At a time when it’s soon going to mean the firing squad, or having your head chopped off if you dare have an iota of fun, enjoy life (or a drink) or crack a joke, it’s wonderful to see that scientists (those grimmest of the grim) are spending their time tickling rats and arguing about whether the rodents actually giggle. This, more so because frankly science and humour don’t really go together and how the heck do you scientifically test if anyone, animal or human, has a sense of humour? Science demands rigorous, repeat experimentation — and if you crack the same joke twice, well, it falls flat and no one (animal or human) is going to laugh. And, according to science, anecdotal material does not count. Also, we are dabbling in that other great scientific taboo here — anthropomorphism — which to blue-blooded scientists is like practising witchcraft!
Of course, anyone who has ever kept a dog or a parrot as a pet will swear blind that at least those animals do have a sense of humour and fun. Our two boxers were born clowns (one took her humour very seriously, the other was a complete slapstick doufus) and knew exactly what to do to win laughs — especially after they had been up to mischief or wanted attention. As for parrots, you will have heard of umpteen stories where the wily birds use their powers of speech (and wolf-whistling even) to play a joke on us, or on other animals. They will, for example, yell at your dogs to “come here” (in your voice), and when the dogs do come, they will yell “go away!” And then they’d laugh at the poor befuddled fools!
But scientist have been seriously checking out which animals can laugh and the list is not really very long and includes chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, gorillas, dolphins, dogs, rats, parrots and even cats, which of course laugh at you and not with you. There are also a lot of other animals with smiley faces: toads and frogs, elephants and pelicans for example. Camels wear a supercilious sneer — their humor they seem to imply is too sophisticated to be understood by the hoi-polloi and only meant for the rarified elite, who smell like them. Scientists think that laughter originated and evolved from the happy panting that happened during play-fights — when for example – chimps wrestled with each other in rough and tumble mock fights. The panting was to indicate that this was not serious, no one was going to get bitten or hurt and it was all just fun.
It’s a tough nut to crack really. There was a case, where a peekaboo prank was played on an orangutan and the ape suddenly saw the funny side of things and rolled about in his enclosure convulsed in laughter. Clearly, the orangutan did not only get the joke, but laughed at realising he had been the butt of it — which, is more than a lot of us would have done (because our precious, tender sentiments would have been hurt)! But that is humour. Another case has to do with a dolphin, which burst into giggles while watching a little girl do handstands in front of its tank.
Of course, not only do animals laugh at being the butt of a prank, but they also love playing pranks on others as well. Crows for example really get their kicks by pecking and pulling at the tails of such powerful, solemn dignitaries as eagles. (Oh, if only we could follow suit!) They’ll hop up from behind, beady eyes twinkling, dart forward, grab at the tail and yank and hop away, chuckling hoarsely as the massive bird tries to show that it is not in the least ruffled — though it is. Crows spare no one: it could be eagles or waterhens or peacocks or any bird with a suitably pullable tail. They certainly know how to enjoy life — and have fun. Drive to the mountains and you’ll see gangs of hoarse-voiced pahari crows swirling up the sides of steep mountain faces — borne up on the updrafts — and then free-falling down, down, down in breathtaking corkscrewing dives, before swooping up again, cawing gutturally as they do — and sounding exactly like they were laughing. They sound lile shrieking children on a roller coaster ride — but without the hysterical shrillness. Not too long ago, I watched a crow hitch a ride on a low-floor bus in Delhi. It caught the bus near Pragati Maidan, and clinging on to the sides of the windows, leant forward, enjoying its (ticketless) ride to the hilt, looking rather like a motorcycle rider leaning into the wind. It got off at ITO. Now we’ve all seen crows hitch rides on garbage trucks, but this was a bus, with no tidbits on offer — just a fun, free ride!
And, like us again, there are some animals whose laughter you must be afraid of. Be very afraid of. When hyenas gather around giggling liquidly, they may sound as if they’ve found something very amusing — and even make you break into a smile. But there will be a little chill rising from somewhere deep within you at the same time. There’s something sinister and menacing about those manic giggles — like when a politician says he or she is doing something for the “good of the people”. It would be wise to move away quickly when the animals begin to circle around you, giggling away: For they’re laughing (if you still insist this is laughter) at you, not with you. And you really don’t want to hang around to find out why.