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.
Back to Essays...
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...