Animal World
Zoopharmacognosy: Animals’ Clever Use of Nature’s Medicine      
Welcome, beloved viewers, to Animal World: Our Co-Inhabitants on Supreme Master Television. Have you ever noticed our furry and feathered friends taking special interest in certain plants in the garden, the park or in the wild? Occasionally horses, cats, dogs, birds and other animals choose to ingest certain types of plants. If you have seen such behavior, you may be witnessing zoopharmacognosy, the subject of today’s show, in action.

Zoopharmacognosy, a term coined by Cornell University, USA biochemist and professor Dr. Eloy Rodriguez, refers to the practice of animals self-medicating to cure illness or to protect themselves from parasites.

We came up with the word Zoopharmacognosy: zoo, meaning animals, pharma, drugs and cognosy, to recognize; animals recognizing drugs.

Our clever animal friends may selectively forage on leaves, stems, roots and algae to maintain their health. And in recent decades scientists have discovered that these plant parts contain natural medicinal properties that can cure infections and disease. This intelligent behavior has intrigued scientists from various disciplines, including animal and plant biology, chemistry, medicine and environmental science.

Our early ancestors were always taking medicinal plants. And that’s why we can today eat medicinal plants, because our ancestors’ physiology is adapted to eating these plants. The research on animal self-medication applies to humans also, and vice versa. I grew up in a family where the use of natural medicines was very common. That played an important role in how I decided to go into the sciences and explore the whole world of natural medicines.

Dr. Wrangham, who is a professor at Harvard (University, USA), approached me one day on a very interesting behavior that he had observed among the chimps he was studying in Uganda. And I, of course, was intrigued because I’ve always been interested in animal behavior, and combining it with biochemistry. He described to me this behavior of these chimps that seemed to be ill. They were taking this particular plant. They would actually take the young leaves and swallow them. My immediate response was they’ve got to be medicating themselves.

I actually went to Africa, and spent some time with Richard and some other biologists, following chimps and looking at their behavior, and discovered later there were about five or six plants that they seemed to take. And this led to the discovery of a natural compound. When we isolated it, it was red. We did some tests and it showed that these things were quite active, they would kill bacteria, and that they would also probably kill parasites. Chimps and other animals suffer from all kinds of infections from microbes.

So there’s got to be a way that they’ve got to treat themselves, not only for parasitic worms, but also bacteria and fungi, which is the same thing that we have. There had been other scientists who had mentioned anecdotally that maybe animals are treating themselves, but this was kind of the first study that had a good behavior and some good biochemistry.

Sometimes fleas, lice, mites and other insects dwell in the fur of monkeys and some species, such as the capuchin, have found an ingenious way to remove them. Apart from grooming, they choose certain types of plants with which to rub themselves, much like humans use ointments to soothe rashes or infections on their skin.

In another study that we did with monkeys, the monkeys would take certain leaves and they would rub it on their fur. We actually took a whole series of leaves that look the same, and presented them to the monkeys, and the monkeys always went to the right one. So then we said to ourselves, “There must be a chemical cue.” And sure enough, there seems to be a cue, at least for the monkey. If you rub some of this oil on a bite, it kind of relieves the itching. So, this is what these animals were doing.

The one with the chimps, Richard defines it as cultural evolution. In other words, not all chimps know how to do this. You can have within a group of chimps, where nobody knows how to utilize the plant, so therefore, none of them will do it. But if one comes in who knows how to do it, everybody else then kind of mimics and learns to do that. It’s an example of cultural evolution. Now dogs and cats, they do it too, but it’s an instinctive behavior.

How about our animal companions like dogs and cats? Do they self -medicate as well?

I always suggest that for cats people should, during the winter months, grow a little bed of grass. And let the cat go down to the basement and let them chew on some grass, because that has some kind of medicinal value. We've seen the same thing in Africa. Africans have told us that you should look at the dogs, the plants that the dogs were using were for medicinal purposes.

There are many other plants that you could use, or many other fruits that could be put into the diet. I would try to develop certain kinds of fruits, certain little plants that would be mixed in with their regular diet. I think it's important, because there is a whole area being developed in veterinary medicine of treatment of animals with natural compounds.

You’ve mentioned many animals that live on land, but what about aquatic animals?

Marine iguanas consume algae. Some iguanas have a red color, and they get this reddish tone from eating algae. This red pigment is a potential antioxidant.

When we return, Dr. Rodriguez will further discuss the use of medicinal plants by animals Please stay tuned to Supreme Master Television.

I am totally against the idea of using animals for medications. This is not the way to go. There is no reason to do that, because we can substitute it with plants. I think plants will provide the kind of medicines that you need, without having to kill animals.

Welcome back to Animal World: Our Co-Inhabitants here on Supreme Master Television for our program featuring the insights of Dr. Eloy Rodriguez, a biochemist who is an expert in the field of zoopharmacognosy. The origins of traditional herbal medicine are deeply rooted in the animal kingdom. Many indigenous cultures learned of natural treatments by closely observing the kinds of plants that animals choose to eat.

Plants, especially natural wild plants, survive because they have these natural chemicals. These chemicals, natural medicines, originated as a defense. Natural medicines have been around for hundreds of millions of years. There were first bacteria, billions of years ago, making natural antibiotics to defend against other bacteria. So it's not surprising that some of the best antibiotics come from bacteria, because they kill bacteria.

So it makes sense. It's not surprising that just about any given plant should have some kind of an active substance for defense, for survival, for reproduction. There is a very well-known study that involves a plant that the North American Indians called “bear medicine.” The plant is called Ligustrum. The bears would take this root and they would chew it, and they would consume it. The animals were sick when they were doing this and then they get better.

The Native Americans, they have a whole series of plants that they point out were used by other animals. People in the forests are very tuned in to their animals. They have great respect for the animals because they learn from the animals.

Animals have, I would say in many cases, given us many of the medicines that today are some of the most widely used. If you look at the top 20 drugs sold in the United States, 10 of them are still of natural origin. The top anti-cancer drug comes from a tree. The drug is called Taxol.

I think we should be looking for preventive kinds of medicines, instead of popping 18 pills a day. There are people that take 30 pills a day. They’re taking supplements. Why are they taking so many supplements? There is no reason to do that. One good vegetarian dish, just one a day, will provide all the supplements they need.

I feel like a lot of the food found in nature is very bitter. And we don’t have much bitter food at the grocery store.

You’re absolutely right. Early men and women ate bitter foods. It’s only in the last 50 years or 60 years that we’ve gotten more and more into a lot of sugar, sweet carbohydrates, and that’s why we’ve got this obesity problem throughout the world. Our taste receptors are now, “Oh bitter, oh I don’t want it.”

But you know, lettuce, wild lettuce was bitter. As a matter of fact, wild lettuce contains a substance that kills cancer cells, and contains a compound that we think is good for leukemia. A mixture of natural products is far superior for resistance than one synthetic compound. There are certain instances where you could be taking 30, 40, 50, 100 natural chemicals in a leaf.

A report released by the United Nations in May 2010 concluded the world’s governments have not stemmed the frightening trend of large-scale global biodiversity loss. Commenting on the report, United Nation’s Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated, “The consequences of this collective failure, if it is not quickly corrected, will be severe for us all.”

The big challenge is how we can maintain biodiversity, especially plant biodiversity. Our research has clearly shown that everything is dependent upon each other. We have to understand these complex interactions. That’s why we need more young people to get into this kind of research to understand this complexity.

We need to educate our politicians. Because young people, I really believe that if you start teaching them early about the reverence for life, the reverence for the natural world, we wouldn’t have politicians that are clueless, and are driven by this very capitalistic, profiteering sense of thinking.

Do you have any final thoughts for our viewers out there watching worldwide?

I think it’s the viewers that can make the difference here, how we should be saving the Earth, and how we should be saving the plants, how we should be educating our young. If I pay taxes, I want to know that I’m using it in a way that is really saving the biodiversity. Encourage their young, their children to go into this incredible area of ecology, environmental studies.

To close, the fascinating field of zoopharmacognosy, or animal self-medication, offers exciting possibilities to rediscover ecologically sound ways of treating illness in both animals and humans.

Thank you, Dr. Eloy Rodriguez for sharing your amazing research on zoopharmacognosy and calling on us all to conserve nature. We also express gratitude to all our highly intelligent animal friends for showing us truly natural ways of healing and living. Just like our co-inhabitants, may we always live in harmony with nature.

For more details on Dr. Eloy Rodriguez, please visit

Thank you for joining us today on Animal World: Our Co-Inhabitants. Up next is Enlightening Entertainment, right after Noteworthy News. May all lives be blessed with abundant health and inner peace.

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