I remember reading about how given the option between a lever for food and another for pleasure, mice chose the pleasure button and kept pressing it until they perished of hunger. No different from alcoholics, smokers, druggies, gamblers, warmongers, religious fanatics or even art collectors! Do animals, like us, seek out ways to feel good?
Birds do! In a strange behaviour called myrmecomany ant mania exhibited by ravens, jays, thrushes, blackbirds and parrots, the bird alights on a bunch of ants, allowing them to swarm all over it , even picking and placing them inside its feathers. Covered by insects, the bird contorts itself, its expression ecstatic, its bill drooling saliva. After half an hour, the satiated bird shakes itself off and and flies away. Magpies mix ants into tobacco ashes and rub their wings in the mixture. After a forest fire, red-browed finches settle on smouldering trunks. As they get the smoke, they spin round and round until they get dizzy and fall, only to get up and start over! Crows behave similarly using mothballs and cigarette butts.
Drugs seem to be as much part of the animal as human world. Birds use caterpillar secretions, larvae, plant juices, mothballs, ash and tobacco. Domesticated and captive animals find their own ways of making life bearable. Cats enjoy the valerian plant and catnip which makes them giddy. Mongooses do chocolate; coati (a relative of the raccoon), eau de cologne; mice, chewing tobacco; and chimps, alcohol. In the Caribbean, monkeys cadge drinks from tourists. They also relish garlic which induces dizziness. In my constituency,Pilibhit, the monkeys, addicted to fermented sugarcane, hang about the local distillery.
Animals occasionally indulge in recreational drugs. Nature provides plenty of mood altering or psychtropic substances. Many plants have developed psychotrophins as a poisonous defence like poppies which produce opium, cacti like peyote which produce alkaloids, tobacco which produces nicotine, coffee beans that produce caffeine, and the marijuana plant. While most animals avoid them, others adapt to overcome the toxins and use pschoactive plants to alter consciousness. Like Indians, animals use Acacia flowers and leaves as a sedative.
In fact animals used psychotropic substances long before us. A shard from a ceramic bowl excavated in Peru shows two llamas nibbling from a branch of coca leaves. Ancient legends recount how animals showed humans the use of sacred plants. In 900 AD, an Abyssinian herder noticed how his animals became energized after eating the bright red fruit of a tree later named coffee. A shepherd in Yemen discovered the amphetamine-like stimulant known as qat watching his goats go wild after chewing its leaves. In tropical Asia, birds falling strangely quiet after visiting rauwolfia trees led to an Indian psychiatrist isolating Reserpine, the tranquilizer that revolutionized treatment of mental disease. A general of China's Han Dynasty noticed how sick horses regained vigour from eating
Plantago Asiatica, and fed it with good effect to ailing soldiers. In Sikkim , weary horses consume bitter tea leaves for added energy. Tired pack donkeys in Mexico graze on wild tobacco. During the war, Cambodian water buffaloes and antelopes increased their intake of opium poppies to overcome the stress of the hostilities. In Colombia, jaguars gnaw the bark of yaje, which locals believe, transports them to other worlds. In West Africa, wild boars dig for the hallucinogenic roots of iboga. In the Tundra, reindeer eat the beautifully red-capped Amanita muscaria, a mushroom used by Siberian shamans to aid their spiritual journey. Bighorn sheep in the Canadian Rockies take great risks to nibble narcotic lichen.
Any fruit or vegetable with a high enough sugar content can ferment and become alcohol. A common way for animals to get 'drunk' is to eat overripe berries and other fruits. After feasting on fermented berries, groups of hornbills rise drunkenly and start to squabble. In Columbia, a flock of cedar waxwings, intoxicated on holly berries, crashed into an office building. Bohemian waxwings with a taste for fermented rowan berries, are often found fallen to the ground with postmortems revealing they were drunk when they died and suffering from liver cirrhosis!
Once a year in Africa, when the marula fruits ripens, all the animals, from monkeys to elephants, go on a drunken binge. Its fermenting smell brings elephants rushing from 10 kms away. Across north-east India , elephants have a fondness for rice beer. In one instance in Meghalaya, a herd of elephants high on beer, went on a rampage. As villagers fled, the elephants downed their entire stock of freshly brewed beer. The inebriated elephants then struck an electric pole, which fell killing four of them instantly.
The 7% alcoholic content of the fermented fruit of doum trees affects animals just like humans. Some elephants become boisterous and aggressive, trumpeting and attacking nearby animals, others become increasingly passive, lethargic or even amorous.
Bears and bats are also known to get drunk on fermented fruit. A video shows how after eating fermented pumpkins, a squirrel has a hard time keeping his head up. Trying to climb a tree, the tipsy rodent keeps falling, and then starts chasing his tail. Lemurs seek out millipedes to eat the noxious substance they emit.
Similarly insects. Bees get drunk on certain saps. Wasps get drunk and pass out. Ants wheel and sway refusing to move even when they sense danger. Drunken fruit flies behave just like inebriated humans. They become hyperactive, then disorientated and unco-ordinated eventually passing out. Like us, they differ in their response to alcohol, some getting drunk very quickly, others being more resistant to its effects.
Why do birds, insects and animals ingest these substances ignoring and actually contradicting the primordial impulse of hunger, reproduction and self-defence? After all, falling from trees and stumbling around predators is not the best way to ensure your genes make it to the next generation. So what compells animals to betray their powerful self-preservation instinct and consciously drug themselves? One explanation is the high calorie nourishment of ethanol. Anthropologist R.J. Sullivan suggests that psychoactive plants provide nutrients and chemical compounds necessary for efficient brain function, especially during times of potential malnutrition when food resources become scarce, and until other sustenance is found.
I prefer the theory that many birds and animals simply enjoy getting stoned. Why? Evidence suggests that it may be to relieve stress. Just like the double martini salesman, elephants under stress, drink twice as much. The attraction of hallucinogenic plants is that animals' brains like ours may benefit from an occasional boost from potent neurochemicals. Drugs are a short circuit to the pleasure centres and, just like us, animals have the need for fun, play and emotional expression.
Early man is believed to have refined his brain by consuming mind-bending plants. Since he was introduced to most of them by animals, isn’t it only logical
that animal brains are similarly refined? And when they are so much like us, isn’t it only fair to treat them as equals?
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