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The animal world has its junkies too

By Andrew Haynes

Andrew Haynes kicks off 2010’s Christmas miscellany with reports of rampant reindeer, sozzled starlings and junkie monkeys, and a look at how goats seem to be the cause of many of man’s sins

See other Christmas miscellany articles


Research scientists have used many animal species in investigating mind-altering drugs, but it may come as a surprise to learn that animals in the wild — from starlings to reindeer — also make use of psychoactive substances of their own accord.

It seems that many of these species have a natural desire to experience altered states of consciousness, and man may well have found his way to some of his favourite recreational drugs by observing the behaviour of animals.

Rampant reindeer

In their use of hallucinogenic plants is where animals really go to town. There is evidence from around the world of animals deliberately consuming such plants, and legends about plants used in sacred rituals often include references to animals introducing them to mankind.

One such species, appropriately for a Christmassy article, is the reindeer, which goes to great lengths to search out the hallucinogenic fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria) — the one with the white-spotted red cap that garden gnomes like to sit on. Eating the toadstool makes reindeer behave in a drunken fashion, running about aimlessly and making strange noises. Head-twitching is also common.

Fly agaric is found across the northern hemisphere and has long been used by mankind for its psychotropic properties. But its use can be dangerous because it also contains toxic substances. Reindeer seem to metabolise these toxic elements without harm, while the main psychoactive constituents remain unmetabolised and are excreted in the urine. Reindeer herders in Europe and Asia long ago learnt to collect the reindeer urine for use as a comparatively safe source of the hallucinogen.

Another hallucinogen used by wild animals is the African plant iboga (Tabernanthe iboga). It has been reported from Gabon and the Congo that boars, porcupines, gorillas and mandrills will dig up and eat the powerfully hallucinogenic roots.

In the Canadian Rockies, wild bighorn sheep are said to take great risks to get at a rare psychoactive lichen. In scraping it off the rock surface they can wear their teeth down to the gums.

On the prairies of the south-west US, horses and other grazing mammals can become addicted to hallucinogen-containing plants known generically as locoweed. These plants, mainly species of Astragalus and Oxytropis, are normally avoided, but animals that try them can come back time and again for a repeat fix. Symptoms include altered gait, aimless wandering, impaired vision, erratic behaviour and listlessness.

In South America’s rain forests, jaguars have been filmed behaving in a kittenish manner after gnawing the bitter roots and bark of yage (Banisteriopsis caapi), a hallucinogenic vine that is also used by native tribes in ritualistic ceremonies. Some anthropologists believe that man first learnt to use the drug after watching jaguars.

Mention of this big cat leads finally to perhaps the best known recreational drug used by animals — catnip (Nepeta spp). About two-thirds of adult domestic cats are susceptible to its effects, as are several other species of cat, including lions.

Catnip’s effects are due to volatile terpenoids called nepetalactones. When cats sense the bruised leaves or stems of catnip, they may roll over it, paw at it, chew it or lick it, all the while inhaling the aromatic oil. They tend to leap about friskily or roll on the ground, but they may also show signs of drowsiness or anxiety. The effects last for five to 15 minutes, after which puss will not be sensitive to another dose for at least an hour.

One thing in catnip’s favour is that it appears to have no harmful long-term effects — which is more than can be said for any of the other substances animals ingest for a buzz.

Around the world, many traditions claim that man was led to alcohol use by observing animal behaviour. According to the Bible, when Noah had settled down after the flood, he saw one of his goats frolicking about after eating fermenting grapes. He followed the goat’s example, and on his way home he became merry, started to sing, managed to lose his clothes and then fell asleep outside his house.

Well, we’ve all done that, haven’t we? Noah clearly remembered his experience as pleasurable, for the next day he went off to gather vines to establish the world’s first vineyard.

Whether or not man really discovered alcohol by watching tipsy animals, he has certainly used this intoxicant for millennia. And animals, both vertebrate and invertebrate, have probably used it for much longer.

Fruits, grains, nectars and saps can all have a high enough sugar content to be fermented by natural yeasts. Bees, wasps, hornets and other insects may get a buzz from the resultant booze. They are probably attracted by the sugars and yeast rather than the alcohol, but they still end up schnockered, losing co-ordination and falling to the ground.

If intoxicated honey bees manage to get back to the hive, they may finish up on their backs helplessly waving their legs in the air. However, the hive door bouncers do not condone this behaviour, and the offenders are liable to be roughed up and may even have their legs chewed off.

Sozzled starlings

Birds can also enjoy a tipple. There have been many reports of birds crashing into windows while smashed on fermented fruit or grain. Finches, waxwings and starlings seem particularly susceptible, and some species will deliberately go back for more. Waxwings have been found dead in heaps near sources of fermenting rowan berries, and post-mortem examinations have shown that they died drunk, with acute alcoholic liver disease.

Mammals too. There have been reports of bears and elk accidentally becoming drunk and disorderly after eating fermenting fruit.

Some large mammals are known to seek out alcohol in its man-made form deliberately. In rural areas of North America they often target illegal stills, and law enforcers sometimes track down the stills simply by looking out for woozy wildlife.

ElephantIn the Indian state of West Bengal there have been several reported incidents of elephants breaking into illegal alcohol stores and drinking themselves silly before going on the rampage, trampling people to death and causing extensive damage to property.

But stories of alcohol-mad animals should be treated with caution.

Travellers’ tales about drunken African elephants go back to the early 19th century, and modern tourist brochures claim that elephants with a taste for alcohol can detect the fermenting fruit of the marula tree from 10km, but recent research suggests that these stories have no foundation.

Goats as scapegoats

Caffeine is another drug that man allegedly discovered by observing goat behaviour. According to tradition, in the ninth century, an Ethiopian goatherd named Khaldi noticed his goats dancing around frenziedly after eating the bright red berries of the shrub we now know as Coffea arabica. He tried a few berries himself, felt elated and introduced his find to the monks in the local monastery.

However, it is now believed that monks in the Ethiopian highlands were using coffee as a stimulant well before Khaldi’s time. But since man has been herding goats for at least 7,000 years, it is certainly possible that goats are ultimately to blame for Starbucks.

As with alcohol and caffeine, goats may also have to carry the can for man’s discovery of khat, the popular Middle Eastern stimulant, which contains ephedrine-like alkaloids. Legend says that a Yemeni goatherd watched one of his goats run wild after chewing the leaves of Catha edulis. He decided to chew them himself, found them stimulating and introduced them to the world.

I now turn briefly to tobacco, at which point any goats reading this article can breathe a sign of relief, because their species cannot possibly be considered a scapegoat for man’s abuse of tobacco. The tobacco plant (Nicotiana spp) is a native of South America, and the human population first began inhaling tobacco smoke about 8,000 years ago, probably discovering its effects when the leaves were burnt ceremonially as incense.

The goat has a cast-iron alibi, since it did not reach South America until some 7,500 years later.

Although South American man may not have needed goats to point him towards tobacco, his use of cocaine may well have been inspired by a grazing mammal. The chewing of coca leaves (Erythroxylum spp) as a stimulant probably began around 5000BC, about the time when llamas were first domesticated.

Peruvian legend has it that llamas travelling in the Andean lowlands chewed coca leaves because their normal food plants were not available. Their human minders noted the sustaining effect of the leaves and copied their pack animals. Other legends have sloths and monkeys pioneering the use of coca.

Although birds eat coca seeds and various insects attack sprouting coca plants, none of these creatures seems to derive a stimulant effect from coca consumption. However, research has shown that coca-chewing garden snails can climb a glass rod in a travelling time 25 per cent less than that of snails fed on a regular diet of ivy.

Junkie monkeys

Man probably did not learn to use opium by watching animals because there is scant evidence for its narcotic use by wild creatures. However, since man began cultivating opium poppies, at least one species has learnt to use opium. That animal is the water buffalo.

In south-east Asia, some water buffalo will browse poppies that are waiting to be harvested. The animals become docile and tend to wander away from the small herds in which they normally move. The addiction never lasts long because the poppy capsules contain high levels of opium only for a brief period towards the end of the ripening process.

Once the harvest is over, the beasts’ behaviour returns to normal, but only after they have shown withdrawal symptoms such as tremors, restlessness and convulsions.

Finches and rodents will eat the oil-rich poppy seeds, but there is little evidence of addiction, mainly because the seeds have low alkaloid levels. Although there is also no evidence of invertebrates becoming intoxicated, the US army once tried to breed opiate-addicted insects as a search-and-destroy weapon against illegal opium plantations. The project was a complete failure.

But although there is little addiction to opium in its natural state, there are many tales of animals acquiring a taste for it once the resin has been harvested and dried.

One recent news story concerns a town in India plagued by junkie monkeys that have stolen opium from a factory that makes opium-based medicines. Now who is copying whom?

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal URI: 11052360

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