came creeping right up to me to get a better look at him! Yet they totally ignore my other cats.


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