Animal Addicts: How Monkeys, Elephants, Dolphins, and Cats Get High, And How It Could Change the War on Drugs


Animals do drugs. All too often, it’s a result of our interference in their lives. Years ago, a fellow NYU student I knew, dated a dashing junkie. She also lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where heroin was easy to get. Every morning, he’d stop in after copping to take his shot. A kind-natured addict, he would leave the end of the injection to plunge into my friend’s pet cat.

After the eventual break-up, the cat was introduced to withdrawal. It was so uncontrollable that the girl had to call her ex-boyfriend to dose the animal, leading to a brief re-kindling. When the relationship ended for good, she insisted that he take the cat that he was responsible for addicting. But not all cases of animal substance abuse have people involved.

In this instance, the pet was put on drugs without its knowledge, although it purred from the heroin with a heartiness beyond my experience with clean cats. However, there are many examples of animals in their natural habitats that deliberately seek out substances for inebriation.  And in almost every case, they are the same substances mankind has used for centuries.

The case of fermented fruit is the best known one. Video footage shows a variety of African animals putting their rivalries aside to enjoy the Marula fruit when it’s fermented. Drunken elephants pal around with tipsy monkeys; even an ostrich stumbles away with the promise of a serious hangover. But this being nature, there are much stranger methods employed by animals to get high.

Australians wallabies, so cute and fuzzy, seek out poppy plants to indulge in the opiates within. Dogs who live by cane fields learn to harass certain toads that inhabit them until they release their glandular bufotenin, a form of the hallucinogen, DMT. This is the same psychoactive substance enjoyed by humans who lick toads and drink ayahuasca. 

And it turns out that dolphins eat the poisonous pufferfish for its psychoactive venom—to become inebriated on the small portion of poison. The dolphins are careful, as well. They bite off as much as they need and not enough to hurt themselves. And then they pass the fish around the pod to share the experience—much like teenagers with joints in stairwells. People who eat Fugu sushi, sometimes at the risk of death, also enjoy the numb feeling caused by the tetrodotoxin. They even have to sign releases before having this meal.

In the 19th century, circuses often exhibited chimpanzees dressed in clothing similar to human fashion. The animals demonstrated their “evolution” by smoking cigars and drinking whiskey. As far as we know, they enjoyed this, but it was clearly a behavior taught to them by their keepers. The drug testing done on animals over the last century has also shown that brains other than homosapien can benefit from the euphoric effects of substances from MDMA to cannabis to DMT and methamphetamine. 

Cocaine has proven most alluring to the nervous systems of rats who can neglect themselves in favor of the drug. The oft-repeated story of rodents starving themselves to death for cocaine actually depends on the trauma that the rat has lived through. Happy rats are less susceptible to debilitative addiction—very much like humans.

In fact, the whole pattern of non-human substance abuse is remarkably similar to that of human addiction. The animals, mostly mammals, get high on substances; sometimes symbiotically with humans. People who live closely with their livestock even conduct this dirty business together. Reindeer eat psychedelic fly agaric mushrooms for fun, something people cannot do because of the toxins in them. However, the reindeer can digest them, and urinate out the active ingredient, which the Laplanders who herd the creatures have learned to drink for the same effect. Drinking reindeer urine after they have consumed the red and white mushroom allows shepherd and herd to trip together. Meanwhile, the shepherds also release most of the psychoactive chemicals through their urine, so the reindeer know to eat the yellow snow. There is a circle of urine and psychoactive mushrooms, spinning through the arctic.

Green Vervet monkeys, famous for ingesting ethanol in fermented fruit, not only get drunk, but do so in patterns similar to humans. Some are binge drinkers, looking for a tree full of rotten fruit to claim for their own and swallow down until they blissfully fall out into the grass. Others are only social imbibers, not eating the fruit without company. Closer to home, all horse-rearing societies know the dangers of  “locoweed,” which the animals seek out for its strong psychoactive affect. But because of their strength and naturally willful natures, tripping horses are dangerous and farmers destroy the patches of the weed that they find before the horses find them. Back in the Arctic, there are lichens, which are apparently strongly narcotic that are compelling enough to convince bighorn sheep to wear their teeth down to the gums to get at more. Their active ingredient has not been isolated yet.

Finally, lest it appear that mammals are the most prone to intoxication, the drug-distribution networks of ants must be discussed. When a colony discovers Lomechusa strumosa beetles, it carries the insects deep into its hive and cares for its larva with more attention than for its own. Why? Because the beetles produce a volatile oil similar to the trichomes in cannabis, which the ants lick with pleasure and even obsession. Some colonies have been found destroyed; starved from lack of food stocks, queens uncared for and larva left to die because of the mania for the secretions. In American ghettos, the common urban myth is that the CIA introduced crack-cocaine to stop the Black Power Movement through misdirection. Perhaps, ants blame the termites. Whatever may be the truth, insects are prone to addiction, too.

The litany of substance use in animals is interesting and conjures up a question that should make legislators, drug warriors and addiction specialists very uncomfortable. In the “disease model” of addiction, the user is suffering from trauma that he is medicating with the drug. Entire rehabilitation centers are built around this model and people are put through a lot of unpleasantness to force them to face their emotions rather than medicate them. The success rates are abysmal; AA works better, but to many that is because it replaces the central role of substances in the person’s life with an equally enticing and cult-like community.

The cat that was injected with heroin certainly was not medicating feelings, but it also wasn’t choosing to take the drug. However, it is undeniable that many species from the icy north to steamy jungles and under the blue seas enjoy getting wasted. And the chemicals they use come from a familiar list of human drugs: pufferfish venom, ethanol, DMT, cannabis variants and others. The horses’ preferred poison, locoweed, is also known as Jimson grass and is smoked by teenagers in the American South. It is considered a bit of a wild ride, but grows abundantly. Catnip though, doesn’t does not translate between the species

Are the drunken monkeys repressing trauma? Pods of dolphins that pass around a pufferfish in “cyphers” can hardly be accused of medicating emotions. While the animals are complex in many ways, the abstract thinking that human addiction is theoretically addressing is beyond them, as far as scientists are concerned. The beasts of the world enjoy inebriation to the point of suppressing other instincts. The animals of the African jungle gorge on the fermented Marula fruit and lie around drunk instead of eating each other down the food chain.

If there is a natural inclination to temporarily disorient the senses and change perception, which is certainly the result of taking DMT from the glands of cane toads or the hallucinogenic compounds of the mushrooms reindeer eat, perhaps our method of dealing with addiction is wrongheaded, as it ignores something inherent in us. Instinctual drives are hard to suppress; in the 19th century young men tied their hands together before sleep to prevent the evils of masturbation. When they found nocturnal emissions anyway, they prayed harder, with the same results. A few hundred years prior, they would have burned a witch for nighttime seductions. Fighting nature is hard and often unnecessary. 

The drug war and drug treatment in America ignores a central point. The reason why criminal organizations around the world exist to provide Americans with drugs is partially because of the overwhelming traumatic feelings that this nation is trying to medicate, but also because as a people, Americans are wealthy enough to afford the pleasure and like to get high. The drugs are enticing, just as the fermented fruit is to the monkeys, because it feels euphoric to introduce the chemical to the system. Acknowledging this lesson learned from wild animals would help those who need it. As addiction has ruined many lives, examining its roots often helps, and insisting on the premise of self-medication is the wrong path, at times. The case of animals and substances could change the face of the war on drugs and treatment for abuse by admitting that it denies Americans what they actually want.

The cat stayed with the heroin addict for long enough that after he got clean, he still had to buy a bag, every now and then, to keep the pet’s habit going. It lived for two decades like this, purring to its end. Whether it was medicating a feeling will never be known, but its contentment was clear. Catnip is good for some kitties, but heroin is better for others. Since the cat never had its supply interrupted after the break-up, it did not shoplift or commit other petty crimes that junkies often will. It never went to treatment.

Perhaps in other circumstances, it would have become a criminal and dangerous cat. Some elephants from India, who acquire a taste for rice beer, rampage through villages looking for it. They’ve killed people and destroyed property, demonstrating that addiction in animals may be a natural drive, but not necessarily a good thing. But the little cat never hurt a soul, just waited for its morning shot.

All in all, it mostly purred.

Daniel Genis is the author of the novel Narcotica. He last wrote about K2. More information is available here.

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