Celebrate the New Year with Intoxicated Animals

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When someone starts getting a little too sloshed at a New Year’s Eve party, you can tell them to stop acting like an animal, literally. Many animals seem to enjoy getting a good buzz on just as much as humans.

In fact, some animals may have introduced humans to a number of drugs, including psychedelic mushrooms, alcohol, caffeine, and cocaine.

Even the legend behind Santa’s flying reindeer may have its roots in a psychedelic experience.

Reindeer are known to feed on the fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria), then stumble about, twitching and making strange noises. The mushrooms contain the hallucinogen muscimol.

It is unknown whether the reindeer also enjoy listening to eight hours of Grateful Dead recordings while playing with glow-in-the-dark objects.

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Humans can trip on fly agaric mushrooms as well, but the fungi can also be poisonous. Long ago, people noticed that the reindeer’s bodies filter out the toxins, leaving only the hallucinogen. So reindeer herders in the far north learned to collect the urine from mushroom-munching reindeer.

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Perhaps the stories of flying reindeer bringing gifts to humanity has its roots in the visions of an ancient shaman high on reindeer urine.

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Hallucinogenic mushrooms aren’t the only drug animals may have introduced to humanity. Mythology and anthropology provide other example of animals turning people on to highs.

 

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The llamas of Peru may have introduced the people of South America to the use of coca leaves about 7000 years ago. Legend holds that the llamas ate coca leaves when their normal foods were unavailable, wrote Haynes. The llama herder, like Khaldi the goatherd, noticed the friskiness of his animals after they partook.

Cocaine is a serious problem, but don’t think of the llama as a drug pusher. Coca leaves have been used by the people of South America to combat altitude sickness and increase stamina in the thin air of the Andes for millenia. It wasn’t until European scientists refined the leaves into cocaine powder that people started getting strung out.

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With hard drugs, animals too are at risk. Humans may be pushing dope on the animal kingdom when it comes to opiates. Water buffalo in southeast Asia eat poppies waiting to be harvested, wrote Ronald Siegel in Intoxication: the universal drive for mind-altering substances. The buffalo then become mellow and wander away from their herds. But once the crop has been harvested, the buffalo show signs of withdrawal, such as tremors, restlessness and convulsions.

Jaguars have been observed romping like house cats on catnip after gnawing on the roots and bark of yage, (Banisteriopsis caapi). Some anthropologists believe that humans in South America may have learned the use of yage from jaguars, according to Andrew Haynes in Pharmaceutical Journal. Yage is one of the plants used in the production of the vision-inducing hallucinogen, ayahuasca.

In modern literature, Beatnik writer William Burroughs wrote about his search for the drug to his friend, poet Allen Ginsberg. Burroughs should have just followed the jaguars.

Speaking of writers, most authors and journalists are indebted to animals for the discovery of another drug, caffeine. The story goes that an Ethiopian goat-herd named Khaldi discovered the powers of the coffee bean after his goat ate some and became energetic and rambunctious.

Animals introduced us to one beverage that keeps us alert, but may have also introduced us to one with the opposite effects. Effects many will be enjoying this News Year’s Eve.

Fermenting fruit, sap, honey, and grain have been getting animals drunk since before humans existed. Monkeys, elephants, elk, and bears are notorious party animals.

 

A troop of baboons ate wine grapes fermenting in South Africa’s vineyards in August of 2010. Like revelers on Spring Break, they then went on a drunken rampage destroying property, pelting humans with fruit, and even killing a Great Dane.

Another drunken animal provides a possible evolutionary explanation for human alcoholism. The Malaysian pen-tailed tree shrew is known to drink the human equivalent of nine drinks a night without getting wasted. The booze supplier is a type of palm tree. The sap of the tree collects and ferments year-round. The shrews that can hold their liquor get a dependable, high-energy meal and help pollinate the palm tree.

The tree shrew is believed to be similar to the last common ancestor of all primates. Tolerance for high levels of alcohol could have allowed early primates to exploit fermented beverages as a rich energy source.

No matter what the evolutionary justification, wise party-goers should avoid drinking like a tree shrew during the holidays.

IMAGE 1:The fly agaric mushroom; SOURCE: Onderwijsgek, Wikimedia Commons