Friday, September 22, 2023

Animal House

Humans take pride in their unique, perhaps exalted, place among creatures. We’re the only animal that can point to triumphs like space travel, nerve gas, for-profit prisons, and plastic- filled oceans. Until recent times, we also thought we stood alone in our taste for addling our brains with drugs. Alas, we can no longer claim that distinction: Dolphins, dogs, wallabies,waxwings, and loads of other species like to get loaded.

Tales of drunken monkeys, plastered pachyderms and caffeinated cats have circulated for ages. If you watched Pirates of the Caribbean, you know their ships had to carry stuff like ropes, rum, cannons, parrots and monkeys. The sad truth is that the vervet monkeys inhabiting St. Kitts, Barbados, and other Caribbean islands arrived on slave ships. YouTube abounds with videos of primates pinching cocktails from patrons of beachfront bars and getting uproariously drunk.

In a 1999 McGill University study, researchers gave 1,000 captive monkeys access to alcohol mixed either with juice or water. Roughly 15% (monkeys, not researchers) drank little; 15% were “social drinkers” who imbibed with their peers; and 15% drank a lot of booze, straight-up. Similar to human demographics, around 5% (mostly young males) drank themselves silly.

Closer to home, our songbirds get grounded if returning migrants gorge on fermented crabapples, arrowwood, winterberry, and other berries still clinging to branches. Cedar
waxwings, which largely eat fruit, are especially vulnerable. Some intoxication is accidental, but these birds have been seen breaking skins on fruits, thus exposing them to yeast spores, and returning two days later to eat fizzy fruit.

Reindeer, or caribou as we call them here, play a special kind of game: They sniff out and eat the fly-agaric mushroom, Amanita muscaria. It reportedly causes hallucinations, including a sense of flying. (Now we know Santa’s secret.)

Madagascar red-fronted lemurs chew on giant millipedes which secrete toxic benzoquinone, a natural insect repellant the lemurs rub over their bodies. They continue harvesting
benzoquinone, a narcotic, until they are utterly stoned.

Catnip is perhaps the best-known pet drug. South American jaguars go further; they’ve been documented chewing on the roots of the yage vine (Banisteriopsis caapi), a powerful
hallucinogen used by native peoples to induce visions at religious ceremonies. I wonder what jaguars hallucinate about.

Other pets take a little nip of something now and again, too. Dogs are known to sometimes lick or even suck on toads, which release a toxin that stupefies pooches.

Down Under, where tons of medical opium is grown, an unusual 2009 Parliamentary Committee Report on Opium Security stated: “We have a problem with wallabies entering
poppy fields, getting high as a kite and [damaging crops].” Stoned wallabies are in the habit of trampling little “crop circles” before they pass out. And we thought it was the aliens that were making those.

Dolphins have been filmed sharing pufferfish, which release a neurotoxin with narcotic effects at small doses. Each dolphin has a taste (or puff) before passing on the puffer. By the time they let the fish go, the dolphins are deeply intoxicated. There’s a great BBC documentary that shows this kind of dolphin party.

Please use alcohol, pufferfish, giant millipedes, and toads responsibly.

Former Cornell Extension educator Paul Hetzler swears he does not inhale pufferfish.

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Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.You can read more of his work at or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World

2 Responses

  1. DnR says:

    Thanks for the morning laugh!

  2. Susan says:

    Thanks for starting off my weekend with a huge smile.

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