The answer appears to be yes, big cats do play – perhaps ‘toy’ is a better description – with their prey but they do it in a different way to domestic cats. Cat owners often see their cat playing with prey that is barely alive or dead indicating a style of play which is different to that of the big cats. Most often domestic cat play appears to be about prolonging the kill after the prey animal is dead.
There is a story being aired right now online (Daily Mail) and in hardcopy newspapers (The Times) about a beautiful and fit-looking leopardess in Kruger National Park, South Africa, who was photographed gently nuzzling up to a very young and equally beautiful impala. The leopardess gently plays and paws at the impala. At one time the leopardess pulls the impala’s face into her mouth and appears to be enjoying smelling the scent from the impala.
The impala looks either paralysed with fear or due to his/her lack of life experience had no idea what should or could be happening and which happened shortly thereafter.
The impala’s mother was not far away, crying for her offspring. Eventually the impala runs towards her mother and the leopardess chased and killed her. He then ate her. The end was as sharp and as cold as that, in stark contrast to the foreplay’s warm embrace.
It does look as if the big cats, rarely but when appropriate, play with their prey before they kill them. I have seen these temporary ‘friendships’ before. They look bizarre and a bit scary because as onlookers we know what the outcome will be.
The photographer Reynard Moolman, 26, said that the experience was heartbreaking to watch. He thinks the female lepard, who is known to the park’s rangers as Nkanyi wanted to prolong the kill to learn her skills.
I think the reason for this chilling (to humans) form of pre-killing foreplay is simply because the leopardess is interested in her prey. They don’t get the chance to investigate prey normally as the act of chasing and killing is too short and brutal. It difficult to be fair to describe it as ‘play’. It looks more like an inquisitive investigation.
It is said that domestic cats play with prey because (1) they want to practice killing (2) if the prey is potentially dangerous, to protect themselves and (3) to prolong the killing because they get less opportunity to hunt than their counterparts, stray and feral cats. However, domestic cats often play with prey by throwing it in the air to practice catching fish from water which is quite different to the behaviour of this leopardess.
P.S. The leopard is one of the big cats. They all roar. The others are the tiger, lion and jaguar. Although sometimes people use a different criteria for qualification into the big cat group.
SOME MORE ON THE BIG CATS: