An addict lurks in all of us

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Naisargi Dave is a professor / author in Canada who comes to India once a year. She knows I thirst for unusual books. This year’s treasure trove includes an amazing book called Zoobiquity, written by a medical doctor Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and it talks about the sameness of all species.

One of the things we have in common is a love for intoxication.

Humans throw away their lives, destroy their families, ruin their careers, in search of that which makes them high for a few hours. Cigarettes, alcohol, heroin, crack, opium, glues, cough mixtures, LSD… the list of substances that are smoked, drunk, eaten or injected is endless and no matter what governments do to get rid of the substances and no matter how stringent the laws, lakhs of people carry on abusing their bodies in search of chemical mind altering happiness.

So do animals. Tasmania, in Australia, is one of the leading growers of opium. Wallabies, which look like mini kangaroos, ignore the fencing and strict patrolling to eat the poppy sap. They flail about and some of them pass out and have to be carried away. Wallabies, who are drug addicts, have the staring large eyes of addicts.

Birds eat the Brazilian pepper tree berries and then fly crazily into buildings, killing themselves. In Scandinavia, it is common to see birds eating alcohol filled rowan berries, falling drunk into the snow and freezing to death. Horses that eat fermented apples go equally crazy and harm themselves. The tree shrews of Malaysia’s rain forests prefer the alcoholic nectar of the Bertram palm to food. Pigs that eat pomace, the pulpy mass that remains after apples have been crushed and pressed to extract the juice to make cider, get so drunk they scream and whimper. Squirrels cluster round fermented pumpkins and goats love fermented plums. When the Mahua tree of North India bears fruit, thousands of animals and birds come from far away to gorge themselves on its alcoholic content. In my garden the bees buzz round the bhang plants, forsaking all other flowers.

In India rhesus monkeys that stray into the sugarcane distilleries of Uttar Pradesh, stop eating and drink themselves into a stupor, often electrocuting themselves on the high tension wires. Monkeys drinking alcohol is so old that Aristotle, the Greek philosopher 384 BC – 322 BC, recorded ways to trap wild monkeys by laying out jugs of wine for them to drink and then picking them up when they passed out. In the Caribbean islands the monkeys enter hotel bars and run off with customers’ cocktails.

Some animals, like humans, seek out intoxicants at a great risk to themselves. Bighorn sheep in Canada climb steep cliffs in search of psychotropic lichen. They scrape the stones so hard that their teeth are destroyed.

Cattle and horses that graze in the western United States eat a weed called Locoweed, go weak in the knees, lose their sense of direction and suffer irreversible brain damage, becoming easy prey to predators. Amazingly, one drugged animal makes the others want to start as well, so ranchers have to remove them from the herd immediately before others go seeking the weed. Deer and antelope have the same problem.

Drugs can be found in the strangest places. Cane toads produce a hallucinogenic toxin on their skin. Animals, even dogs, who taste this substance, go after the toads to lick them again and again.

Both animals and humans have the same approach to intoxicants. At first they have an aversion – which is probably overcome with peer encouragement. Then, when they start using the drug, they lose control over their bodies, staggering till they pass out. They both have withdrawal symptoms. Darwin has written about a monkey hangover- “On the following morning they were very cross and dismal; they held their aching heads with both hands and wore a most pitiable expression: when beer or wine was offered them they turned away with disgust, but relished the juice of lemons.” The next step is that they both go actively in search of the drug, forgoing sex, food, water and ignoring children. They beg for more and are prepared to do anything. Animals like humans use more when they are in pain or stressed by their surroundings and – amazingly so- by their subordinate social positions.

Artists and musicians claim to produce much better work when smoking weed. Students take methamphetamines to increase their memories. Likewise, some animals reach their peaks when under the influence. Spiders make much more intricate webs when under the influence of marijuana. Flies become hypersexual.

According to scientists, both human and animal bodies have evolved specialized doorways, called receptors, for drugs. Even fish, amphibians and insects have receptors for opiates. From birds to sea urchins and leeches, the receptors for cannabis exist. So, the urge for outside stimulation exists in all beings.

According to Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist in Washington’s University College of Veterinary Medicine, animals and humans go after drugs to dull the pain that they feel. Not physical pain but sadness; what is known as weltschmerz. Weltschmerz is a German word, meaning world-pain and denotes the kind of feeling experienced by someone who understands that physical reality can never satisfy the demands of the mind. It is used to denote the psychological pain caused by sadness that can occur when realizing the inappropriateness and cruelty of the world and one’s own weakness and inadequate physical and social circumstances. Weltschmerz can cause depression, resignation and escapism.

An animal is as emotionally vulnerable as a human being. The goat is as sad as you are and often puzzled by the pain and cruelty he sees round him. Animals don’t react in ways that communicate pain to humans: they don’t vocalise, except when they really cannot bear any more. They don’t communicate through their facial features. When they are hurt they withdraw. So, most humans believe that the animal they eat, experiment on , enslave and misuse are “biological machines”, creatures that do not feel pain. (Scientists used to think that about babies as well). But all brain imaging now shows that they respond to the same stimulants of pleasure: finding food, playing with friends, escaping to a hideout, interacting with family, bonding with mothers. Conversely they feel depression, fear, grief and anxiety in any survival threatening situation – as we do.

An intoxicant creates the feeling of an immediate benefit. The animal or the human is not required to “work” first to get the reward, to forage, earn, flee, protect, socialise or love. They go straight to reward when the chemical provides a false signal that all is well. An addict lurks in all of us, animal or human. For, all of us are sad and all of us crave reward; food, praise, a pat on the back, a tummy rub. Basically, a temporary good feeling to ward away the permanent unhappiness of life. Man or animal, some of us prefer chemical intoxication to real life.

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