Do Animals Have Fun? Are you kidding?

Because of the email conversation that led to yesterday's post, we have been given permission to publish the following excerpt from Chapter 4 of Pleasurable Kingdom by Dr. Jonathan Balcombe, himself, as today's post.

We do the Dance of Glee. Here, for you, special, the answer to the question - "Do animals have fun:"
Though play is undeniably adaptive, it is pleasure, curiosity, and joy that provide the motivation for play in animals and humans alike. Play is a good indicator of well-being. It occurs when other needs, such as food, shelter and safety, are sufficiently met, and when unpleasant feelings like fear, anxiety and pain are minimal or absent. Otherwise the animal’s efforts would be directed at meeting these needs or relieving these feelings, at the expense of play. Play serves many functions that may help an animal to survive and succeed in life. These include: developing physical strength, gaining skills, acquiring knowledge, learning the ropes of social behavior, and exploring.

This is probably why it evolved. But when a pair of mountain goat kids chase each other, jumping, twisting and kicking, they are hardly training for becoming good grown-ups. Animals play for fun, not for keeps.

There are at least four good reasons to believe that animals are having fun when they play. First, they look like they’re having fun. Cats chasing pulled string, young squirrels romping, or otters sliding down snowbanks look like they are heartily enjoying themselves. I remember watching three little eastern gray squirrels romping and wrestling around the base of a palm tree in Orlando, Florida. They leapt on and off the bole in pursuit of each other, and at times fused into a single squirrel ball as if they were one.

Second, humans enjoy playing, and much of our play resembles that of other animals. There is an element of funktionslust in the playing of sports.We usually put our all into it and strive to do our best. We tend to favor games we are good at, and performing well is one of the rewards. Animals may get similar pleasure from their play because it invariably involves doing and refining things they are good at. The play of young predators commonly involves chasing and catching things, such as an adult’s tail or flying insects, and wrestling with each other. The play of herbivores, such as young goats, entails leaping, running and zigzagging, skills useful for negotiating difficult terrain and evading predators.

Third, animals want to play. In the laboratory, young chimps and other species will play rather than eat unless they are very hungry. Some animals will work for the chance to play. Junior, acaptive orangutan at the Saint Louis Zoo, would clean up his cage in return for the opportunity to play with his whistle. The urge to play can be irresistible.

Fourth, there are chemical changes in the brains of playing animals that suggest they enjoy it. Rats show an increase in dopamine production in their brains when anticipating opportunities to play. Jaak Panksepp reports a close association between opiates and play, and that rats enjoy being playfully tickled (see Chapter 7).

Because play often mirrors serious, dangerous interactions such as fighting, attacking prey or escaping predators, it is important that individuals recognize the playful intentions of others. Most animals have body language to signal their desire to play. Dogs use a ‘play-bow,’ in which the soliciting animal faces her playmate with forelegs flat on the ground and hindquarters raised up, tail usually wagging. The facial expression is relaxed and ‘smiling.’ Tail wagging in dogs is without doubt a means of communication. Dogs wag their tails when receiving food in the presence of humans, but not when they are videotaped by a hidden camera.

And for you special, go here and download all of Chapter One of the abovequoted.


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