How Many Animals Are Going to the River? It's Complicated

There's a riddle everyone's debating on social media involving a rabbit, elephants, monkeys, and parrots. Do you know the correct answer? Does anyone?

Karen Lunde Hertzberg
4-minute read
The Quick And Dirty
  • From a math perspective, using the rules of implicit differentiation, the answer is five.
  • From an English perspective, the riddle lacks clarity and is unsolvable.
  • The difference between "to" and "toward" makes things even murkier.

Odds are good that you've seen this riddle on social media lately.

One rabbit saw six elephants while going to the river. Every elephant saw two monkeys going towards the river. Every monkey holds one parrot in their hands. How many animals are going towards the river?

You've probably also seen the answer framed as a sort of battle between math and English. One thing's certain—your friends all think they have the answer but no one completely agrees.

The "animals going to the river" riddle from a math perspective

two monkeys going toward riverI'll make one thing clear up front and I'll say it in my best Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy voice: "Dangit, Jim; I'm an editor, not a mathematician!"

But from a math perspective, the riddle is at least somewhat solvable.

The answer is five.

Did you get the same answer? If you did, you may be in the majority, at least unofficially. My intel shows that five seems to be the most common answer. Let's take a look.

One rabbit saw six elephants while going to the river.

The rabbit is going to the river. Along the way, he saw six elephants.

That means one rabbit is going to the river. So far, so good.

Every elephant saw two monkeys going toward the river.

Things get a bit more complicated here. Did the six elephants each see a different two monkeys? In that case, you'd have 12 monkeys and one rabbit going toward the river—13 animals, total.

But because the sentence doesn't explicitly say that each elephant saw two different monkeys, we use the rules of implicit differentiation and infer that the elephants each saw the same two monkeys.

If you want to know more about explicit and implicit functions in math, Study.com has your back. 

Now, let's return to the critters. We're inferring that each elephant saw the same two monkeys, which means that one rabbit and two monkeys are going toward the river. So far, that's three animals total.

Every monkey holds one parrot in their hands.

Simple. We inferred that two monkeys are going toward the river. Each monkey is holding a parrot, so that's two parrots going toward the river, too.

That gives us:

1 rabbit +
2 monkeys +
2 parrots
5 animals 

But what about the elephants? Well, no one said they were going toward the river, so they don't count—they're just observers.

The riddle from an English writing perspective

Aaah, now I'm back in my element. (That was close! I almost had to attempt some serious math, and I'm certain I would've broken something in my thinks-like-an-editor brain.) 

From an editor's perspective, this riddle is unsolvable. Let's have another look.

elephantOne rabbit saw six elephants while going to the river.

The way that sentence is constructed, we can only conclude that one rabbit is definitely going to the river.

Animal count going to the river: 1

Every elephant saw two monkeys going toward the river.

Mm-hm. But here's where things get murky because we don't know whether every elephant saw the same two monkeys. So, there could be two monkeys ... or there could be as many as 12 if you multiply two different monkeys times six elephants.

Animal count going to the river: 1 rabbit + 2 monkeys = 3 ... OR 1 rabbit + (up to) 12 monkeys = 13, or even some variation in between.

The way the first two sentences are written, we might be a bit uncertain about whether the elephants are going to the river, too. If they are, that adds another six animals to the mix.

But let's stay in our lane. Le'ts assume that the elephants are indeed not going to the river and that they're just observing this weird animal parade.

Every monkey holds one parrot in their hands.

Cool. Lucky monkeys. But that still leaves us with an undetermined amount of animals going to the river because clarity in writing matters and that's why technical writers get paid so well (or not well enough, depending on who you ask.)

Here's where we separate the people who paid attention in biology class from the ones who napped or wrote notes to their friends. Some people claim that "parrots aren't animals," which makes this puzzle even more of a trick question. But parrots are part of the kingdom Animalia—they're absolutely animals! Scientifically speaking, humans are animals, too.

The messy (and unsatisfying) final answer

Whether this riddle is solvable or not depends on who you ask. Math people seem to think that five is a perfectly respectable answer. English language lovers get a little more in the weeds about the language intricacies, just as I did above.

No matter how you look at it, though, the answer is inferred based on a lack of explicit information.

The "to" versus "toward" conundrum

Want to add a little more confusion into this already messy mix? In English, "to" and "toward" don't mean exactly the same thing. We know for sure that the rabbit is going to the river. (Perhaps we'll have to assume an omniscient narrator, or suspend disbelief and assume that someone asked the rabbit and he verified, "Yes, indeed; I'm going to the river!")

The narrative is a little less clear where the other animals are concerned. The monkeys are going toward the river, but is the river their destination? Maybe they're going to hang out in a tree near the river, instead. And what's the deal with those parrots? Maybe they're going to have some sort of river-adjacent get-together without actually going to the river at all.

So the final answer? The riddle can't be solved with absolute certainty.

I'd embrace my natural editorial instincts and rewrite the riddle so it's clearer. (While I'm at it, I'll make the verb tense in all of the sentences match.)

While going to the river, one rabbit saw six elephants. Every elephant saw the same two monkeys who were also going to the river. Every monkey held one parrot in their hands. How many animals were going to the river?

That's pretty unambiguous, but now it's just an elementary math question without all the debate-provoking angst. And what fun is a math question if you can't argue about it on Facebook?

About the Author

Karen Lunde Hertzberg

Karen Lunde Hertzberg was QDT's editor and content strategist. Her eclectic background includes pioneering an online writing school in the late 90s, leading an editorial team of video game journalists, managing massive public and media relations campaigns, and writing hundreds of articles on writing and communication.