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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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?