Ranger Fin Lawlor and I were driving past a small pan in the north of Londolozi a couple of days ago, and settling down in the mud was a large hippo bull. That in itself wasn’t such an unusual sight; lots of male hippos are forced out of their normal waterholes of residence by the dominant bull in the area and have to make do with whatever water cover they can find for the day.
The settling in of the hippo was what got Fin and I chatting. It was barely 7am, yet we knew that that hippo was almost certainly going to remain in that shallow pan until nightfall, about 12 hours away. What, we asked ourselves, was he going to think about, if anything? And our next discussion, as a consequence of seeing the hippo, was about whether or not animals get bored.
Now, most animals are inured to waiting. Leopards will remain motionless while waiting for an impala to come within range. The hippo mentioned above is resigned to waiting until it is dark so he can feed without roasting in the sun, and there are literally hundreds of examples in which waiting is just what an animal needs to do. Nature moves at her own pace, and while we as humans have (tragically in some cases) evolved the ability to alter our environment to suit us, by far the majority of Londolozi’s wild inhabitants have to operate within the parameters of their normal circadian rhythms, doing their thing only when they deem it appropriate according to conditions.
Waiting in itself doesn’t necessarily imply boredom though. Boredom is essentially a result of a lack of stimulation. A leopard lying frozen in the grass, focused intently on an impala will almost certainly not be bored; its next meal is on the line and the concentration it needs will preclude ‘boredom’ as we understand it, from creeping in. When considering what a lack of stimulation actually means, one has to make allowances for the amount of stimulation an animal actually requires, and this is a tricky road to go down, as we are now going into the various cranial capacities of the species out here.
The more intelligent the animal, the more stimulation it will likely need. Typing this out I can see how a whole lot of other factors might come into play, like how patient an animal is, how easily distracted it is, etc., but let’s keep focused on the question at hand.
The human definition of boredom, or at least our reaction to it, is almost certainly different from the wild animal one. Whilst we might look for something to do to break the tedium of wherever we find ourselves, some animals simply switch off; a disconnect from their environment is the result, rather than an active seeking of stimulation. Again, this will depend entirely on the species. The hippo in question can afford to slip into a state of lethargy, as he doesn’t really have any natural predators to worry about. Impala on the other hand certainly can’t afford to switch off, as any moment could see a wild dog pack or a leopard bursting out of the bushes.
A while back we ran a post on whether or not animals feel anxiety. We concluded that from an evolutionary standpoint, anxiety would be counterproductive, and therefore by necessity is most likely absent in the wild. I can’t help but feel that true boredom – in the human sense – must also be. Any animal looking for something else to do purely from the point of view of a lack of stimulation stands the distinct chance of being sidetracked from its simple trajectory of survival. Lions sleeping in the shade during the heat of the day must certainly lack stimulation, yet they know that doing anything else ultimately costs them valuable energy which they might need for hunting or fighting later. On the simple scales of energy cost vs. reward, where every action or lack thereof needs to be weighed in the balance, boredom would just be an unwanted extra to tip those same scales towards the cost side.
So in our current world of rush, social media, online shopping and instant gratification, whilst Fin and I might have initially felt sorry for that poor hippo in the pan, we quickly realised that he was most likely ok with his situation. He didn’t even know what boredom was. Life simply wouldn’t let him…