Fall 2002

The Clean Room / Just Say No to Eucalyptus

The canine algebra of need

David Serlin

“The Clean Room” is a column by David Serlin on science and technology.

In her later years, our beloved but neurotic German shepherd, Sheba, suffered from uncontrollable and almost paralyzing anxiety whenever it threatened to rain. At even the faintest whisper of an oncoming storm—an unavoidable fact of life growing up in South Florida—Sheba would start shaking violently, leaping from room to room, turning over furniture, and scratching paint from walls and doors. Call it WDAD: Weather-Derived Anxiety Disorder. Once, during hurricane season, she became so unmanageable that we put her in a bathroom overnight while waiting for the gale-force winds and torrential downpour to subside. When we opened the door the next morning to release her, the bathroom walls and ceiling were covered with blood. In the process of pouncing upon and scratching at the door so urgently, Sheba had worn down her nails to the veins beneath. Even in that well-lit and familiar enclosed space, she could not find shelter, not even from herself.

Our veterinarian, an earnest family man from Denver with enormous teeth and hairy knuckles, recommended that we give Sheba behavior-modifying drugs: small pills in hues of candy-apple red or minty green that we administered in globs of margarine. We started Sheba on a regimen of Valium; within 12 months, however, she grew resistant to the drugs even while ingesting doses of more than 25 milligrams. After her unsuccessful stint on Valium, the veterinarian believed Sheba might find consolation in Phenobarbital, the drug of choice for a new generation of domestic pets. But despite an initially calming effect, which gave her glassy eyes and an ethereal if staggered gait reminiscent of Gloria Swanson’s in Sunset Boulevard, even large doses of Phenobarbital could not prevent Sheba from undergoing behavioral transformations that seemed at times almost supernatural.

David Serlin (right) and his brother Stuart with Sheba in 1978 before the onset of WDAD.

What I recall most about that era—other than its coincidence with the mid-1980s “Just Say No” campaign spearheaded by Nancy Reagan—was the grave realization that rather than ameliorating her suffering my family in fact had been enabling Sheba’s drug use. A kind of Pavlovian experiment gone awry, we rewarded Sheba’s behavior with an increasingly more powerful regimen of hardcore pharmaceuticals to which her body had become not only acclimated but also physiologically addicted. In our good-faith effort to assuage Sheba’s fears we had turned our trusting German shepherd into Neely O’Hara in Valley of the Dolls. Had her shaking occurred because of inclement weather, I wondered, or because of withdrawal symptoms? In the blaxploitation film of my imagination, I was convinced that our veterinarian was Mr. Big, I was the small-time dealer with a nagging conscience, and Sheba the smack addict caught in “the algebra of need,” that devastating cycle of consumption and deprivation described by William Burroughs in Naked Lunch.[1]

Sheba’s drug dependence, whether real or imagined, could be considered yet another example of the inevitable parallels between domestication and modernization. Both processes are, invariably, responsible for transforming animals from independent and autonomous entities into pliant subjects shaped by the dominant codes of civilization. Yet as much as we are responsible for these domesticating processes—through cultural immersion, obedience school, or, in the case of Sheba, behavior modification through drugs—the use of substances with analgesic or hallucinogenic properties by animals is by no means solely a product of domestication or modernity. Animals in the wild, it seems, have been using drugs in one form or another for millennia.

In her book Wild Health, Cindy Engel catalogues the rudimentary health care practices of undomesticated animals, a good deal of which revolve around hunting down and consuming plants and fruits rich in intoxicants.[2] Ancient cultures, for example, first discovered the powerful caffeine-like properties in the fruit kahveh, which translates as “stimulating and invigorating,” by mimicking the actions of goats who ate particular red berries near the Red Sea. Early Mayans discovered that honey made from the flower Turina corymbosa had hallucinogenic properties that also helped to induce uterine contractions during childbirth. African elephants have been observed charging from distances of more than ten kilometers if they detect the fermenting fruit of the marula tree. Apparently, Australian koala bears nibble on eucalyptus for many more reasons than to fulfill the expectations of tourists.

Engel is careful to point out that for animals intoxication may be merely the side effect of seeking out the high-calorie or high-carbohydrate content of overripe fruits, an evolutionary need that may be linked to long-term survival. In addition to its other healthful properties, moderate alcohol consumption, even in humans, helps to reduce heart disease as well as stress, and so intoxication offers such medicinal benefits to animals in the wild. When animal researchers offered African elephants a sweet liquor with 7% alcohol, the scientists discovered that they consumed far greater quantities when they had to compete with larger numbers of elephants for food. Elephants, not unlike stockbrokers and housewives, choose voluntarily to anesthetize themselves against stress. On the other hand, by focusing on only the nutritional or self-medicating functions of intoxicants, we make ourselves oblivious to the pleasure principle: some animals actually like the taste of alcohol and, moreover, many animals enjoy being in an altered state of consciousness. As Engel reveals, wild bighorn sheep in the Canadian Rockies will travel great lengths uphill in order to lick green and yellow lichen from rocks purely for their narcotic effect. Water buffalo herds in Asia graze on opium poppies, never eating enough to poison themselves but just enough to become oblivious to pain: a kind of Valium for overworked beasts.

While most examples of drug use by animals seem self-contained, other animals threaten their culture with impending social collapse as a result of substance abuse. As Engel writes, the Lasius flavus species of ant “lives in close relation with the Lomechusa beetle. … In return for providing beetle larvae with food and care, the ants are allowed to lick an intoxicating secretion from the beetles’ abdomens. Although temporarily disoriented and unstable on their legs, the ants become so addicted to the secretion that in times of danger they will move beetle larvae out of danger before rescuing their own.”[3] Perhaps giving animals pharmaceutical drugs may be one way in which we maintain their connection to the wild even while ensnaring them with the amenities of captivity—provided, of course, that they find such amenities comforting.

Humans take great pride in the idea that their pets have unique personalities, individuated selves that distinguish them from the other members of their species. We are more likely to confer an identity onto an animal if we believe that it has an articulated consciousness that makes us venerate it as a peculiar vessel of natural instincts and learned behaviors. The widespread use of intoxicants and painkillers by animals in the wild, however, may provide evidence for the fact that animals have a greater sense of self than we previously imagined. Such animals live on the cusp between us and not-us, making their exploitation both extremely easy and extraordinarily difficult. Perhaps domesticating animals, whether through drugs or obedience measures, mystifies the process by which we have divorced animals from themselves and reintroduced them to themselves on our own terms.

In the last few years of her life, we were administering to Sheba Ace promazine, a drug typically used to calm dogs with “noise phobias” that was originally developed in the 1950s as part of the arsenal of anti-psychotic medicines for institutionalized patients. Emboldened by empathy for our pet as well as by the whim of teenage experimentation, a high school friend and I each took three of Sheba’s Ace promazine pills. We rationalized that we were eligible for three times her prescription since we were about three times larger than she was. We settled in for the night to enjoy its effects and, within about an hour, while watching an especially surreal episode of Hill Street Blues, we began nodding off to sleep. Hauling my lethargic body across the expanse of the house, I remember feeling very much like I was walking through a heavy and unrelenting rainstorm. It was an encounter with imaginary water whose irony was not lost on me, even in a state of hallucination.­

  1. See William Burroughs, “Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness,” in Ann Charters, ed., The Portable Beat Reader (New York: Penguin, 1992 [1959]), pp. 136-144.
  2. See Cindy Engel, Wild Health: How Animals Keep Themselves Well and What We Can Learn from Them (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002).
  3. Engel, p. 164. Emphasis in original.

David Serlin is an editor and columnist for Cabinet. He is the co-editor of Artificial Parts, Practical Lives: Modern Histories of Prosthetics (NYU Press, 2002).

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