Getting Wise about Animals: the Power of PlayingPosted 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.”
Laughter 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?