Aug 01, 2014 I Tom Head

How to Care for a Heroin-Addicted Elephant

The Chinese government has cracked down on the illegal slaughter of elephants (killing an elephant is now punishable by death), but it's easier to get away with the crime in neighboring Burma. This creates a challenge for poachers who want to get rich off the ivory trade: how do you transport a herd of four- to seven-ton animals hundreds of miles across a border for slaughter?

Some poachers have turned to heroin, giving elephants bananas laced with the drug to keep them docile. And when conservationists caught up with the poachers and liberated the herd, they had a problem on their hands: four heroin-addicted elephants. Fortunately, this is a story with a happy ending.


Animal rights activist and elephant caretaker Chen Jiming explained the conservationists' strategy to The Daily Mirror:

"[T]hey had been allowed to use methadone to give the elephants as a substitute for heroin and had slowly reduced the amount given over the course of a year until they were declared clean.

"He said: 'The elephants need at least five times more that a human being would need at the start and then we slowly reduced that until they no longer needed it ... But it is every bit as hard for the elephants to go through the cold turkey regime as it is for humans.'

"After going clean, the four elephants now live in the forests of Yunnan Province in south-western China which is not only a protected area but is also home to another 250 wild Asiatic elephants."

The elephants' heroin experience isn't unique. There's actually a pretty huge body of literature documenting the effects of addiction on nonhuman species, and the similarities between human addiction symptoms and the symptoms of animals with less complex immune systems are striking. Addiction touches the most basic core of our physiology—parts of our brain that we share with a wide range of other species, from rats to elephants—and this may speak to the difficulty involved in overcoming it. Whether you're a human or an elephant, it's hard to walk away from something that connects to your deepest animal self.

Tom Head

Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.

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