We do know that animals can experience pleasure. Think about stroking a cat under its chin or getting the good spot right behind a dog’s ear.
But do they experience pleasure from all interactions? Say, carnal ones? Humans are known to derive pleasure from sex, but do animals?
The best way scientists think they’ll find an answer is by focusing on sexual interactions between animals that occur outside the purpose of reproduction. This could mean encounters out mating season or homosexual behaviors. In other words, sex with no purpose … other than fun.
Studies of several different primates have produced some kinky results.
Bonobos and white-faced capuchin monkeys are known to engage in sexual activity with older, younger, and same-sex members of their own species.
Both have also been recorded having heterosexual intercourse at non-productive times, such as: before reaching sexual maturity, when the female is already pregnant, or when she is still lactating after a recent birth – times when it would be impossible for them to get pregnant.
It is hard to determine if these encounters are based off pleasure, however.
Do these primates know their sexual partner can’t get pregnant in these instances?
One way scientists have tried to find the answer is by studying certain interactions which, in the human world, are solely pleasure-driven. These includes oral sex, the female orgasm, and masturbation.
In no species on Earth do any of these activities cause pregnancy.
Scientists who want to avoid personifying animals explain away oral sex with reasonable excuses.
Observers of the short-nosed fruit bat in southern China recorded fellatio as a common practice between mates; however, they only recorded it happening simultaneously with heterosexual copulation, acting as a technique to prolong the act.
In the animal kingdom this can be explained as an attempt to ensure fertilization – the longer you go at it the more likely the eggs will be fertilized.
In Croatia, researchers recorded several oral encounters between two male brown bears. They accredit the bears’ behavior to the fact that the two had been orphaned before they were weaned from their mothers, though. A Freudian excuse.
In these two cases, the researches involved didn’t seem ready to accredit oral sex as an act done solely for fun.
In humans, pleasure – not necessity – is linked with the female orgasm. Since it’s not required for animal reproduction either, we can make a credible assumption that it’s pleasure-driven for them as well.
A 1998 study analysed over 200 different sexual interactions between Japanese macaques, 33% of which seemed to include a female orgasm.
Using visual clues – a widening of the eyes and vaginal muscle spasms – researchers decided that the apparent ecstasy the female experienced was clear indication of stimulation.
A monkey orgasm.
Surprisingly, there are some males in the animal kingdom who don’t need to have an orgasm in order to reproduce. The red-pilled buffalo weaver is a bird found in Namibia with a false phallus, meaning his penis contains no blood vessels and does not carry sperm. It has no function when it comes to reproduction.
Researchers studied the weavers in their natural habitat and witnessed what could only be described as a male orgasm for pleasure, rather than necessity.
Finally, the question of masturbation comes into consideration. For humans at least, it is a pleasurable act with no reproductive benefits. Logical thinking would say the same for the animal kingdom.
Dolphins are notoriously branded as kinky and often cited in regards to masturbating animals. Several studies prove this.
One carried out in 2012 about some Indo-Pacific bottlenoses noted that, in a video recording they took of a masturbating male, he made no tell-tale mating sounds. During courtship, they usually making popping noises at the females.
The male dolphin just did his thing, with no attention-seeking show, suggesting that he was not trying to court any nearby female dolphins. He was just having some me time.
In every instance, researchers underline the fact that we do not know why animals behave this way.
(Related: Do Dolphins Mate For Life?)
You can’t ask an animal if they enjoyed it and there are only physical cues we can make educated guesses about. However, the existence of homosexual behavior, oral sex, and masturbation in the wild does strongly imply that animals engage in such acts for fun.