top of page

Crazy Cows, Flea Detectives, and Protesting Songbirds

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY. 

The study of non-human animals has become an exciting new direction in history and the broader humanities. In a 2016 issue of Perspectives on History, environmental historian Dan Vandersommers has gone so far as to label this new development “the Animal Turn.” He argues that the impact of animals on human history defies sub-field categorizations, because the very development of organized human societies has been so reliant on intimate human/animal relationships that intersect with too many different fields to ignore.

In my own research, I’ve seen limited examples of these non-human relationships in the history of cannabis in the United States. The brief discussion that follows will demonstrate a range of roles and limited agency for non-human animal actors in these stories. We can also see how human observers have exploited (directly and indirectly) these non-human animal actors in various ways

As discussed in Isaac Campos’s book Home Grown (see pp. 208–17), the accuracy of many newspaper stories reporting on the supposedly hazardous effects of the cannabis plant on cows, horses, goats, and hogs are questionable. These tales arose from a confusion in the Mexican press during the 1920s between marijuana and several other types of “locoweeds.” The stories then spread across the border into the United States in subsequent years. The articles I’ve found, indeed, fail to clearly establish whether or not marijuana was the plant ingested by animals, but the stories do reflect official efforts to pursue and eradicate wild (and clandestine) growth of cannabis throughout the United States after the 1930s.

Featured Image Animals + Drugs

To emphasize the extreme toxicity of marijuana, however, the news reports emphasized the un-natural behavior of intoxicated animals, describing them as almost “human.” Police officers driving outside of Los Angeles in February 1920, for example, “almost fell out of their automobile… when a fat, sleek cow skipped into the road and wiggled through a very jazzy dance” brought about by feeding on a patch of marijuana [1]. A farmer from Hastings, Michigan, in 1938 reported, “his cows jumping fences, skipping and gamboling about the pasture and otherwise behaving in an uncowly [sic] fashion” [2]. In 1949, William Bohl’s hogs in Plainview, Nebraska, “began to grow thin and wobble uncertainly about the feed lot… jumping in the air to get at the last few leaves near the top of a lush stand of marijuana plants” [3]. In some cases, these incidents started an investigation that led to an arrest, but more often law enforcement was called in to simply remove the offending plants with no consequences to land owners.

But as more attention focused on cannabis during the 1930s, there were more direct and deliberate interactions between human and non-human animals. Scientists and researchers conducted a number of studies during this period using mice, dogs, horses, and other animals to measure the physiological effects of marijuana for potential human benefits [4].

During the 1930s, difficulties with the forensic identification of cannabis by law enforcement also led to the deputization of a species of small water flea called the daphnia. Reporting at the 1937 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Indianapolis, Dr. Arno Viehoever, of the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science, claimed that the daphnia could accurately identify “as little as one-300th of a gram of the suspected material [marijuana]” in a chemical solution by “quickly dying… in the service of the law” [5].

Dr. Arno Viehover’s daphnia research featured in the Ogden [Utah] Standard-Examiner on February 20, 1938.

Rats, while not drafted into the service of anti-narcotic work, were implicated in the destruction of any number of police drug caches. In August 1923, rats in New Orleans were holding “midnight orgies” in the offices of the Federal Building after police “had first stored Marijuana, commonly known as ‘Muggles’ in their offices” [6]. 30 years later, “sassy rats inhabiting the second basement of the Hall of Justice [in Los Angeles], where 500 pounds of seized marijuana, used as evidence in criminal prosecutions, has accumulated in the last year, have been digging into the paper wrapped packages, stripping the stalks… and eating the seeds” [7].

The destructiveness of the presumably intoxicated rats was partially attributed to the inherently “animal” nature of the rodents. But, viewed through the lens of the Animal Turn, we can potentially attribute agency to the rodents noticing and then seeking the most pleasurable form of intoxication or nourishment among the available choices in these municipal buildings.

While hard to prove intent for rats, the historical record contains more explicit references to animal agency involving birds and birdseed. For decades beginning in the nineteenth century, commercial birdseed contained hemp seed grown on farms in the Midwest [8]. The seemingly innocent activity of feeding birds, though, became fraught with peril as hemp seed became caught up in the hysteria surrounding the proliferation of the dangerous weed in youthful leisure circles.

By 1937, as the Marihuana Tax Act started working its way through Congress, the popularity of hemp seed in birdseed preparations influenced the decision to mandate the sterilization of hemp seed (rather than its elimination from birdseed preparations) to prevent dissemination of the plant [9]. Hemp seed remained important to bird nutrition, and there are several reports of arrests stemming from the discovery of clandestine crops of hemp grown for its seed for pet birds. In a unique example, a sailor on a sea-freighter from South America was arrested in Boston for carrying  a package of hemp seed. But he claimed the seed was for his pet canary, and he avoided penalties [10].

Bird and Birdseed

High High Birdie.

The appeal of unsterilized hempseed to specific bird species was evidenced by the unusual 1938 growth permit granted to John E. Bachelor of Deland, Florida, to grow a half-acre of marijuana to test whether the presence of hemp seed in birdseed preparations had any effect on song birds [11]. Meanwhile, pigeons in Utica, New York, were actually described as “on strike” due to the sterilized hempseed. The Hilton Record claimed that the birds “won’t eat the hemp seed without the marijuana” [12].

Birdseed rules reflected the pattern of mid-century urban policy-makers who sought to increase the regulation of non-human animal interactions and relationships. As described in Andrew Robichaud’s 2019 book Animal City, these regulations significantly influenced the development of American cities.

The more intimate relationships between humans and non-human animals in the context of drug history is worth exploring further. A roundtable on animal history in the Summer 2020 issue of Agricultural History recently emphasized the importance of de-centering human agency in the history of societies and highlighting the importance of various non-human actors—animals most importantly. This discussion particularly noted the significance of such historical investigations in the wake of the zoonotic covid-19 pandemic, the impact of human-led climate change on the animal kingdom, and the ethics of various regulated human/animal interactions [13]. Exploring the links between drug history and animal history could help push the field in intriguing new directions and help us fully understand the history of psychoactive substances in the natural world.



[1] “Actions of Cow Lead to Drug Find,” Binghamton Press, February 16, 1920.

[2] “Cows Get Playful Jag on Diet of Marijuana,” Atlanta Constitution, August 1, 1938; “Cows Jump Fences After Taking Drugs,” Helena Daily Independent, August 1, 1938; “Marihuana Makes Cows Jump Fences,” Los Angeles Times, August 1, 1938; “Orders Marijuana Plowed Under so Cows Can Sober,” Chicago Tribune, August 1, 1938; “Cows in High Jinks,” Putnam County Courier, September 22, 1938.

[3] “Farmer’s Hogs Go Crazy on Marijuana,” Dixon Evening Telegraph, September 16, 1949; Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, September 16, 1949.

[4] “Animals Used to Test Drugs,” Stevens Point Gazette, December 23, 1912; Thomas R Henry, “Marijuana Effect on Brain Shown,” Atlanta Constitution, March 22, 1940; James C. Munch, “From Report of Dr. James C. Munch, Temple University, Dated August 22, 1935,” August 22, 1935, A1 9 Subject Files 1916–1970, Box 108, Folder Dr. James C. Munch, RG 0170 – Drug Enforcement Administration – Department of Justice Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. NARA II.

[5] “Flea Policemen Are Used to Combat Marihuana Sale,” El Paso Herald Post, December 27, 1937; “Flea Policemen Can Quickly Identify Marijuana Presence,” Fresno Bee, December 27, 1937; “Flea Policemen to Assist in Stamping Out Marihuana,” Jefferson City Post, December 27, 1937; “Flea Policemen Used in Fight on Drug,” Reno Evening Gazette, December 27, 1937; “‘Flea Policemen’ Used To Control Marijuana Traffic,” Mansfield News Journal, December 27, 1937; “Flea Will Aid War on Marihuana,” Lima News, December 27, 1937; “Fleas May Kill Marihuana,” Indiana Evening Gazette, December 27, 1937; “Fleas Used to Detect Presence of Marihuana,” Amsterdam Democratic Recorder, December 27, 1937.

[6] “Rats, Confirmed Dope Fiends, Worry Sleuths,” Decatur Daily Review, August 17, 1923; “Rats Disdain Cheese, but Fall for Lure of Marijuana Bait,” Atlanta Constitution, August 25, 1923; “Rats Stage Dope Orgy; U.S. Agents Get Busy,” Indiana Progress, September 26, 1923.

[7] “Rats Eat Evidence in Marijuana Cases,” Los Angeles Times, November 3, 1953.

[8] Katherine Grier’s 2006 book Pets in America discusses the long history of animal companions and covers the emergence of pet cultures and related industries including those related to bird keeping.

[9] Harry Anslinger to James C. Munch, January 18, 1937, A1 9 Subject Files 1916-1970, Box 108, Folder Dr. James C. Munch, RG 0170 – Drug Enforcement Administration – Department of Justice Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. NARA II; James C. Munch to Harry Anslinger, February 5, 1937, A1 9 Subject Files 1916-1970, Box 108, Folder Dr. James C. Munch, RG 0170 – Drug Enforcement Administration – Department of Justice Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. NARA II; James C Munch to Harry Anslinger, February 11, 1937, A1 9 Subject Files 1916-1970, Box 108, Folder Dr. James C. Munch, RG 0170 – Drug Enforcement Administration – Department of Justice Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. NARA II; “Birds Blamed for Marijuana,” Sheboygan Press, September 18, 1939.

[10] “Marihuana Seeds Taken; Fed to Bird by Seaman,” Daily Boston Globe, June 10, 1938.

[11] “Birds to Sing to Marijuana,” Hammond Times, January 20, 1938.

[12] “Pigeons Won’t Compromise,” Hilton Record, March 9, 1939.

[13] Albert G. Way, William Thomas Okie, Reinaldo Funes-Monzote, Susan Nance, Gabriel N. Rosenberg, Joshua Specht and Sandra Swart, “Roundtable: Animal History in a Time of Crisis,” Agricultural History 94, no. 3 (Summer 2020): 444­–84.



bottom of page