Snoopy’s funny.

But is he funny?

Plenty of pet owners will tell you their dog is a howl, their cat is a comic, their goldfish is a bowlful of belly laughs. And certainly animals often do things that we find comical. The question is, do they know it? More specifically, do they get it? Scientific research in this area is relatively scanty, and conclusions are, um, inconclusive.

 “Whether inspired by humor or not, laughter in the wild seems to perform an important social function.”

Researchers who support non-human hilarity base their beliefs on two fairly common animal behaviors—play and laughter. Most mammals play, which can be defined as aggressive behavior understood by all parties to be non-aggressive. Play is as prevalent in nature as it is among domesticated beasts. When you wrestle with your Rottweiler and he doesn’t bite your face off, it’s because he knows it’s not for all the marbles. Does the ability to distinguish between hostile and benign aggression constitute a sense of humor? By itself, probably not.

Humans are only one of more than 60 species believed to laugh. While most of that list is occupied by primates, it also includes diverse wits from orcas to kea parrots to Rocky Mountain elk. Animals generally laugh to signal that the aggression they’re exhibiting is actually play. In the Animal Kingdom, laughter is almost completely confined to hierarchical species, and may have evolved as a device to reduce friction within groups and communicate subservience to higher ranking members. Whether inspired by humor or not, laughter in the wild seems to perform an important social function.

In case you’re wondering, not all animal laughter looks or sounds like human laughter. The orangutan’s laugh is a ragged pant; the orca’s a low grumble; the rat’s a high-pitched chirp. It’s possible that most animals are equipped to laugh in a way that we simply don’t recognize as laughter. For what it’s worth, the hyena’s “laugh” is nothing of the kind, signifying not pleasure but fear, distress, or agitation.

“It’s possible that most animals are equipped to laugh in a way that we simply don’t recognize as laughter.”

No less luminous an evolutionary light than Charles Darwin suspected that dogs have a sense of humor. “If a bit of stick or other such object be thrown to one,” Darwin wrote in “The Descent of Man,” “he will often carry it away for a short distance; and then squatting down with it on the ground close before him, will wait until his master comes quite close to take it away. The dog will then seize it and rush away in triumph, repeating the same maneuver, and evidently enjoying the practical joke.”

If proponents of animal humor add laughter to play and get comedy, many others figure it differently. In nature, play always has a point. Playing builds strength, sharpens reflexes, establishes social position, forestalls conflict, cements relationships. Rather than playing a trick on its master, Darwin’s dog was just as likely exhibiting a natural possessive instinct, or perhaps trying to provoke a physical contest for the stick. Just because playing fetch was funny to Sir Charles doesn’t mean his dog was kidding around.

And laughter, like play, doesn’t automatically translate into humor in any species. Like the magpie and the bonobo, the dolphin and the degu, the human animal is genetically disposed to laugh. But people laugh for many reasons, not all of them humorous, and there are distinct cultural differences to what tickles the human funny bone. By contrast, there’s a lot of evidence suggesting that animal laughter is strictly coded in their DNA, predictable preprogrammed vocalizations in response to specific environmental stimuli. If that’s true, then animals don’t laugh because they want to, but because they have to.

Giggles and games aside, whether or not Snoopy is funny comes down to whether or not he knows humor when he sees it, and that depends on what counts for comedy. Perhaps the most widely accepted description of humor is the “incongruity theory,” which says that when what you expect to happen doesn’t match what happens, hilarity ensues. Put another way, a sense of humor can be defined as the ability to recognize absurdity, and to appreciate and take pleasure in it. By that standard, it’s likely that few, if any, animals possess something approaching what we would call a sense of humor simply because they don’t have the cognitive apparatus to identify, much less reconcile, rational inconsistencies.

Unless they do.

Koko, a gorilla who spent most of her life with the Gorilla Foundation in California and died in 2018, knew more than 2,000 words and was known to play with different meanings of the same word, which is where puns come from. Koko also once tied her trainer’s shoelaces together and signed the word “chase,” textbook slapstick bait.

But maybe Koko was one in a trillion, a happy aberration. Researchers at the University of Colorado in Boulder don’t think so. In fact, they think all creatures have mental and emotional capacities beyond our expectations. Among other things, those scientists have determined that dogs recognize unfairness, spiders have individual dispositions, and bees can be taught to expect the worst. There’s no evolutionary reason that animals can’t have a facility for the farcical, and CU’s conclusions echo those of Darwin, who believed that animal intelligence is no different from our own, just less evolved.

Be that as it may, whether or not Snoopy can take a joke, much less tell one, remains a matter of anecdote and opinion, a setup with no punchline. But if animals are able to find humor in the absurd, their laughter may be at our expense.