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Wild party! The science behind 'Cocaine Bear' and other inebriated animals
You could fill a zoo with animal species that use and abuse substances.
With a title like Cocaine Bear, Elizabeth Banks’ upcoming wildlife comedy thriller is destined to become a cultural moment unlike any since the release of Snakes on a Plane. The movie is ostensibly based on real life events, but “based on” is doing a lot of heavy lifting. The true story of the animal lovingly known as Pablo Escobear is a weird one, but not quite as violent as the upcoming film might have you believe.
It turns out, animals like to bend their minds just as much as we do. You could fill a zoo with the species who use and abuse substances. It might make for one hell of a party. Universal’s Cocaine Bear is set to hit theaters Feb. 24, 2023. In the meantime, allow us to regale you with tales of other animals who experimented with illicit substances and the wacky hijinks which ensued.
NATURAL ANIMAL DRUG USE
Humans might be the reigning champions of mind altering substances, but that doesn’t mean other animals don’t get in on the action. It seems that if there are reality altering chemicals around, some animal or another will sniff them out, without any help from humans.
The Malaysian pen-tailed tree shrew doesn’t look like a party animal. It’s a small mammal with a long feathered tail. It’s the sort of thing which looks like a prepackaged snack for any predator walking by, and not the sort of thing you’d expect to be the last one awake at a college kegger.
A fun Saturday night for a pen-tailed shrew involves finding the flower buds of a bertram palm. Inside, there’s a nectar that makes up nearly 100% of the shrew’s diet. It’s the only thing they eat, and it contains up to 3.8% alcohol, a consequence of fermentation which occurs before the shrews arrive. It’s the dietary equivalent of living on nothing but wine coolers. Interestingly, researchers noted no signs of intoxication, despite having blood alcohol levels higher than a human with similar alcohol intake. Either pen-tailed tree shrews don’t get drunk or they’re the platonic ideal of a functional alcoholic. The shrews might not feel it, but primates definitely do. Some monkeys have even been known to develop a dependence on alcohol.
Dolphins, on the other hand, appear to seek out chemical intoxicants for the express purpose of getting high. Footage of dolphins in the wild have documented the animals playing with, but not eating, a pufferfish. Pufferfish are known for producing a potent neurotoxin as a defense mechanism, but the dolphins aren’t eating them. Instead, that toxin is being released into the water where it appears to put dolphins into a trance-like state, according to Smithsonian Magazine. And dolphins aren’t alone in this endeavor. Reindeer have been documented seeking out psychedelic mushrooms and behaving oddly after they’re consumed. Some even argue that the relationship between reindeer and hallucinogens is so strong that it inspired the mythology of Santa Claus.
Of course, Cocaine Bear wasn’t an instance of an animal seeking out a naturally available high. It was the result of human action intersecting with the natural world to create a situation which would have never happened without our intervention. That happens more often than you might think.
WHEN HUMANS ARE THROWING THE PARTY
Sure, you get your occasional drug smuggler dropping cocaine in the forest, but most of the time animals do drugs not in the woods but in the laboratory. First up, was the time scientists gave rats cocaine until they got really into jazz music. A tale as old as time.
It was actually two experiments published under the too-tame title “Music-induced context preference following cocaine conditioning in rats,” in a 2011 edition of the journal Behavioral Neuroscience. First, placed in a box where they listened to Miles Davis’s song "Four" for 90 minutes straight. During this period scientists measured the amount that mice moved around the cage. After a few days of conditioning, half the rats were given methamphetamines. That group got more active than the control group, as you might expect. After a week, their drug supply was cut off and the mice were put in a new room where they listened to Miles Davis again. Scientists found that the animals who associated the music with drugs moved around and had higher levels of dopamine. Essentially, they showed that mice can learn to associate musical stimuli with prior experiences.
In a second experiment, mice were given a dial which allowed them to choose between musical selections and silence. Researchers kept track of their selections to determine a mouse’s favorite and least favorite choices. Then the mice were given cocaine and forced to listen to their least favorite music. When the drugs were taken away, the mice would intentionally select that song again. They used to hate it, but now they can’t get enough. Taken together, these two experiments suggest that mice do associate musical cues with experiences, drug use in this case, and will seek out that stimuli in an attempt to relive those experiences. The purpose of the experiment was to better understand some of the underlying mechanisms of addiction, not to convince mice to like jazz. That was a happy accident.
Being forced to listen to jazz might seem like cruel and unusual punishment to some of you, but that’s nothing compared to what happened to an Asian elephant named Tusko. In 1962, at the University of Oklahoma, the elephant from the Oklahoma City Zoo was injected with 297 milligrams of LSD.
According to The Guardian, Dr. Louis Jolyon West, who carried out the experiment — if we can really call it that — was interested in whether the newly arisen drug LSD would instigate a period of high aggression and heightened testosterone production. Why he wanted to know that is unclear. What is clear, however, is that’s way too much LSD to give anyone, even an elephant.
For context, an average human dose of LS ranges between 25 and 200 micrograms. Even taking the high end of 200, Tusko was given a dose nearly 1,500 times that of a human. Within a few minutes, Tusko fell over and started to shake. He emptied his bowels and struggled to breathe. After 20 minutes, the elephant was given a dose of Thorazine, an anti-psychotic, which is believed to have caused a significant drop in blood pressure as well as heart palpitations. Finally, Tusko was given a tranquilizer and he died, almost two hours after the ordeal began.
It's worth noting that Tusko probably didn’t die as a result of the LSD. The experiment was repeated with two elephants in 1984 and both elephants survived. The major difference was this time they were given only the LSD. Tusko’s death was likely the result of a deadly chemical cocktail administered over the course of his last couple of hours.
These aren’t the only examples of animals on drugs, all in the name of science, but they illustrate the breadth of our quest for discovery. Sometimes an animal on drugs is a legitimate attempt at understanding our own relationship with addiction, and sometimes it’s a madman with access to an incredible amount of hallucinogens and an elephant.
Cocaine Bear opens only in theaters Feb. 24, 2023.