Before we consider the question in the title, let us consider: do humans have fun? Of course. My four-year-old niece has a fantastic time chasing me around the garden, that’s for sure. However, it is a bit more difficult to decipher whether animals are having fun or not. This may be because it is difficult for us to tell what emotions animals are experiencing, if they feel emotions in the first place.

Fun: “Behaviour or an activity that is intended purely for amusement and should not be interpreted as having any serious or malicious purpose.” (Oxford dictionary online)

I feel that we often underestimate the complexity of animals’ behaviour and that we tend to simplify their activities into a mere question of stimulus and response, particularly in terms of how the particular behaviour will aid in the animal’s survival.

Tamboti Jump Pt

The Tamboti female leopard jumps playfully away from her daughter that was stalking her.

If we delve one step deeper, we may ask how emotions are formed. According to Darwin, they are basically an external expression of an internal state. This means that neurochemical reactions and hormonal activity are responsible for a physical response in our bodies, which in some cases is displayed by visible signs. For example, the release of dopamine and endorphins may result in us smiling. This is an example of how a stimulus-response mechanism works.

Kruger Male Lions Jt

Although it looks like these male lions are smiling, they are in fact exhibiting the Flehmen grimace. This is observed in many mammals and is a means of analysing scent particles by pulling them over the Jacobson’s organ at the back of the palate.

Let’s get back to animals though.
There seems to be a divide amongst the scientific community as to whether animals display emotion or not, mostly due to inconsistencies in the studies that have taken place over the years. As animals cannot speak, the only way to test whether an animal is displaying emotion is to subject that animal to a particular stimulus in a controlled environment and assess the response to that stimulus behaviourally. A more technical method being employed is the use of Magnetic Resonance Imaging to record the electromagnetic frequencies in the brains of animals (particularly domestic dogs) in response to certain stimuli.

Mg 4487edited

A lioness spends some time playing with two lion cubs in her pride.

If one was to ask any dog owner if their dog expresses emotion, the answer would be a unanimous ‘yes’. Think of how happy a dog looks when it wags its tail after being praised, or how it cowers with its tail tucked between its legs with head drooped after being discipline. Unfortunately, in the wild the best we can do is to carefully observe and use what knowledge we have to hypothesise what an animal is doing and why.

I recently watched three sub-adult giraffe sprinting after each other in an open clearing one morning. They ran back and forth, switching positions each time. Could this have stimulated enjoyment in these individuals? Possibly benefitting them as it would keep them fit and potentially help one day in outrunning a predator? Maybe it was a means of strengthening social bonds?

A journey of giraffe run across the Sand River. Image by James Tyrrell

On another occasion in the last two weeks I witnessed two hyena cubs of about 2-3 months, chase each other round and round a bush, above 5-10 times. They also switched roles between being the chaser and the one being chased. Surely this was triggered by enjoyment?

Hyena cubs playing with a piece of wood.

Almost on a daily basis I see vervet monkeys and baboons, particularly the youngsters, jumping out of trees onto each other, playfully chasing each other about.

Mg 7745edited

Young baboons chasing each other back and forth on top of a bird hide.

In the heat of summer, elephants will seemingly become so excited when they approach water that they literally run to it, sometimes climbing right into waterholes to play with each other.

Two elephant jostling with each other while almost completely submerged in a waterhole. Image by Andrea Sithole

Elephant calves engaging in a playful interaction.

All of the above examples portray a positive emotion. I have noticed fear in many instances, however this could be described as a response to a stimulus that has evolved as a survival mechanism.

This is just scratching the surface, however from what has been discussed, I would conclude that animals can definitely have fun. What do you think?

 

About the Author

Pete Thorpe

Field Guide

Right from his very first bush trip at the age of four, Pete was always enthralled by this environment. Having grown up in the Middle East, Pete’s home-away-from-home has always been a bungalow in the Greater Kruger National Park, where his family had ...

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24 Comments

on Do Animals Really Have Fun?

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Marinda Drake

Interesting blog Pete. I definitely think animals have fun or maybe it is that they experience pleasure? When my cat gets attention and love from us, he purrs and you can see that he is content. Children learn having fun, so why not young animals.

Pete Thorpe

Hi Marinda,

Yes I agree, with domestic animals there are some clear examples of basic emotions!

Malavika Gupta

Most definitely yes! Animals experience all the emotions that humans do, including happiness, sadness, jealousy, frustration, and ambivalence. The only difference being humans are not perceptive enough to distinguish among the spectrum of emotions they display.

Pete Thorpe

From what I read, it seems that the general belief is that animals do experience what are termed ‘basic emotions’, and not other more ‘complex’ emotions. As you said though, we are not able to perceive what exactly the animals are feeling and have no common language with which to communicate this.

Malavika Gupta

Thanks for the reply, Pete. Not entirely sure what “they” mean by complex emotions. Not too long ago a colleague of yours wrote a blog about buffaloes and empathy…was what they experienced empathy or just an instinct to survive? I think we will have to debate this topic, while sitting around a boma fire on our next trip to Londolozi. Cheers and keep the blogs coming!

Jeff Rodgers

The notion, ‘As animals cannot speak,’ is not so. As my son said when he was 10 years old and we were looking at Bonobos – and someone in our group said that they can’t speak – he quickly said that they can speak, it’s that we as humans just can’t understand what they are saying.

Pete Thorpe

I agree with you Jeff, animals do communicate, however not in a language that we as humans can understand. If we were able to ‘speak’ a common language then we would be able to decipher what emotions these animals are experiencing. However for now, we are analysing mostly visual and audible cues from animals and deciphering them in our own way, particularly relating these cues to our own human emotions and mannerisms/ body language. Maybe one day we will breach the animal-human ‘language-barrier’?

Irene Henkes

I really do think animals have emotions and show them. If they didn’t, they would not take good care of the babies, for instance……….. They would drop them and would not be interested to see what and when. As far as I know, they sort of have the same kind of hormonal thingies going on. They are not so different from us!

Pete Thorpe

Hi Irene,

Studies are definitely starting to reveal that animals may just have the same sort of hormonal thingies going on like we do, for sure. It is a fascinating field to follow!

Darlene Knott

Absolutely I believe that animals have fun! If you have ever watched lion cubs (and you probably have hundreds of times!), you see pure joy in their playing with each other! And wild dogs have such a social interaction with each other, you have to believe they have fun with each other. Such an interesting topic and the photos are beautiful! Loved the giraffe photo and I swear the male lions were sharing a good joke! 😂 Thanks for sharing!

Pete Thorpe

Thanks for the comment, Darlene. And no, I haven’t seen lion cubs playing hundreds of times – it is always a treat! I’m glad you enjoyed the images.

Mary Beth Wheeler

Given the definition of fun in your blog, I’d say it’s absolutely true that animals have fun! Watching dogs cavort in the park, young ellie’s rolling around together, cubs batting mom’s face seemingly just to get a reaction, young hyena chasing each other, play-fighting for a stick – yup, I do believe that animals have fun!!

Pete Thorpe

Ever since writing this I have seen more and more animals acting playfully… It’s hard to believe that they aren’t having fun!

Wendy Macnicol

Perhaps I am simple minded but when I see enjoyment and fun in animals, I take it at its face value without even trying to analyse it. I have often played with cats, dogs, calves, and once even a pride of lions on a rainy day. We were doing a self drive in a game reserve. There was a pride of lions lying in the bush and mud just the other side of a wire game fence. We were in a car and I stupidly perhaps opened the car window a bit and broke off a long stalk of Khakibos which was growing just outside – and stuck it through the game fence. The lions were looking totally miserable in drizzly rain which dripped off their noses and whiskers. I played with them as I did our Siamese at home and dragged the stalk of Khaki-bos over their paws and they immediately perked up and started chasing it. Then they would pick it up in their mouths and I would pull it through their teeth. Then the big boy, the male lion, stood up to see what his ladies were doing and he too pounced on the end of the stalk and I dragged it through his teeth. By this time the whole pride was looking a lot more cheerful and seemed to be enjoying themselves a lot – just with an old stalk of weed! What they did was similar to what they would do when hunting, but they and I knew that they weren’t hunting. It was a game. Better than just lying in the mud, looking bored and depressed, with dripping rain and nothing to do. I am not saying where this happened because I could get into huge trouble! I am 80 now and this happened many years ago anyway. But those lions had FUN and certainly looked a lot happier and more interested in life by the time we drove off. Wendy M

Pete Thorpe

Hi Wendy,

I’m not sure we would get the same response with the lions out here! But at least you triggered a positive response amongst them. Thanks for sharing the story!

Joanne Wadsworth

Enjoyed all these images. Especially the one of the playful Hyena cubs. And do I think animals play? Absolutely!

Susan Strauss

I agree. If anything I think wild animals (am including humans in there) think, feel, and communicate in ways we are only beginning to understand. Think how difficult it is for one human to understand another human who speaks an unknown language; animals (and trees, birds) just speak another language.

Denise Vouri

This is a really thought provoking essay. I read and re-read it. To put it simply, in my limited experience of observing wild animals from Kenya to RSA and even India, I believe animals do have fun in addition to exhibiting a range of emotions. It is true as humans we do not understand animal talk but that is not to say their language is unintelligible. It is to them.

I travel extensively and I don’t speak or understand the language of many of the countries I’m visiting, yet I do understand the emotions exhibited, including fun, inclusion, frustrations, etc.

There is something special about watching animals play: elephants spraying each other, wild dogs chasing each other’s tail, cubs playing hide and seek…..

I’m looking forward to observing more “play” within the Bush.

Pete Thorpe

Thanks for sharing your observations, Denise. It’s great to hear your perspective and how you linked this back to humans that speak different languages. It is a similar scenario I suppose, although at least in humans, things like body postures, facial expressions etc. can portray a lot about emotion.

Callum Evans

Very interesting read, I’m 100% sure that animals can have fun.

Ididy Makovich

Every living creature has its own fun; and or way of having fun. To us is if we can tell that fun.

Yazhini Sp

I read a book titled The Inner Life of Animals by Peter Wohlleben. It has personal observations like the ones you’ve described in this post along with the results of several published papers on the subject. He has forever convinced me that animals do feel joy, sadness, surprise, fear, love, even empathy. I highly recommend his book — it’s chock full of citations.

Auriel Thorpe

What a wonderful blog. We watched young monkeys and a young grey duiker chasing each other around bushes in front of our house. The play was initiated by both species at different times. They were definitely having fun! And so were we watching them! We have watched similar behaviour between banded mongooses and monkeys.

Betty-Lou Luijken

Very interesting blog. I think the problem of knowing wether animals have emotions (basic or complex) lies within our brains. Even scientists are most of the time not capable of seeing things other than from a human perspective. We are not capable of stepping in another world like the animal world. I think that animals are capable of much more than we humans recognise and in the future we might be able to see more of their capabilities, but we have to open our minds to other worlds like Jane Goodall did years ago when she recognised chimpansees as individuals and gave them a name. We must stop underestimating animals. They live in a different world with other requirements. If we had to live in their world we would be having trouble being recognised as complex beings.

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