Getting Wise about Animals: the Power of Playing

Posted by Jennifer Molidor, ALDF's Staff Writer on July 31, 2013

As adults, many of us long for the carefree days of childhood play. The world not only felt less serious, but seemed more manageable, more interactive. Playing brings us joy and freedom, and brings us into contact with others, helps bridge social gaps, and teaches us important social cues. But what about nonhuman animals, do they play too? Do they have fun?

Today, ALDF’s Animal Book Club continues our exploration of the book Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures by Virginia Morell—a contributing correspondent for Science and contributor for National Geographic—by thinking about the way that animals play. Virginia is also an award-winning author of books like Ancestral Passions and Blue Nile, as well as Wildlife Wars (which she co-authored with Richard Leakey).

Intuitively, we know nonhuman animals play. We’ve seen our companion animals scuffle on lawns, or knock each other off our couches. How about dolphins, elephants, wolves, and even rats? Animal Wise explores research on the thoughts and emotions of these animals and many more. In a chapter called “The Laughter of Rats,” Virginia discusses the complex play of rats. “Pinning must be brief and must be reciprocated. Bites must be quick and not cause actual harm.” Interestingly, researchers note that children, observing the interactions of rats, have no difficulty interpreting the interactions as “playing.” Adults, on the other hand, interpreted it as “fighting,” and aggressive behavior. Doesn’t this difference tell us a whole lot about humans?

Playing often involves wrestling—without the aggressive behaviors present in true fighting, like drawing blood and raising their fur. Instead, it is about fun. Observers note the rats roughhouse gently, stopping if the other gets hurt, and even switching their common roles, like allowing the other to pin him or her down. We can all attest to this behavior in what we’ve witnessed in children as well as puppies and kittens. Playing isn’t unique to the human species. But what about laughter? Do rats laugh?

In Animal Wise, Virginia describes the phenomenon of rat laughter. In his research, Jaak Panskepp, an emeritus professor of psychobiology at Bowling Green State University and neuroscientist at Washington State University, finds that during playtime rats make chirping sounds similar in function to laughter. While not willing to call this “laughter” officially, something only humans may do, in many ways this chirping mimics our own laughter. Although not audible to human ears, an ultrasonic bat detector picked up laughter frequencies. Panskepp tickles a young female rat, who subsequently chirps that displayed similar to the way a young child might giggle; afterwards, the rat “bunny-hopped” around her bin. “That’s a clear sign of joy,” said Panskepp. “It’s a move you see in rats, dogs, and other animals when they’re playing and happy.”

VirginiaheadshotLaughter symbolizes joy, and demonstrates once again that humans are not the only animal capable of emotions and cognition. Despite this great capacity for suffering (and love) the Animal Welfare Act, which is the primary federal law that protects animals in laboratory settings, does not protect rats (or mice, birds, or a whole host of other animals). Rats feel, rats think, rats dream, and even have unique and expressive personalities—science shows us this is true—they even grieve deeply. So is it okay that we don’t adequately protect them by federal law from some of the shockingly cruel and unnecessary tests routinely performed on millions of rats every day?

What do you think? What does this teach us? Maybe we should be tickling, not testing upon rats?

8 thoughts on “Getting Wise about Animals: the Power of Playing

  1. Steph Gonzales says:

    My cats play, and will only play in the rooms people are in, especially if they are sleeping.

  2. Virginia Holden says:

    Good to see some attention paid to rats! They and mice bear a big burden in research and are discriminated against on so many levels.
    Certainly no sentient being should be made to suffer. And all sentient beings deserve the liberty to be themselves.

  3. Fátima says:


  4. Josh Loigman says:

    Valuable work, a great step forward for animals.

  5. Mary says:

    I watched two squirrels playing just this morning! They would wrestle, one would pin the other down, but just for a second, then they would change places. One would lie on his back with feet in the air, the other would pounce. This continued for about 5 minutes! I couldn’t stop smiling!

  6. Tom Krepitch says:

    This is an excellent book! I just finished it and am already recommending it to people.

    Animal Wise is full of interesting facts, but the theme that I saw most clearly was that just because humans can’t understand how animals communicate (or even perceive that they are communicating in some instances), doesn’t mean that the animals are not thinking and communicating. It’s only very recently that we have developed the technology that allows us to begin to interpret (or even hear) the noises made by birds, dolphins, and more. I hope that the scientists we meet in this book are recognized as the pioneers they truly are and that their work is the beginning of a great period of scientific advancement that leads to better lives for the planet’s animals.

    Finally, when I was reading this book, I kept thinking about how it would make an excellent e-book for high school biology students. Ideally, the students could read this book and it would be supplemented with videos of the fascinating stories Ms. Morell tells. I think that would be a great way for students to learn about the animals in our world and an infinitely better way for them to learn about the world than the traditional methods taught in biology class.

  7. Kim Gates says:

    I would love to ‘hear’ a rat laughing and see her bound about after being tickled. I am so sick of humans treating other animals as life forms incapable of thinking and feeling. If we are so smart, then why are we destroying the only planet we can live on?

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