HomeTop StoriesCocaine bear: risks of drug use by animals - 03/03/2023 - Environment

Cocaine bear: risks of drug use by animals – 03/03/2023 – Environment

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In September 1985 authorities discovered the body of Andrew Thornton, a drug trafficker, in a backyard in Tennessee (USA). He had a bag full of cocaine, a broken parachute and the key to a small plane that was found at the scene of an air crash a hundred kilometers away.

Investigators spent months looking for the rest of the drug lord’s stash, which they suspected he had thrown away along his air route. But one black bear found him before in the mountains of north Georgia.

“The bear found the drugs before us. He tore up his backpack, ate cocaine and had a overdose“, a police officer told the Associated Press in December 1985.

This strange but true story inspired the recent film “Cocaine Bear” and is the result of an unusual confluence of events. Professionals who work with wild animals in the US said they had never seen another case like this. (Even so, when thousands of kilos of cocaine were reportedly found in the Pacific Ocean in February, the internet started imagining a second movie: “White Powder Shark”).

But experts have seen wild animals consuming just about anything: stealing expensive chocolate cakes from homes, sucking syrup from hummingbird fountains, and even ingesting other intoxicating substances, including marijuana and beer.

Some of the reports are amusing. “I got a call about a polecat that was out back of a hotel, running across the parking lot with a McFlurry’s ice cream cup on its head,” said Jeff Hull, an agent for the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. But animals’ taste for products —legal or not—made for humans can create problems for them and for us.

‘An eating machine’

Bears are known to devour human food, especially when winter approaches and they need to gain more pounds. “They’re essentially an eating machine,” said Dave Wattles, a biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife who specializes in black bears. “They’re constantly on the lookout for high-calorie, easily accessible foods.”

Bears have a keen sense of smell and have learned that humans are a reliable source of such food. That’s why they knock over trash cans and dive into Dumpsters. They loot hives and bird feeders, steal feed from livestock and pets, search backyard chicken coops and lick grease traps from outdoor barbecue grills.

Sometimes they even break into houses. In the Berkshire Hills, a thieving bear had a habit of stealing treats from freezers.

“This bear would enter several homes and spurn the most readily available food, going right into the freezer, gobbling up the ice cream,” said Andrew Madden, western district supervisor for the Massachusetts Division of Fish and Wildlife. “It seemed like it was always vanilla ice cream, but that was perhaps a matter of availability.”

Bears sometimes stumble upon other substances in their search for high-calorie food. In October 2020, in Cotopaxi, Colorado, a man reported a bear breaking into an outdoor freezer, devouring cannabis edibles, said Joseph Livingston of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife agency. (Possibly already thinking about what he would want later, the animal also got french fries.)

Another Colorado resident said a bear stole a cooler full of beers, and bears in that state have been observed opening beer cans with their teeth, Livingston said. “Once they discover that objects around humans can be food, they become curious and want to try a lot,” he said.

drunken birds

Whatever the other effects, recreational drugs can make wild animals sick. In January 2018, the Gibsons Wildlife Recovery Center in Gibsons, British Columbia, took in a stunned raccoon found in a nearby backyard. Laboratory tests indicated that the animal had recently ingested marijuana and benzodiazepines, tranquilizers often prescribed against anxiety.

The center kept the animal warm and calm, and over the course of a few hours it regained consciousness. “Suddenly he was excited again and wanting to go out,” said Irene Davy, co-founder of the center. “So we released him.”

Davy doesn’t know how the raccoon came into contact with these substances, but he could have ingested edibles or a marijuana cigarette butt, she suggested, or found the benzodiazepines in the garbage. (Veterinarians warn that in places where marijuana has been legalized, they are treating more dogs that gobbled up edibles and discarded pot scraps.)

Raccoons “relentlessly search for edible garbage,” said biologist Curt Allen of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

Drugs can also find their way into human drinking water. In a 2021 paper, researchers reported that several illicit drugs, including cocaine, MDMA, and ketamine, were detected in a lake in Hungary after a music festival held on its shores. In 2019 scientists found traces of cocaine in freshwater shrimp harvested from British rivers.

The consequences for wild animals are unknown, but research suggests that water contaminated with illegal drugs or drugs can affect the behavior and health of fish and crustaceans. Eels exposed to water with low levels of cocaine became hyperactive and showed signs of muscle damage, according to one study.

The sources of intoxicating substances are not always human. Wild Central Oregon, which runs a hospital and hotline for wildlife issues, routinely handles “ceding waxwings” [pássaros da espécie Bombycilla cedrorum] intoxicated after consuming fermented berries.

“They seem a little shaky,” said Molly Honea of ​​the organization. “Because they are disoriented and uncoordinated, they end up crashing into windows.”

The hospital treats bird injuries and drunkenness. “We put them in an oxygen tank and rehydrate them,” Honea said.

complicated situations

Even normal human food can pose dangers to wild animals, especially when consumed in large quantities (“bears don’t have self-control,” Allen pointed out). Some foods can even be toxic.

Last September, environmental agents found two dead vultures in Dutchess County, New York. “The cause of death was theobromine and caffeine intoxication caused by a material that looked and smelled like chocolate,” Kevin Hynes, wildlife health program leader for the state’s Fish and Wildlife Division, said in an email.

Animals that eat leftovers found in garbage often end up ingesting other types of waste. Colorado authorities had to euthanize a critically ill bear found in a dumpster. The autopsy revealed that her stomach was “full of plastic, cigarette butts and other harmful things,” Livingston said.

As the biology of wild animals is unlikely to change, it is up to humans to reduce the risks. Experts recommend that people dispose of their garbage properly and store bird food, pet food, garbage and other substances that attract animals in safe indoor spaces. Another recommendation is not to intentionally feed wild animals — and, presumably, not to drop cocaine from planes.

Translated by Clara Allain

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