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Animals are just like us when it comes to drugs and alcohol

There are countless anecdotes involving animals and substances that have a hallucinogenic, intoxicating or sedative effect

Published: Mar 11, 2023 07:09:59 AM IST
Updated: Mar 10, 2023 05:11:50 PM IST

Animals are just like us when it comes to drugs and alcoholScientific publications are full of examples of wild animals using drugs voluntarily, not accidentally. Image: Shutterstock

Animals are similar to us in many ways, including when it comes to consuming toxic substances. Many species seek out the sensation of being intoxicated or the "high" provided by certain fruits or plants that they find in their natural environment. With "Cocaine Bear" proving a hit in cinemas, we take a look at some of the animals that like to get buzzed.

This feature film, directed by Elizabeth Banks, was inspired by a surprising real-life incident that occurred in the United States in 1985. At that time, the body of a drug dealer was found in Tennessee, along with 4,500 dollars in cash, two firearms, several knives and a key to an airplane. The key matched an aircraft that had crashed in the mountains of North Carolina with ten duffel bags full of cocaine on board. However, investigators were only able to find nine of them. Three months later, the missing bag was found in the Chattahoochee National Forest, south of the Tennessee-Georgia border. It had been emptied of some of its contents by a brown bear. This bear died of an overdose. An autopsy of the animal later revealed that it had ingested three or four grams of cocaine. By accident or did it get a taste for it? The answer to that question remains a mystery.

This mishap is far from being an isolated case. There are countless anecdotes involving animals and substances that have a hallucinogenic, intoxicating or sedative effect. For example, it's common knowledge that cats love catnip for its soothing and euphoric effects. The herb is sometimes referred to as "meowie wowie," as it's compared to marijuana. Surprisingly, wildcats and big cats do not seem to be very sensitive to it. Jaguars seem to prefer banisteriopsis caapi, a species of liana endemic to the Amazon. This plant is rich in beta-carbolines, a type of alkaloid responsible for hallucinogenic effects, which explains why it is used in the composition of ayahuasca. In 2014, a jaguar was filmed while experiencing hallucinations after eating banisteriopsis caapi leaves. However, scientists do not know if the feline knowingly ingested the plant, or if it was an accident.  

Each animal has its own drug preferences

Wallabies deliberately consume poppies, flowers from which opium, morphine and various painkillers are made. They are grown for legal purposes in about 20 countries, including in Australia's island state Tasmania. In 2009, Lara Giddings, then Attorney General of Tasmania, reported on the wallabies' fondness for the plant during a parliamentary hearing on its cultivation. She explained that these marsupials regularly trespass on poppy fields, much to the annoyance of farmers. "We have a problem with wallabies entering poppy fields, getting as high as a kite and going around in circles. Then they crash. We see crop circles in the poppy industry from wallabies that are high," Lara Giddings said at the time.

Similar behaviors have been observed in wild bighorn sheep. Bighorn sheep have been known to veer off course and walk across dangerous mountain ridges in search of psychotropic lichen. Like many deer, reindeer are fond of hallucinogenic mushrooms, their favorite being fly agaric. They love this red  magic mushroom with white spots so much that they don't hesitate to dig them up even when frozen under winter snow. After having eaten them, the reindeer demonstrate some peculiar behavior. Some have been observed running aimlessly, shaking their heads vigorously, or making noise for no reason. They sometimes break away from their herd after eating fly agaric, making them easy prey for their predators.

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Scientific publications are full of examples of wild animals that "take drugs" on purpose, not by accident. But zoologists say some examples have been exaggerated. Dolphins' interest in puffer fish is one example that is subject to great debate among researchers. It all started with a series of mini-documentaries that the BBC devoted to these marine mammals back in 2014. In one of them, a group of dolphins is shown playing with a puffer fish off the coast of Mozambique. The dolphins have fun catching it with their snouts and pushing it around, without hurting it.

Unusual behavior that apparently is linked to the fact that the puffer fish secretes tetrodotoxin to repel its predators. This neurotoxin is a lethal poison in high doses, but it also has hallucinogenic properties. By playing with the puffer fish, the dolphins are said to be attempting to trigger the release of this psychotropic drug in order to experience the equivalent of shooting up. But some experts refute this interpretation. "I don't see anything peculiar about the behavior of these dolphins. In my view, that's an over-interpretation of what could just be a simple game with the fish," Alexandre Gannier, an expert on cetaceans, told French publication Sciences et Avenir.

Primates have a reputation as heavy drinkers

The late American psychopharmacologist Ronald Siegel was convinced that nature could be a real haven for the animal world's drug users. He and his team traveled the world for more than 20 years to determine whether animals, like humans, take pleasure in consuming psychotropic substances. The answer  was clear. "In every country, in almost every class of animal, I found examples of not only the accidental but the intentional use of drugs," he explained in his book "Intoxication: Life in Pursuit of Artificial Paradise" (E.P. Dutton, 1989).

Also read: Eavesdropping on the secret lives of dolphins in New York Harbour

Astragalus, narcotic plants, hallucinogenic mushrooms... Anything that alters our consciousness and sensory perceptions is likely to be appreciated—and sought out—by animals. Just like alcohol. Several African mammals, including elephants, like to feast on the yellow-orange fruits of the marula tree. And for good reason: these fruits ferment in the sun and produce ethanol. Primates like to get drunk just as much as pachyderms do, especially vervet monkeys. These little monkeys are particularly fond of drinking, as a 2002 study by the Medical Council of Canada revealed. Researchers placed a thousand vervet monkeys living on the island of Saint Kitts (Caribbean) in captivity and gave them several beverages, some of them alcoholic. They were surprised to find that only 15% of the monkeys preferred fruit juice to alcohol. The majority were occasional drinkers, more or less.  

In the animal kingdom, just like in human society, the effects of alcohol are not to everyone's taste. A Canadian-Mexican research team discovered in 1993 that young vervet monkeys are more inclined to drink alcohol than their elders. Differences in consumption seem to be related to the social responsibilities of older vervet monkeys. "It is possible that adults drink less because they have to be more alert and perceptive of the social dynamics of the group," the researchers wrote in their study. Proof that when it comes to alcohol, it's all about moderation.