I was recently alerted to a popular video called "Black swans go surfing in Kirra" and asked if animals like to have fun and seek out opportunities to enjoy themselves. My response always has been and is, "Of course they do, just as we like to have fun." In this video clip you'll see the swans ride waves, swim out and do it again, and eventually leave. If they didn't enjoy it they wouldn't seek out opportunities to do it. I've previously written about fun in animals in an essay called "A Snowboarding Crow Playing and Having Fun."
The F Words: Fun and Friends
Fun is one of two "F words" that have received growing attention by ethologists, the other being "friends." (Researchers ask, for example, do animals make friends?) Ample data show that nonhuman animals (animals) both have fun and make friends. Fun is hard to define, but you know when you’re having it. Having fun means doing something that is amusing, enjoyable, or pleasurable and feeling good about it. It is an evolved adaptation and important for keeping an action or activity in individuals' behavioral repertoire.
It has literally astounded me that some researchers continue to ponder if animals have fun and form friendships. Ample evidence shows they do. I recently wrote a review essay on the evolution of fun, especially in animal play, and view fun in the way that the Nobel laureate ethologist Niko Tinbergen suggested that we study various behavior patterns. Specifically, Tinbergen suggested that we ask questions about the evolution, adaptative value, causation, and development of various behavior patterns. Later, University of Tennesee psychologist Gordon Burghardt suggested that we also ask about the subjective experiences of animals as they perform different behavior patterns or find themselves in various social situations. So, concerning fun, we can ask: Why did it evolve? How does it promote individual reproductive fitness? What causes fun? How does fun develop? We can also ask what is the emotional side of fun or what is the personal experience of animals while they are having fun?
In mammals, because of evolutionary continuity, there is every reason to believe that the same neural mechanisms are important in nonhuman and human animal fun. Surely, having something be fun is a good way to keep the behavior in an individual's repertoire. It's also relaxing to just let it all hang out whenever you can. For some wild animals it's a rare experience to simply have fun. Many animals do things just for fun and it's about time we recognize this and study when, how, and why they seek out fun and why fun has evolved. What an exciting area of research this is, and it also would be ... fun.
Note: Please also see thie Livescience essay.
Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's story: Saving moon bears (with Jill Robinson; see also), Ignoring nature no more: The case for compassionate conservation (see also), and Why dogs hump and bees get depressed (see also). Rewilding our hearts: Building pathways of compassion and coexistence will be published fall 2014. (marcbekoff.com; @MarcBekoff)