What makes a party animal tick ... or lick?
OVER the holidays, I read a number of articles that gave tips on responsible drinking, and how to deal with hangovers after you have ignored all those tips. As a recovering alcoholic, I am an expert on what not
to do, although my recollections are hazy at best.
My interest in this topic is not purely personal. Since I quit drinking 18 years ago, I've been looking at addiction in different ways and asking a lot of questions: Why do some people get better in recovery, while others are unable to stay clean and sober? What does addiction say about our culture and society? How will our growing dependency on legal mood-control drugs affect us in the long run?
But the thing that really caught my attention was not the latest news about this celeb or that politician entering rehab. Nor was it the local talk about drug tests for teachers, or the new smoking ban.
It was the stories about drunken animals run amok. There was the "elk-aholic bully" in Sweden that ate fermented apples, then chased away school kids and anyone else who came near the tree it kept frequenting. A couple of weeks later, there was the sad tale of a drunken moose that drowned in Sweden while under the influence of fermented fruit. The article said drunken moose and elk are "fairly common" in Sweden.
Which led me to wonder if we have a drunken animal problem in this country. So I went through my files, where I save news clippings related to addictions and odd stuff. It didn't take long for me to find the article about a cocker spaniel who was hooked on licking toads for the hallucinogenic effects it produced.
The National Public Radio story by Laura Mirsch recounted how her dog, Lady, would wander around "disoriented and glassy-eyed" after spending an "awful lot of time down by the pond." Although the type of toad is not specified, I have heard that bufo toads in Hawaii produce toxic fluids that can be dangerous to pets that bite them. Little did I know they could also get high from it!
So are certain animals more predisposed to seeking out fermented fruit or toxic toads to alter their consciousness? In Lady's case, the dog made a concerted effort to obtain toads for the purpose of sucking on them. According to Mirsch, "Lady was persistent and resourceful." Any addict can identify with Lady's dark obsession.
The dog was able to kick the habit when the toads went into hibernation for the winter. However, Lady was back to her old tricks after they returned. Mirsch says the dog is practicing moderation now and "only sucks on weekends." But I suspect Lady's owner might be in denial.
In my files, I also came across a New York Times article from a couple of years ago about this very topic ("Of Drunken Elephants, Tipsy Fish and Scotch With a Twist"). Carol Kaesuk Yoon wrote about a new theory that our primate ancestors were dependent on fruit, and developed an "attraction" to the ethanol that develops in ripe fruit. You can smell it when rotting mangoes drop to the ground. It might not be such a pleasant odor to us, but eons ago it might have smelled like fine wine to prehuman ancestors.
THE THEORY goes that in the tropics, ripe fruit doesn't last long due to competition from birds and other animals. So being able to smell out fruit sources fast could give primates an advantage. It's also possible that the alcohol in fermenting fruit acted as an appetite stimulant, which caused them to eat more and store up calories they needed in the jungle.
In other words, there might be an evolutionary reason for why we like to get drunk! Up to a point, it was good for us. But those same genes might cause overeating and binge drinking because of the body's "feast or famine" survival mechanisms. Remember that excuse for the next time you overdo it at an office party.
Yet it still doesn't answer the question about whether animals purposely ingest substances to alter their behavior or moods.
Studies have shown that lab mice and monkeys can become addicted to drugs like nicotine and cocaine. Given the choice between food and drugs, the animals opted for the drugs in many instances even when they clearly needed food. But that kind of dependency might be more physical than mental, since we can't be sure what a mouse or monkey is thinking or feeling when it takes a hit of crack.
One flaw in the drunk primate ancestor theory is that experts say there is no evidence of monkeys or apes getting buzzed on rotting fruit in the wild. These primatologists believe that monkeys and apes are too "sophisticated" to eat overripe fruit that could make them act stupid and leave them with nasty hangovers. If monkeys are smart enough to avoid getting hammered, what does that say about us?
AS A researcher notes in the Times article, "Humans might be the only animals that wish to escape from their own consciousness." And there's the rub: Why do we seem to have this need to change the way we feel by drinking or using drugs, when we know of the potential damage we are doing to ourselves?
In future columns, I hope to explore these ideas and talk openly about my own battles with addiction. Stick around, and you'll hear some wild stories about how I went from being a successful New York City marketing exec to hitting rock bottom in Honolulu -- and how I re-emerged from rehab to became an award-winning screenwriter with projects optioned by major Hollywood producers.
For me, recovery has been about regaining my sense of identity and finding out who I really am. My name is Rich Figel and I'm a writer -- who's addicted for life.
Rich Figel is a screenwriter who lives in Kailua. He has been clean and sober for 18 years. His column will appear periodically in the Insight section.