Here are four things about animals you probably didn't know:
1. Bats like to perform cunnilingus.
2. Orangutans build tools for masturbation.
3. Bees get drunk on fermented apples.
4. Dolphins have orgies in the wide-open sea.
In his odd, fascinating, surprisingly satisfying and occasionally giggle-inducing book Pleasurable Kingdom, Dr. Jonathan Balcombe lays out a pretty straightforward idea: Animals like to feel good. Laden with dozens of examples of animal hedonism, Pleasurable Kingdom throws our old friend Charlie Darwin a scientific curveball. Balcombe believes evolution doesn't provide an all-encompassing answer to explain animal behavior—and, sometimes, animals just wanna have fun.
A 20-year vegetarian with a doctorate in ethology (the study of animal behavior), Balcombe is about as passionate about animals as it gets. WW talked to him by telephone about stoned lemurs, penis-fencing bonobos and the real message of Pleasurable Kingdom: If people recognize animals as individuals who feel pleasure, love, pain and even sorrow, maybe they'll treat their furry friends with a little more respect.
WW: What interested you in writing about animal pleasure?
Dr. Jonathan Balcombe: Because science has been negligent of this area. Pleasure is so important to our lives, informs... what we like to wear, what films we go to see, our hobbies, our careers. Pleasure is so basic to us, but we've kind of missed the boat on pleasure elsewhere. Yes, evolution is a very powerful construct for understanding animal behavior. But animals don't study up on Darwinian principles, they don't think about genetic success or evolution—at least, I don't believe they do. They do things because they're motivated to do it. And a lot of that motivation is the experience of pleasure.
You talk about the unique sexual practices of animals. What are the most interesting?
Bonobos [are] very lascivious creatures. They engage in a lot of sexual interactions at regular intervals. It can involve any age, and any gender combination... from conventional sex to masturbation to oral sex. I've seen footage of this. It seems like sex acts as a sort of social lubricant, if you will. It helps ease tension, it tends to keep everybody kind of relaxed. Another that springs to mind is the dolphin. They have the wonderful advantage of both genders having a genital slit (in males their equipment is hidden away). [It] opens up interesting opportunities for sexual interactions. Dolphins insert various body parts into each other's genital slits, and they may swim along together in what's known as tandem swimming. They also might engage in what's called a "wuzzle," which is kind of like a dolphin version of an orgy, where they're all kind of swimming around and having sex.
What's something that surprised you?
Seeing one young animal giving a hand job to another is, well, pretty surprising. I [also] came across an observed drawing of two male manatees, literally in the "69" position, with each one's penis in the other's mouth. What struck me about that is—from a strictly evolutionary, survival perspective—that is wasteful behavior. Why waste time and energy doing something like that when it won't produce offspring? And the answer is, of course, because it's fun.
You also discuss animals getting high.
Lemurs engage in drug-induced euphoria... They inhale harsh chemicals—and pass it around, like humans might with a marijuana joint. And then drool and get sloppy. It seems to be maladaptive and not conducive to promoting survival. Though there may be some roots to that behavior that are survival-based. As you and I both know, marijuana is known to have some clinical benefits.
Which animals live the most pleasurable lives?
Crows and ravens. They're so curious about things. It just looks like a fun life. They're aware, alert, intelligent, playful; life seems to be a high quality for them. And they literally love to fly. They love the height.
Do crows have good sex lives?
I don't know, actually. I'd be interested to learn more, because the other aspects of their lives suggest that they might be quite playful with their sex. We tend to be penetration-focused in our sex. But most birds don't have that. They have a multipurpose orifice, the cloaca. Not very sexy-sounding. Maybe that's why they're so playful: They're making up for lack of sex.
If you could be any animal, what would it be?
The ground hornbill. They're just really cool-looking birds. They're very long-lived. The stuff they eat, that's not very appealing to me—like lizards, insects, things they find on the ground. But they're so aware-looking, their eyes are big—they seem a bit Zenlike. They're very calm. They can fly, and they know it.