11 Jul Sheep ‘Act Like Heroin Addicts’ After Eating Poisonous Plant
Addiction can seem like a very human problem. You don’t see dogs dying of liver failure because they couldn’t keep out of your liquor supply, so we’re generally inclined to think we’re the only members of the animal kingdom who struggle with these types of issues. However, rats are widely used in addiction research because they can become addicted to drugs like cocaine in much the same way humans do, and there are many other cases of animals struggling with what seems like an addiction. A recent story from Australia tells about a group of self-destructive sheep addicted to a poisonous plant. This finding reveals some interesting parallels with human addiction, but it’s also important to note the areas where the parallel doesn’t quite work. It might make a click-worthy story, but did the sheep really act “like heroin addicts” as the headline claims?
After a bushfire in Coonabarabran, New South Wales, an endangered species of pea (the darling pea, of the Swainsona genus) began to spread wildly across the area. The pea contains the poison swainsonine, which affects the nervous system and can be deadly to livestock that graze on it. This doesn’t happen immediately, but over time the chemical builds up in the animals’ bodies and interferes with the vital process of metabolism. Stephen and Louise Knight, two local farmers, report that they’ve lost 800 sheep as a result of the plant’s newfound prevalence in the area.
According to a local veterinarian, the sheep became addicted to the plant and started showing behavior reminiscent of a drunk. He explained that, “They lose weight to start with and then get staggery, the progression gets worse, they get uncoordinated and depressed, they don’t know where their feet are and they become recumbent and die that way.” They also had muscle tremors, a “paddling” sort of gait, dragged their hind legs and even banged their heads into posts until their skulls were cracked.
Parallels With Human Drug Addiction
There are obvious parallels that can be drawn between the behavior of the sheep and that of human drug abusers. The substance clearly creates some vaguely euphoric and addictive effect for the animals, since they display drunk-like behavior and continue to consume it in the face of negative consequences when there are other sources of food around. Like the sheep, we consume something that poisons us—alcohol is a good example—in order to become inebriated, and even though we have an advantage over the sheep because we know the substance can kill us, some humans continue through negative consequences right up until death. Like the sheep, people stumble and stagger their way toward an early grave.
Taking the Parallel Too Far
However, the fact that the sheep banged their heads into posts until they cracked open their skulls and died (termed “committing suicide” in the reporting of the story) takes the parallel a little too far. This isn’t to say the self-destructive behavior of drug abusers isn’t effectively suicidal in some cases, but there is a risk of painting heroin addicts in particular as zombie-like and purposefully suicidal. Louise Knight, one of the affected farmers, is quoted as saying, “They just go to a post and bang their head on it till they crack their heads open. It’s like dealing with a thousand heroin addicts.”
As many people who have actually encountered heroin addicts will be keen to point out, they most definitely don’t stand around smashing their heads into walls or otherwise purposefully harm themselves until they die. There is a figurative truth in that abusing heroin is obviously dangerous and continuing to do so could be seen as suicidal, but there is a big danger in perpetuating misleading ideas about the nature of addiction. Louise Knight is a farmer, not an addiction expert, so in a sense she can’t be expected to provide a completely accurate picture of heroin addicts’ behavior, but the comparison she offered seems a little simplistic and downright insulting to real people struggling with addiction.
Cure for the Sheep’s Problem
There is no known cure for the sheep’s self-inflicted problem; the only way to avoid it is to stop them from consuming the substance. Although we have to think twice before likening heroin abusers to sheep smashing their skulls open on fence posts, the necessity for abstinence brings the parallel back to safer ground. Like the sheep, the only way drug abusers can avoid the potential final consequence of their actions is to stop doing the thing that’s destroying their lives. Unlike the sheep, though, we have psychological treatments and myriad therapeutic tools to aid those trying to solve the problem. As much as headline writers might want to liken drug abusers to sheep, humans of all stripes are more intelligent and resilient than any sheep, and we have a vastly greater capacity for self-control, even if we aren’t always perfect at exercising it.
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