Altered-State Of Consciousness: ‘a change in one’s normal mental state as a result of trauma, accident, or induced through meditation, substances or some foods. The 5 categories of cause include pharmacological, psychological, physical + psychological, pathological and spontaneous – resulting in a shift in the overall pattern of experience.’
When people get high they become animals. Coffee, extreme sports, music, substances, cinema and hypnosis – life is limited without ways in which to engage and stimulate changes in our experience of consciousness.
Dolphins get high on the neurotoxins released from pufferfish, bighorn sheep pursue psychedelic lichen off the Canadian Rockies for a ‘Rocky Mountain high’, and lemurs smother themselves in toxic millipedes to keep mosquitos at bay.
Do they also shape-shift, meet mischievous spirits, encounter collective hallucinations, download secrets from the universe, meet their long lost ancestors, or experience death and rebirth after a ‘heroic overdose’? We can only speculate. Here are some of the ways in which animals seemingly transform their realities, one or more doses at a time.
Reindeer, moose and caribou all dine on psychedelic mushrooms. Fly Agaric mushrooms (Amanita Muscaria) are a red and white speckled deliriant that are non-fatal, in contrast to their deadly Angel and Death Cap cousins.
Muscimol is the active component, with a sedative and hallucinogenic effect that creates a dream-like trance in humans. When consumed by deer, they often act ‘drunk’ – running around aimlessly, twitching their heads and making noises.
A curious caribou counterpart to civet coffee: the psychoactive agents of the Fly Agaric are even more potent after passing through the deer’s digestive system, which filters out other undesirable toxins. As a result, Siberian tribes are known to consume this spiked urine brew, and deer will even battle each-other for access to it.
Catnaps On Catnip
Cats (wild and domestic) are known for their chemical love story with the perennial herb called catnip, but about ⅓ of them are not affected by it, as the behaviour is hereditary. They need to have a certain gene that allows the alkaloid nepetalactone cycloalkane to have an effect on them.
Interestingly, this chemical is very similar to the pheromones found in male cat urine, which could help explain the intoxicated behaviours on catnip. But catnip is not always a blissful fairy tale. See this short propaganda film about the dangers of the ‘nip’.
Catnip even has a history of traditional medicine use for stomach cramps, indigestion, fevers, hives, and nervous conditions. And on a more functional level, it’s hypothesised that rubbing against the plants provides cats with a chemical coat that protects them against mosquito bites.
Dolphins have been observed carrying puffer fish in their mouths and squeezing them, before passing them along to their comrades. It’s speculated that this gets the puffer fish to release a small burst of neurotoxin, which puts them into a trance-like state.
Such behaviour was recorded in a BBC documentary produced by zoologist Robert Pilley, who commented that “this was a case of young dolphins purposefully experimenting with something we know to be intoxicating. After chewing the puffer and gently passing it round, they began acting most peculiarly, hanging around with their noses at the surface as if fascinated by their own reflection. The dolphins were specifically going for the puffers and deliberately handling them with care. Dolphins seem to be experts on how to prepare puffers and how to handle them.”
Since the toxin released by the puffer fish is deadly in large doses, the dolphins would indeed need to handle the fish delicately in order to avoid a lethal overdose.
Cows, as well as other ungulates such as sheep and horses, will sometimes seek out a plant called locoweed. This intoxicating plant acts as a tranquilliser, putting animals into a stupor of calmness.
Animals will often stand in place for extended periods after consuming locoweed, seemingly uninterested in socialising or any other activity. Once an animal begins to graze on locoweed, it’s very difficult for them to stop. Rather than being an addiction, persistent grazing is thought to be a socially-learned behaviour, although the distinction between the two is still disputed.
However, dose is important and after an animal has grazed on locoweed for around 2 weeks or more, it will begin to show signs of toxicity. Symptoms include extensive weight loss, reproductive dysfunctions, and neurological impairment. Animals with ‘locoism’ develop unstable behaviour including unpredictable aggression, chronic fight or flight responses, and extreme nervousness.
Yagé (Banisteriopsis caapi) is a vine native to the Amazon Rainforest that quickly takes predators such as jaguar from intimidating to intoxicated. Its harmala alkaloids are likely not comparable to the DMT trip of an Ayahuasca brew, but are leveraged by humans to make DMT orally active.
Scientists don’t have solid hypotheses to explain why jaguars trip themselves out (maybe they just enjoy it) – but some believe that it improves their hunting skills. Eloy Rodriguez, a chemist at Cornell University, has suggested that jaguar might do this for health reasons such as to cleanse themselves, since ayahuasca “purges them of gut parasites… and the alkaloids sabotage the nervous systems of parasitic worms”.
Iboga (Tabernanthe iboga) is a shrub native to the tropical rainforests of Central Africa that bears bright orange fruit, as well as concentrating ibogaine in its roots and bark. In humans, it has earned itself a reputation for treating addiction, and inducing dangerously powerful experiences.
Mandrills (the more colourful cousin of baboons) are believed to use Iboga roots as performance enhancers in dominance conflicts – hyping themselves up for competition. It’s unclear what performance-enhancing benefits they’re experiencing, but it’s possible that the psychedelic might induce a pain-killing effect and improve reaction time.
A classic case of animal altered-states is the dangerous liaison between toad and dog. Domesticated canines across Queensland Australia are notorious for their ability to trap the invasive cane toad and lick the poison off its back.
Too much can be fatal and there are occasional deaths, native Australian snakes and other wildlife often die from eating a whole toad. But some dogs carefully use their tongues to ingest what seems to be just the right amount, given that they return each day for the same trip.
The active chemical in the toad venom is called bufotoxin. It has been used as a topical aphrodisiac in Chinese medicine, and seemingly for ritual use in Ancient Mesoamerica cultures. These days, Dobby the dog has decided the toad is just a good way to spend the afternoon.
There are also many cases of humans intentionally giving psychedelics to animals – as with hunting dogs, in order to enhance their abilities. A study published in the Journal of Ethnobiology reports that at least 43 species of psychedelic plants have been used across the globe for boosting dog hunting practices.
Drawing upon neuropharmacological research on humans, researchers hypothesise that psychedelics may improve such hunting abilities by modulating sensory gating – allowing the dogs to be more easily aware of sensory stimuli that is typically assessed as redundant, and rendered invisible. In particular, the ability to pick up on scents.
As author and cultural historian Mike Jay explains: “we are a high society”. The wide occurrence of psychedelic use across human culture, past and present, seems to be an indisputable fact. But there are many things that make humans slightly different, and intoxication is not one of them.
Humans may be the only species to cook, refine and intentionally create new drugs, but we share the earth with animals that appear to be just as interested in exploring the boundaries of experience as we are.
Looking deeper into the wide evidence of animals taking psychedelics can take the idea of animal consciousness to new heights, as well as helping us to think differently about our own human condition. Why would it surprise us that animals seek out such experiences, asks Rob Montgomery?
“Is it that such behaviour would be unique to humans, as a kind of hallmark of intelligence or sentience? Is knowledge and premeditation a precious defining line between animal and human consciousness? Why would we care to draw a line? In studying the drug-seeking behaviours of animals we may find answers that explain parallel human behaviour. Do animals pursue psychoactive drugs for the same reasons as we humans do? If animals, birds, and, yes, even insects avail themselves of inebriation, then we must see this as a natural impulse to take drugs to alter consciousness, and it exists in man as well. Perhaps, then, the problem of ‘problem drugs’ is not a ‘problem’ as we currently define it, after all.”