Do animals have a sense of humor?
Scientists trying to develop a better antidepressant pharmaceutical have made an accidental discovery—that animals have a funny bone. In the course of researching a pill to make life a little sunnier for people feeling blue, researchers found out that rats really do laugh when tickled, and that this outward expression correlates with inner feelings of happiness.
Multiple studies have shown that animals including monkeys, dogs, and other animals laugh as well. Neural paths for laughter are deep in the brain in both humans and animals, which many accept as proof that laughing was integral to play dating all the way back to the dawn of fun itself.
Infants and young children laugh during playtime, which shows that laughing is natural, not learned. One study illustrated how babies and young chimpanzees even have similar facial expressions when laughing.
Chimpanzees pant during playtime, rats chirp when playing or tickled, and dogs huff when having a good time. These noises form stronger social bonds with fellow animal playmates, just as shared laughter can bond one human to another.
Our patients at LazyPaw Animal Hospitals do hysterical things every day, but despite scientific proof of animal laughter, some researchers still aren’t convinced that animals have their own independent sense of humor.
To counter their query, the famous gorilla Koko seems to be making the point that science could lighten up on deciding which species are capable of finding something funny. Researchers in “Project Koko,” the longest interspecies communication study in history, have plenty of anecdotes illustrating the gorilla’s love of giggles. Koko, who uses sign language to say about 1,000 words and can understand at least 2,000 more, is expressive enough to show when she finds something fun—or just plain funny.
Koko laughs uncontrollably when tickled, and she once tied her trainer’s shoelaces together and signed “chase.” When asked what she could think of that’s hard, she signed both “rock” and “work.” If she’s trying to insult someone, she’ll sign “devil”… And sometimes, “toilet.”
Koko will occasionally fail to follow directions, and when her trainers let her know she is making a mistake and being a “bad gorilla,” she disagrees. She is just playing at being a “funny gorilla.”
It may be hard for humans to tell when animals are displaying a sense of humor or exactly what animals find funny when, but we have seen enough hilarious behavior in our patients that we definitely believe the sense of humor is there.