Animal World

As I write this article I have five dogs sleeping around my chair. They will wake when I go for a walk, when the food is to be served or if we have guests. The rest of the time they are dead to the world.

Sloth is considered one of the seven deadliest sins. It is associated with wickedness. An idle mind is the Devil’s workshop is such a common saying – especially by parents and teachers to their wards.

The whole purpose of our lives seems to be to work really hard in order to be idle at some point. The idea of heaven in every religion is to lie around, eating, drinking, playing harps. I dream of lying on beaches or in flower filled meadows and never having to see another human again.

Humans work harder than any other creature (not counting those animals that are used as beast of burden like oxen, donkeys, horses etc). But even in that there is variability. The Frenchman works much less than a Japanese for instance.  One of the reasons is that humans often override impulses to slow down as they are driven by the desire to acquire resources that are far in excess of what they need.  A squirrel stows away what he might need for the winter ahead but a human works for retirement, to replace cars with newer models or buy jewellery. All the other primates gather their day’s resources and then sit down to enjoy them. Humans just want more and they call it civilization.

How idle are animals?  Animals forage for their day’s food and spend the rest of the time doing nothing in particular. Even animals like hummingbirds who seem so industrious, find the nectar they need and then go back to their trees.  Social activity comes in a distant third to eating and resting. According to animal behaviourists, “When more time must be spent foraging, animals sacrifice the time spent on aggressive behaviour rather than time spent on resting.”

Biologists engaged in a new study called Time Budget Analysis have found that most creatures do almost nothing at all. They eat when they need to or can. They court and breed driven by inbuilt genetic impulses. Some of them build temporary shelters.  And then what? Fun like picking fleas off each other, playing, basking in the sun, sleeping, rocking back and forth, ambling, sitting, watching the sun go down, gossiping. According to zoologists at the University of Vermont who have studied comparative laziness in animals, “No organisms do every much. Being lazy is almost universal”

But, are animals lazy or does their inertia  mean something?  Biologists say that animal inactivity is never born of aimless indolence, but serves many purposes. Some animals sit around to preserve calories, others to improve digestion of the calories they have consumed. Some do it to stay cool, others to keep warm. Predators and prey alike are best camouflaged when they are not fidgeting. Some creatures linger quietly in their territory to guard it, and others stay home to avoid being cannibalized by their neighbours.  Efficient predators have more free time and thus appear lazier than relatively inept predators that have little free time. Animals that have no competitors for their food, take their time, like beetles. Those that have competition, work harder. 

Scientists believe that if they can understand the reasons for inactivity, they can understand some of the mysteries of how animals survive harsh environments and lean times and why a certain species is found in a certain place.

A lion can lie in the same place without budging, for 12 hours at a stretch. A lion eats an enormous amount in one sitting which is why he needs so much resting time in the heat . Monkeys are not nature's indefatigable acrobats - they sit around for three-quarters of the day, not to mention the 12 hours of the night they spend sleeping.  No dawn rising for them- most species get up very late.

Hummingbirds are supposed to be the world's most vigorous fliers, but these birds spend 80% of their day perched motionless on a twig: at night, they sleep.  Hummingbirds need frequent breaks. To hover in midair while sipping from long-tubed flowers, they must beat their wings at a rate of 60 times per second, burning more fuel in calories per gram of body weight when flying than anything else ever studied. In fact flying is so draining for most birds that they are better off doing nothing unless the food is calorie rich. To help assure that they can get nectar without having to travel too far for their dinner, sun birds will choose a territory and stand around on the perimeter, waiting for the flowers within it to become plump with nectar. 

For some creatures, immobility carries many benefits. The spade-foot toad of the south-western desert burrows underground and refuses to budge for 11 months of the year. In that time, it does not eat, drink, or excrete waste; conserving energy by turning down its core metabolism to one-fifth of what it is during its single active month. The fringe-toed lizard, which lives in the desert, sits motionless just below the surface of the sand for hours, with nothing sticking up but its eyes. As the lizards sit, the sand warms and invigorates them and makes them incredibly quick at catching even butterflies that pass by. They also avoid their own predators like snakes by making themselves immobile. By staying snug in its sandy blanket, the lizard cuts down on water loss. All desert creatures wait for the rain. Spade-foot toads come out only in July, when the annual rains bring insects to feed on. Male and female toads meet and mate the very first night they emerge from their rock-like state, and then they begin eating enough to put on an extra 30 percent in body fat to make it through their dormant 11 months. 

Even the busy bees and ants dedicate only about 20 per cent of the day to doing chores. Otherwise, the insects stay still.  The myth of the tireless ant or bee comes from observing the anthills or hives in which activity is ceaseless. But humans consider whole colonies rather than individuals. Studies at Harvard University reveal the curious fact that ants and bees are born with a set amount of energy which is not dependant on the food they eat, but on their genetics. Like batteries, their energy can be used up quickly or slowly. The harder they work, the quicker they die. Which is why they rest a lot. 

Several hundred species of mammals go into hibernation each winter, cutting down on energy expenditure by lowering their metabolic rates. Ground squirrels slow their heart rate to only one or two beats per minute, and the body temperature down to near freezing. For herbivores, winter hibernation makes sense because there is nothing to eat, no sex and lots of hungry predators.

Even the animal that stands for laziness, the sloth has a reason for its inactivity. Its hangs by its arms, sleeps 15 hours a day and moves so infrequently that algae grows on its coat. But, by moving so slowly, it stays inconspicuous to predators and its fungal coat makes it resemble the plant it hangs from.

The short tailed shrew rests 68% of the day and spends only 3% foraging. The crow rests for 60%  The walrus  rests for 70% and fish for 18% of the day. The male Anolis lizard socializes for 52% of the day, rests for 26% and hunts for 22%, The female on the other hands hunts for 86% and rests for only 4% The synonym for work is “as busy as a beaver” but beavers work for a maximum of five hours a day when needed and then retreat back into their homes. 

The Gorilla rests for 51%, the orangutan for 40%, the spider monkey between 54-63% , the lemur for 53% and the Howler monkey for 70%.

Animals seem to be far superior mathematicians in managing time. Everything is calculated : how far and how much is the food and water available, much energy will be spent , what is the weather, how hot will it be in motion, how : basically cost-benefit analyses, asking questions like: How high is the cost of foraging compared to the potential calories that may be gained?  Scientists who compute using the same factors usually come to the same conclusion as the animal – that it is better to be still than to move.

Perhaps if we relaxed more, there would be less harm done to the planet and less strife.


Maneka Gandhi


Pl. add: To join the animal welfare movement contact,

*Proper wildlife rehabilitation is an extremely biologically and ecologically responsible attitude toward all living things.*