Spaced-out sheep, jonesing jaguars, and wasted monkeys. The animal kingdom is full of intoxicated creatures.
- The new movie Cocaine Bear is based on a true story about a black bear consuming a lethal dose of smuggled drugs.
- Lots of animals have been documented ingesting toxic substances to get high, and studies have shown that, like humans, lab rats have the capacity for addiction.
- Each year, thousands of household pets get into their owners’ drugs, most commonly their over-the-counter medications.
In the fall of 1985, authorities discovered the body of a convicted drug smuggler in a Tennessee backyard. The man, wearing Gucci loafers and wrapped in a failed parachute, had 77 pounds of cocaine on him as well as the key to a twin-engine airplane that was found wrecked some 60 miles away. Based on the man’s line of work, investigators assumed there would be more drugs nearby. Over the next few months, they found what they were looking for: approximately 300 pounds of cocaine scattered around the Blue Ridge Mountains. But they also stumbled upon something no one was expecting—the carcass of a 150-pound black bear surrounded by 40 empty containers of cocaine, dead of an apparent overdose.
According to the Associated Press, the bear was thought to have eaten 88 pounds of the drug, an amount worth as much as $20 million.
Now, almost four decades later, the sad, sordid tale of Cocaine Bear has been adapted—and wildly exaggerated—for the silver screen, and movie-goers are itching to see it. Raking in $28 million in its opening weekend, the film is evidence that people will pay good money to watch an animal get high.
But while cocaine bear’s real-life bender was more convenient than calculated, the animal kingdom is full of creatures who partake in recreational drug use—including some that might be sharing a couch with you right now.
Meet the Party Animals
Chances are, you’ve been around a stoned cat. When cats are exposed to Nepeta cataria—catnip—they almost immediately begin to show signs of intoxication, rolling, drooling, and hunting for imaginary prey. The chemical that causes these reactions is called nepetalactone and is used in humans to produce a sedative effect. It’s not harmful or addictive to cats. Big cats can also throw down. Jaguars in the Peruvian rainforest have been documented eating a vine called Yage that contains the psychedelic substance DMT, which seems to have a hallucinogenic effect on the apex predator.
Elsewhere, dolphins appear to get high by carefully passing around pufferfish, which produce a defense toxin that seems to induce a trance-like state in the marine mammals. Scientists have witnessed the intoxicated dolphins floating just below the water’s surface, staring at their own reflections. Similarly, lemurs chew on toxic millipedes to get high, and big-horn sheep seek out a rare form of narcotic lichen, grinding their teeth right to the gums to scrape every last bit from the rocks in order to get their fix.
Monkeys are notorious lushes, and a recent study found that spider monkeys in Panama regularly consumed fermented fruit as a part of their diet. While the researchers concluded the primates ate the fruit mostly for its caloric benefit, they also saw the monkeys get drunk enough to vomit and fall out of the trees, twice.
Can Animals Get Addicted to Drugs?
For decades, scientists have conducted animal studies to understand how drugs affect human health and behavior, and these experiments have demonstrated that animals do in fact have the capacity for addiction. A landmark study in 1998, for example, showed that rats given the ability to access cocaine would do so with increasing frequency across days. Follow-on experiments reproduced these results using methamphetamines and alcohol. Furthermore, substance-loving rodents even began to exhibit addictive behavior, such as a heightened motivation for the drug and reduced sensitivity to punishment for seeking it.
Other animal studies have helped scientists learn how the environment might encourage addiction; the most famous among these is Canadian psychologist Bruce K. Alexander’s so-called “Rat Park.” In his experiments, Alexander demonstrated that rats isolated in small, austere cages faired worse: given the choice between water and a sweetened morphine solution, they would most often choose the morphine, sucking it down until they overdosed and died.
On the other hand, rats placed in large, elaborate cages with lots of other rats only sporadically chose the morphine and never overdosed. Based on these results, Alexander concluded that addiction isn’t merely a biological response to drug use. While Rat Park has been criticized for its methodology, the study has remained a cultural touchpoint concerning the connection between social factors and drug abuse.
Just Say No—to Your Pets
Dolphins, monkeys, and lab rats aside, the animals getting high the most are the ones that live with humans.
In 2021 alone, the ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control Center hotline fielded calls about more than 7,000 pets that were exposed to drugs, a 60 percent increase from the year before. More than 17 percent of those calls concerned a pet getting into prescription drugs.
According to a survey carried out by a Florida addiction treatment center, of 1,348 people surveyed, 1,083 had witnessed a pet ingest a drug, including alcohol, marijuana, narcotics, and prescription pills. Of those, 807 were dogs, who most typically were observed drinking alcohol, eating over-the counter-medicine, and getting a contact high from their owner’s weed.
Pets that have ingested drugs can present a variety of symptoms, from lethargy to collapse. To be on the safe side, if you think your furry friend has raided your stash or bested the child-safety cap, call the vet right away.