STORIES

Meet the Animals Who Love to Get High

By Daniel Oberhaus on June 20, 2019

One of the many joys of being a human is our ability to enjoy altered states of consciousness induced by psychotropic substances. However, as it turns out, humans are far from alone in our pursuit of elevated states of mind. In fact, the animal kingdom appears to be awash with species that enjoy getting stoned from time to time.

This is, at least, the opinion of Giorgio Samorini, an Italian psychedelics researcher and perhaps the world’s foremost expert on animal drug use. In the early '90s, while researching a type of psilocybin mushroom that grows wild in the Italian alpine meadows, Samorini observed a herd of wild goats feasting on the shrooms. Samorini noticed that “goats under its influence exhibit overstimulated behavior, run about awkwardly, and shake their heads wildly back and forth.” While it might be tempting to say that the goats had accidentally poisoned themselves, Samorini noticed that once a herd located the psychedelic mushrooms, they wouldn’t eat anything else until all the shrooms were gone. In other words, the goats appeared to be getting high on purpose.

These observations led Samorini to question whether there might be other animals that seek out a natural high. This research direction culminated in his short book, Animals and Psychedelics, which is a field guide to Mother Nature’s stoners. As Samorini notes, this is a very under-researched area of biology, so there is only limited evidence that shows animals get high intentionally. Still, the evidence that exists suggests that the drive toward intoxication is found at all levels of the animal kingdom. Here are some of the weirder examples collected by Samorini:

Cats: As every cat owner knows, their feline pets are a sucker for Nepeta cataria, better known as catnip. As Samorini notes, this common herb induces a state of intoxication in the cat, characterized by rubbing against the plant, rolling around on the ground and salivation. Even more curious, however, is that the plant seems to act like an aphrodisiac. Male cats under the influence of Nepeta will get erections and female cats will get into a mating stance. Japanese cats have another way to get high, too. According to Samorini, cats in Japan like to chew the leaves of matatabi, which causes them to “stretch out on their backs with their paws up and remain motionless in this position for some time, in apparent or perhaps real ecstasy.”

Reindeer: Fly agaric is a type of mushroom well-known to induce psychoactive effects in humans. It is easily recognizable by its bright red cap that is covered in white dots and grows wild in forests of birch trees, which are typically found in northern climates. In the Siberian tundra, reindeer feast on the mushroom, which results in them “running about wildly and shaking their heads and hindquarters from side to side.” The reindeer have also been seen to drink the urine of other reindeer that have previously ingested the mushroom. This is also a noted practice among some Siberian peoples, Samorini notes, who drink the urine of others who have dosed themselves with the mushroom, which apparently increases its psychedelic effects while lowering its toxicity.

Robins: If you ever happen to find yourself in Northern California in the spring, don’t forget to look up. Since the 1930s, locals have documented the migration of thousands of robins that flock to trees bearing California holly, a type of small red berry. When the robins eat enough of these berries, they begin to exhibit behavior that resembles drunkenness. “For about three weeks this region unintentionally hosts what can only be called a drunken orgy on the part of the birds, who become disoriented and confused, engaging in silly games with each other and fluttering wildly into cars and houses,” Samorini writes.

Koalas: These poster children of wildlife Down Under have never exactly been known for their high energy. But research suggests this may have a lot to do with the fact that one of their only sources of food—eucalyptus plants—induces a narcotic effect in the koalas. According to Samorini, Australian aboriginals believe that koalas are, in fact, addicted to the stuff. This would make koalas somewhat unique in that the source of their drug dependency also happens to be their only source of nutrition.

Elephants: Elephants are the size of a house, so it’s not like they’re a lightweight when it comes to getting intoxicated. Still, these giants find a way. Evidence shows that Asian elephants in Bengal and Indonesia will seek out fallen durian fruits on the ground, which have fermented to produce alcohol. This can cause the elephants to “sway and fall down, lolling on the earth in a state of lethargy.” It’s not just the elephants, though. Other animals, including monkeys, foxes and bats, are also attracted to fermented durian and many exhibit intoxicated behaviors after eating the pungent fruit.

Slugs: Speaking of drunk animals, slugs also appear to enjoy a buzz every now and again. Farmers have long known that the best way to rid a garden of a slug infestation is to put out a shallow dish of wine or beer, and the snails will come to the dish in droves. Once the snails are in their alcohol bath, they are “apparently drunk and unable to move,” which allows the farmers a chance to remove them from their garden.

One of the trickiest aspects of studying animals getting high is determining whether the animal intended to become intoxicated. Animals obviously cannot report on how they’re feeling or why they decided to, say, eat a psychedelic mushroom, so researchers must rely on behavioral cues to determine an animal’s mental state. As Samorini notes, one of the biggest tells in this respect is repetitive behavior. If an animal accidentally becomes intoxicated by eating a plant and it induces an unpleasant feeling, that animal will likely avoid repeating that mistake in the future. But if the same animal keeps coming back for more, there is reason to believe that the animal is actually seeking out the intoxicating effects of the plant.

So why would an animal want to get high? The reasons are likely as manifold as they are for humans. Consider dolphins, for instance, that appear to get high on the venom secreted by puffer fish. Dolphins are well known for their ability to have sex for pleasure, rather than purely as a procreative activity. So are dolphins huffing puffer fish for the pleasure of it or to relax after a long day of hunting? It’s certainly possible.

Samorini has a more provocative thesis, however. He suggests that inducing altered states of consciousness in animals may serve an evolutionary function. Darwin discovered that physical and behavioral traits that increase an animal’s odds of survival and procreation will spread throughout a species by way of that animal’s increased fitness. So could it be that intoxicating plants enhance an animal’s sensory capacity in a way that makes it more likely to survive?

“Suggestive evidence shows that altered states produced by certain psychoactive plants can allow rigid instincts to be bypassed, enabling new behaviors and techniques to be learned and passed along by the experimentalists of a species,” Samorini writes. “Awareness-enhancing plant drugs are indeed sought out by certain animals. And behavior which increases mating, such as eating prosexual or libidostimulant plant drugs (the so-called aphrodisiacs), means disproportionate breeding by that savvy individual that thus breeds more of its gene type into the species.”

That animals may be getting high to increase their odds of survival is a tantalizing thesis, but more evidence is needed to back it up. Nearly 20 years after Samorini published his book, research on animal intoxication remains scant and taboo within the field of biology. Samorini suspects the reason this area is understudied may have a lot to do with our moral hang ups about drug use among humans. Today, using drugs in any form is often considered an aberration, something that is, as Samorini put it, “unnatural and therefore immoral.” Yet if we were to find further evidence that getting high or seeking states of intoxication is widespread throughout the animal kingdom, maintaining that this behavior is "unnatural" would be untenable.

“Having identified a natural component in the human impulse to take drugs—by observing the same impulse made manifest in the animal kingdom—the problems linked to human drug use must be found in the cultural component that mediates this behavior,” Samorini writes. “In other words, the drug phenomenon is a natural phenomenon, while the drug problem is a cultural problem.”

For this reason, Samorini suggests that it is worthwhile to continue researching aspects of drug use in the wider animal kingdom, if only for what it can teach us about our own relationship with altered states of consciousness. 

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