Monday, July 13, 2009

The hallucinating cat and other animals

Funny thing, this aching need some people have to get high.

It's such an irrepressible urge; it has so much force and persistence that psychopharmacologist Ronald Siegel has called it a "fourth drive", which functions much like our drives for food, sleep and sex.

Animals, apparently, have such a need too. And like humans – who will risk death and imprisonment to get intoxicated – animals too will go to great lengths to gain that pleasurable sense of well-being that only certain hallucinogenic plants offer.

In the Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan writes:

“According to Ronald K. Siegel, a pharmacologist who has studied intoxication in animals, it is common for animals deliberately to experiment with plant toxins; when an intoxicant is found, the animal will return to the source repeatedly, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Cattle will develop a taste for locoweed that can prove fatal; bighorn sheep will grind their teeth to useless nubs scraping a hallucinogenic lichen off ledge rock. . . Goats, who will try a little bit of anything, probably deserve credit for the discovery of coffee: Abyssinian herders in the tenth century observed their animals would become particularly frisky after nibbling the shrub’s bright red berries. Pigeons spacing out on cannabis seeds (a favorite food of many birds) may have tipped off the ancient Chinese (or Aryans of Scythians) to that plant’s special properties. Peruvian legend has it that the puma discovered quinine: Indians observed that sick cats were often restored to health after eating the bark of the cinchona tree. Tukano Indians in the Amazon noticed that jaguars, not ordinarily herbivorous, would eat the bark of the yaje vine and hallucinate.”

Birds do it. Bees do it and make honey that’s sweetly intoxicating. Certain elephants in Malay do it: travelling great distances to eat a vine that offers them a powerful kick. They will also trample on a palm that protects itself with long, tough thorns only to get at the intoxicating pith. Water buffaloes in opium country love to get drowsy on the cultivated opium poppies - though they are bitter and pungent to taste. Baboons love to eat datura. Cats love to hallucinate on catnip and go chasing phantom butterflies.

In places where khat, a powerful stimulant, is grown commercially, fields are protected by electric fencing to keep out goats who are mad about its leaves.

The fencing is a bit like prohibition in Gujarat. With a sign saying: Beware. Trespassers might die. In Goa, of course, there is no fencing. People get drunk all the time, even early in the morning. Maybe a little self-imposed fencing wouldn't be such a bad thing.


Radhika said...

miss your posts!

Varuna said...

Radhika, thanks for reading me regularly. And sorry. I've been really busy. But hope to write more often from next week. Do check again mid-week again.