Of Dolphins, Elephants and Intoxicants: When Animals Get High

From alcohol to opium and even magic mushrooms, the animal world chases a high in much the same way that humans do.

Dolphins display many of the same traits that we associate with human intelligence. They are social animals with names, they play games and tickle one another. And when the gang gets together, they like to pass a pufferfish around like a joint.

In this footage, you can see how dolphins use pufferfish toxins to get themselves inebriated. Intoxicated dolphins look surprisingly like drunk humans in a pool, passing the ‘toxic’ fish to each other with their snouts and gentle floating face up with the piscine equivalent of a smile.

For a BBC One program, an animatronic series of squid, turtles and fish were made; with cameras for eye sockets. This allowed cameras inside the hidden world of the dolphin pod.

The subsequent footage shows a bunch of happy dolphins, playing with an apparently agitated pufferfish. In the narration, it’s said that in high doses, the pufferfish’s neurotoxins are fatal. In small doses, they can produce a decent buzz.

The dolphin’s squinting appearance might give the impression that they are high – but Earth Touch News argue that this is because of the light. Very little is known about dolphins using pufferfish to get high. It’s likely that they would if they could – it’s well known that dolphins enjoy doing things for fun (such as surfing). But did the dolphins seek the pufferfish out for its narcotic toxin?

If so, they wouldn’t be the first animals to chase a high.

Nature’s not-so-gentle, giant, alcoholics

In 2010, a drunken mob destroyed 60 homes and killed three people in villages along the border of Orissa and West Bengal, in India. It was a three day bender that began when the mob raided a stash of local hooch, made from fermented rice.

It wasn’t the first time the locals had trouble with such mobs – elephants had long been known to raid villages for booze. Maan Barua, a Fellow at the University of Oxford, who has studied human-animal geographies has done extensive work on this phenomenon.

For him, as human-wildlife interactions increase, elephants have grown more comfortable raiding human settlements for liquor. In Assam, the World Wildlife Fund has designed posters in Assamese showing elephants stealing hooch with their trunks. The message?

If you brew liquor any and every where, then for elephant harassment do prepare.

The truth is there’s a dark reason behind the alcoholic pachyderms. The particular region in Assam had lost 80 percent of its forest cover, putting the elephant populations at tremendous stress. Their movement routes were disrupted by intense human economic activity, and the elephants often had no choice but to raid human settlements for food. As Maan wrote:

It is plausible that for the Sundarpur elephants, whose life histories are littered with violent interactions with humans, alcohol could well be a sedative that helps them cope with the pain of postcolonial consciousness.

Smokers of the animal world

In the great expanses of Arizona, horses have a special relationship with a particular type of tumbleweed called locoweed. They chew it for its narcotic effect. But over time, as they grow addicted, it makes them lose weight, grow depressed and even get poisoned. Similarities to human smokers?

Cattle too have been known to eat this plant – with deadly consequences. By 1883, up to 25,000 cattle were reported lost to ‘locoism’ in a small region near Kansas. By 1905, locoweed disease was declared a national epidemic.

So animals too can get addicted to things which harm them – and still refuse to quit.

Chasing the dragon

Tungus Shaman Wearing Antlers 17th century

The extreme reaches of Siberia are vast and difficult places to survive. Russians cope with the conditions with Vodka. But ancient Shamans used to offer hallucinogenic mushrooms as gifts during Christmas (it’s suggested that this was, in fact, a precursor to Christmas). It’s a popular legend that both shaman and reindeer would consume the mushrooms and imagine that they were flying.

Elsewhere, in Tasmania, Wallabies are known to enter poppy fields and get high on the alkaloidal plant. They then go around in circles (forming crop circles) until they ‘crash’ – pass out in the fields.

Animals can also be junkies, just like humans. Velvet monkeys on the Caribbean islands are known to drink fermented cane juice taken from discarded sugarcane. The locals claim that using alcohol as a bribe is an effective method of catching these monkeys.

Like humans, the monkey’s alcoholism then runs in the families. The descendants of these monkeys also developed a taste, with one in five choosing a sweetened alcoholic cocktail over a sweetened glass of water.

The comparisons are endless. Butterflies drink beer, male fruit flies turned to food containing alcohol after sexual rejection and squirrels get drunk on fermented apples.¬†Goats are particular fiends – experimenting with a variety of plants and stimulants. If you’ve ever enjoyed a cup of coffee, you should know that the discovery of coffee’s stimulating effect is attributed to an Ethiopian shepherd whose goats stayed up all night after eating coffee plants. In the Arabian peninsula, goats also consumed alkaloid-based plants – leading to the local consumption of khat. Goats have also been known to seek out and consume magic mushrooms.

There are no lessons to be learned from this. Every animal diffuses narcotic and inebriating substances differently – it will never be safe to just feed your pets with booze or drugs. But what we can know is that in the natural world too, animals are capable of recreational drug use and abuse. It may seem funny, and make for viral videos, but addiction is deadly – regardless of the species.


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