Do Animals Have a Sense of Humor?

Whether animals have a sense of humor was the focus of a recent Laboratory Animal Refinement & Enrichment Forum (LAREF) discussion. Certainly the juveniles of many animal species exhibit play behavior. And anyone who has spent time around dogs can attest to the fact that a desire to have fun doesn’t necessarily end when an animal reaches adulthood. In fact, many adult animals in research facilities are given toys in an effort to stave off boredom.

Fun is one thing, though. “Funny” is another. Do animals display “humor”—behaving in a way designed to get reactions out of others just for laughs? Some researchers think they do. Several anecdotes shared on the forum suggest humorous intent:

My most memorable experience was a while back when I worked with young chimpanzees.... One female in particular would often take a blanket and put it over her head, like a little ghost. She would then chase the other chimps around. They would run away, screaming and smiling. The little “ghost” would then suddenly pull that blanket off, and the other chimps would laugh and laugh. It looked like a human game of tag, and they definitely seemed to enjoy it.

As with humans, some animals seem to delight in tormenting others—seemingly just for the perverse joy of it. A forum participant recalled the story of how famed natural scientist Miriam Rothschild’s parrot would call the dog’s name and whistle. When the dog dutifully came, the parrot laughed. Parrots, in fact, figured in several stories of the “causing trouble to get a reaction” brand of humor. For example:

Many years ago when I managed a pet store I had a scarlet macaw that would wait until I had swept the floor. Then he would proceed to take has beak and scoop the seed out of his bowl and fling it across the floor. When the bowl was empty he would stick his head upside down in it and laugh as loud as he could (he liked the echo of the bowl) until I swept it all up.

Of course, it is hard to know what is going on inside an animal’s head when they do these things—and whether in comparison to humans, similar behavior implies similar motives. Some take an open attitude:

Even if animals… learn to respond to a certain situation in order to trigger a predictable, albeit futile reaction in another partner, this does not exclude the possibility that the learned response is an expression of humor/amusement/fun.

For others, a “Who knows?” suffices:

How much is just reaction to a stimulus, or… true emotion or humor we are witnessing? I don’t really care what the reasons are behind the actions. I just think they are fascinating to watch.

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