Do You Hear Laughter from the Forest?

by Elizabeth Trickey

Most pet owners will agree that their furry friends have distinct personalities, that they display many different emotional responses to situations.  Dogs show excitement when you get home, guilt when they’ve been caught chewing your favourite slippers, and caring sensitivity when you’re sad and need a hug.  And cats…. well, those arrogant felines pretend not to give a damn about anything!

Photo: Jennifer Howard. Momma Fox with kit

Despite the realization that pets show emotions, most people don’t realize that wild animals also have feelings.  Presumably, that’s because they don’t see many critters close up, or in emotional situations.  But ask any wildlife scientist or rehabber and you’ll hear all kinds of stories that show that our wildlife friends do indeed experience things on an emotional level. Let’s look at examples of critters playing, just for the sheer joy of having fun.  Many wild animals with siblings are often seen playing with each other.  In part, it is a way for them to learn how to take care of themselves.  But they also engage in play for intrinsic amusement.  Fox kits will tease and nip at their brothers and sisters, being careful to not hurt one other.  Gulls use objects to enjoy a game of “drop and catch” as they fly through the air.  Coyotes play tag.  Otters play on water slides.  Sea lions throw starfish at each other.  Fawns dance.

Although it is a natural, inherent activity for all animals to procreate, wildlife also engage in sexual acts specifically for pleasure.  This has been observed in many species such as hyenas, bats, primates, and an assortment of birds.  I’ll spare you the details!

Many wild animals love to play in the snow.  From bears and wolves, to rabbits and squirrels, these critters will roll in the snow, plow through the fluffy stuff head first, and catch snowflakes in their mouths.  Some, including ravens, have even been observed sliding down hills over and over, the same as kids!  It is thought that because snow is only around for a season, it is a curiosity for animals, and its coldness feels good against their fur.

Photo:  San Diego Zoo
Photo:  Vadim Trunov
Photo:  Vadim Trunov
Photo by Quora
Photo by Quora

Besides having fun, wild animals experience grief.  Often, when you see a dead beaver on the road, its mate is there, mourning the loss, and often meeting the same fate since it is reluctant leave its dead partner.  Beavers live for around 20 years, and mate for life.  If one spouse dies, the other will not take on a new partner. 

That’s better odds than many humans!  So it makes sense that these beavers would grieve the loss.  There are several species that mate for life and are keenly affected by the death of their soulmates.  Penguins actually bury their dead by digging holes (with their beaks, not shovels!) in the ice, and covering the mate over with the ice bits.  As they mourn their loss, their grief is expressed in their refusal to eat for a period of time.

Many wildlife species display feelings of sadness at the death of a comrade, and have ceremonies.  Magpies bury their dead friends under grass and twigs.  Crows hold a “wake” by gathering in a large group and squawking loudly.  An 8-year old chimp that Jane Goodall observed was so devastated by his mother’s death, that he stopped doing all activities, wouldn’t even eat, then eventually died.  Sea lions squeal and wail as they watch their young being eaten by whales.  Elephants continue to grieve after the death of a family member by returning to where the relative had died.  They bow their heads and stand in silence over the bones.  Could that be the sentiment of nostalgia?  Thinking back to the good old days? (remember, elephants never forget!).

Dolphins show empathy and care when another of their pod gets ill.  They will band together to keep the sick mammal afloat, making a raft of their bodies.  Sensitivity and understanding was also noticed by researchers who witnessed a lone, disabled dolphin being adopted by a group of sperm whales.  Also seen has been a mother orca keeping her dead baby afloat for 17 days.  This sense of responsibility is often felt in the wild when mothers take care of their young.  Being close to a bear is not a good idea, but NEVER get between her and her cubs!  That goes for so many species.  You might think that’s just an innate response, but have you ever watched the gentle, loving caresses that are exchanged between furry mother and child? 

Rats seem to take the prize for empathy.  I kid you not!  In lab experiments, while one rat was put into water, another rat learned to pull a lever to rescue it.  And to make it more interesting, the hero rat was given a special treat, which he usually loved, at the same time his buddy was drowning.  Did he take the treat?  NO!  His priority was to save his friend.  Now, that definitely shows empathy!  And by the way, rats take great pleasure in being tickled!

Photo:  Sato, N. Et al., Animal Cognition

Wildlife can be downright stubborn, too, especially when they are ticked off!  There was an experiment where 2 monkeys were given cucumbers for happily performing an activity.  But then one of the monkeys started getting grapes instead, which was a much preferred treat.  So the other monkey, with a strong sense of fairness, went on strike – he refused to do any of the activities and threw the cukes back at the researcher!  How’s that for displaying some base human feelings of being paid less than a peer who is doing the same work?

Depression and anxiety are other emotions that many species have experienced.  Wildlife that have been confined in unnatural settings like zoos, sometimes display these feelings.  Penguins, taken from their natural habitat in South Africa to a UK zoo, kept more to themselves, became inactive, just looked at the ground, and didn’t eat as much.  And you’ll never believe how this issue was handled.  No, they didn’t release them back to their own environment, because the penguins were there to amuse to visitors.  So twice a day, they gave the seabirds antidepressants!!  And, sadly, this has become a fix-it for many imprisoned wildlife around the world.

Rehab facilities such as Procyon deal with all types of adult critters that struggle with an assortment of feelings due to being ill and in a strange place.  They are usually in pain, frightened, lonely, and angry.  During treatment, we give them stuffed animals to cuddle up with, and once their medical needs are seen to, we provide enrichment activities to relieve boredom and to give them purpose until they can be released back to their habitat.  Without a variety of challenges to keep them curious and busy, depression can set in.

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Enrichment activities – learning to play and forage for food.
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Enrichment activities – learning to fish.

Do the emotions stated so far sound familiar?  Are critters beginning to sound very much like humans?  Well, I heard about a situation from photographer, Dylan White, that made me laugh.  He had been quietly taking pictures of a male fox and the several kits in his care.  Papa Fox was aware of Dylan’s presence due to his close proximity to the little family.  But Dylan stayed still, and was there for quite some time, so Papa allowed the kits to play in the same vicinity.  After some time Momma Fox appeared from the den.  She looked over at Dylan, trotted up to Papa Fox, bit him, then ushered the kits back into the den!  The bite that said a thousand words!!  Papa was in the doghouse now!  What would we call that bite – frustration, irritation, annoyance, can’t-you-do-anything-right?

It seems that many wild animals are not so different from ourselves.  They feel similar  emotions of compassion, sadness, fear, love, jealousy, guilt, joy, and so much more.  Maybe we are not as unique as we thought!  Having these emotions means that critters do have a quality of life.  Charles Darwin wrote “There is no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in the mental faculties.” 

So let’s respect all wildlife (including the empathic rats) and treat them ethically.  Remember that they, too, have the capacity to love, feel emotional pain, and enjoy having a good time.  Just listen to the laughter from the forest!

Do You Hear Laughter from the Forest?
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