A photograph by Peter Beard

A few weeks ago, when visiting Pedro Reyes’s library TLACUILO, I stumbled across a whole shelf of psychedelic books. Heaven! One that instantly sprang out was Giorgio Samorini´s “Animals and Psychedelics: The Natural World and the Instinct to Alter Consciousness.”



The book is a short thesis about the remarkable propensity of wild animals to seek out and use psychoactive substances. I think that learning more about animals’ natural inclination towards an altered state can help reframe the narrative surrounding humans and drug exploration. Below, I have written out some interesting parts of the book that I highlighted and think are important to share.



“In the past few decades, however, with the adoption of ever more refined techniques of observation and the centralisation of data gathered from every region of the globe, ethnologists are accumulating a mass of factual information about animals that drug themselves voluntarily, so that the pertinent data can no longer be underestimated. What seemed at first to be an exception now appears to be, instead, a behavioural rule scattered throughout all levels of the animal world – from mammals to birds and even insects – so that the interpretation of such behaviour as a particular and individualised symptom of illness is no longer valid and acceptable. One must suspect, instead, that in the behaviour of animals – and therefore, of human beings – the consumption of drugs constitutes some natural component.”


“The mind-altering properties of many drugs found in plants – coffee, tea, khat, iboga, and fly agaric, for instance – were discovered by human observers who initially witnessed their intentional use by animals.”


“All this simply follows the normal process of acceptance of any new idea: initially derided and opposed, it eventually forces an opening, or point of passage, through which rigid modes of thought and reestablished interpretive models can disintegrate.


Below I will list some examples of animals and their drug of choice:

  • Cows and horses and locoweed (crazy grass). “In the United States there are actual retreats dedicated to the recovery of animals addicted to locoweed, in which an attempt is made to rehabilitate them, interrupting the cycle of dependency so that they can be reintroduced to their proper work.”
  • African Elephants love fermented fruits of several kinds of palm trees (doum, marula, mgongo, and palmyra) that get them drunk. “Dumbo, the imaginary flying elephant of cartoon fame who sees dancing pink elephants himself after drinking alcohol, originated from the knowledge of his real, wild prototypes´ fondness for drink.”
  • “Many members of the feline family, from domestic cats to tigers, become intoxicated after eating or chewing the leaves of certain herbs. The most well known example, of course, is the behaviour of cats around Nepeta cataria, or catnip”
  • “There is a widespread tale in Ethiopia regarding the origin of coffee, which credits the discovery of its stimulating properties to a goatherd who happened to notice the bizarre behaviour of his goats after they had browsed on coffee berries.”
  • American robins get drunk off the scarlet fruit toyon (Californian holly)
  • Wild bighorn sheep of Canada and lichen
  • “Australian koalas feed exclusively on the fresh leaves of the eucalyptus plant, a phenomenon well known to native aboriginal peoples as well as zoo curators all over the world. Also known is that this sole food source exerts a narcotic and relaxing effect on koalas; aboriginals believe that the animals are severely addicted.”
  • Wild boars of the forests of Gabon and the Congo and the hallucinogenic roots of the iboga bush


Samorini´s (Italian Ethnobotanist) hypothesis is that “natural drug-using behaviour may be much more widespread in the animal world that that which wet have so dar discerned. In other words, it would seem that we are only at the beginning of this knowledge. And the phenomenon of animals that drug themselves becomes ever more important as it leads us to a fuller comprehension of the motivations that induce human beings to do the same.”


“More and more scholars and researches are distancing themselves from the behaviouristic paradigm and beginning to admit the possibility of perceptive consciousness in animals.”


“Returning to the human arena, we must take into account the fact that all human behaviours, including the primary function of nutrition and reproduction, are meditated by culture. Having identified a natural component in the human impulse to take drugs – by observing the same impulse made manifest in the animal kingdom – the problems linked to human drug use must be found in the cultural component that mediates this behaviour. In other words, the drug phenomenon is a natural phenomenon, while the drug problem is a cultural problem.”


“To ensure that human drug use does not debase itself and become “bestial,” it is important that it, like all other human behaviours, be mediated by appropriate cultural understanding and knowledge. Depriving the individual and his of her society of this knowledge – an understanding, above all, of how to use drugs and in which contexts their use is appropriate – paves the way for improper approach and use and, consequently, for the drug problem.

Tangible improvements of the drug problem can only come about by means of scientific study of the drug phenomenon and identification of the variables that regulate this phenomenon in the context of the intimate relationship between nature and human culture.”