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Animal Laughter

Many animals like to laugh. In his 1872 treatise, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Charles Darwin observed that "very many kinds of monkeys, when pleased, utter a reiterated sound, clearly analogous to our laughter." All primates such as chimps, gorillas, orangutans -- and men -- seem to exhibit unique behaviors and audible sounds which clearly are responses to situations they find humorous.

We had a Husky dog many years ago who was a real humorist herself. She was always playing little dog-jokes on us and then sitting back and dog-laughing – which in her case was a open-mouthed gesture with the head rolling back, sometimes accompanied by the word "Arrrrrrr…" We now have a Belgian Sheepdog (Groenendael) – a very intelligent, active breed that has a unique "smiling" characteristic. When really, really happy, this dog will briefly curl up its lips and show the most incredible set of gums and chompers you’ll ever want to see – a scary sight to the uninitiated, and not unlike the mouth of Ridley Scott’s Alien opening up to devour you. Except in this case, your face is getting ready to be inundated by dog licks! To have seen a Belgian smile (and to have felt its outcome), is to have known a small delight not often experienced this side of heaven…

Nevada researcher Patricia Simonet of Sierra Nevada College in Lake Tahoe says dogs make a specific noise during play that is distinctive from other sounds made during passive or aggressive confrontation. Simonet describes the sound as a breathy exhalation that sounds to a human ear like a dog's regular panting. However, when the frequency of the "laugh" is analyzed, it’s found to have a far broader range of frequencies than a regular pant. Hearing a tape of the dog laugh made single animals take up toys and play by themselves. It never initiated aggressive responses. It has been found that recordings of the sound can dramatically reduce stress levels in shelters and kennels.

That’s a great idea – but I’d draw the line at piping human laugh tracks through our PA system at work. That might relieve stress, but it would be a tad too distracting.

I’ve not been able to find any real scientific studies on it, but anyone who’s been around horses is convinced that they both play jokes on their handlers, and laugh afterwards. It’s said to be a unique type of nicker.

Studies have found humor responses in a number of beasts -- even laboratory rats, who usually don't have a whole lot to laugh about. In a study published two years ago in the journal Behavioral Brain Research, immature rats responded with playful nips and ultrasonic chirps when psychologists tickled their ribs and bellies. The rats who chirped loudest were also the most eager to be tickled. Interestingly, when these ticklish rats were interbred for four generations, the offspring chirped twice as often as their great-grandparents. The researchers also found that rats would rather spend time with fellow rats who chirp a lot than with those who don't.  I too would rather spend time with happy, chirping rats – or laughing humans.

Professor Jaak Panksepp of Bowling Green State University, who did the above experiments, explains that neural circuits for laughter exist in "ancient" parts of our brain, whose general structure is shared amongst many animals. The laughter response could be provoked by nerve circuitry in the brain which releases the neurotransmitter dopamine. These dopamine circuits also light up in the human brain during human amusement. All I can say is, gimme more of that particular dope!

There is a relative paucity of scientific work in this particular area, and I wonder if that fact betrays a particular "political" bias in science. Surely, if we became more aware of the fact that our human emotional system did not arise abruptly from an evolutionary void, and that our fellow animal species have even the rudiments of an emotional life that could be mapped onto our own, it would become harder to sacrifice them to the altar of scientific, medical or industrial progress. While I’ve not done so yet, I sense that I’m on a path towards contributing to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. (It’ll be a stretch, but I’ll try to match Chris’s yearly support of Defenders of Wildlife.) I believe that the history of mankind, recorded in the far future, will undoubtedly depict us as being the most horrific and cruel species that has ever existed on the planet. There’s no telling what sort of species will be writing that history – but I’d be willing to bet it won’t be homo sapiens.


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Image at top is Copyright Rob Elliot/AFP (Getty Images). The chimp in the center is really yawning, not laughing – possibly from hanging around with such dour companions.  But it looked fitting for this page...

Extracted material and reference sites can be found at:




Postscript -- from PETA:

There is no law in this country that prohibits any experiment, no matter how frivolous or painful. The Animal Welfare Act is very weak and poorly enforced. The Act does not include rats and mice, even though they are the most commonly used animals. Also, the law does not include cold-blooded animals, birds, or animals traditionally used for food. It is basically a housekeeping act; it doesn’t prohibit any type of experiment on animals in laboratories—they can be starved, electrically shocked, driven insane, or burned with a blowtorch—as long as it's done in a clean laboratory.

Suppose the only way to save 10,000 people was to experiment on one mentally-challenged orphan. If saving people is the goal, wouldn't that be worth it? Most people will agree that it is wrong to sacrifice one human for the "greater good" of others because it would violate that individual’s rights. But when it comes to sacrificing animals, the assumption is that human beings have rights while animals do not. Yet there is no logical reason to deny animals the same rights that protect individual humans from being sacrificed for the common good.

Post-Postscript --  I did it, I'm now a card-carrying member of PETA.  Better not wear an animal fur when visiting me, or it'll get sprayed with indelible dye.  Now, about this thing called vegetarianism -- got to work on that a bit...


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