I was watching an Andy Griffith rerun the other day about a goat that ate dynamite, making everyone afraid he was going to blow up if bumped. Could/would a goat eat dynamite? If so, would it explode? If not, would it poison him?
Glad you asked this question, Bruce, because it gave the Straight Dope research department a chance to redeem itself after the recent dismal showing involving deaths due to falling pianos (May 10). I report with satisfaction that Una and Fierra came up with more than 100 animal-eats-dynamite stories, the most pertinent of which are summarized below. Although their methods as usual remain cloaked in mystery, let's say I don't expect any further beefs from reader Mullins.
Getting back to Andy Griffith: the episode titled "The Loaded Goat" first aired on January 28, 1963. The goat didn't explode, most likely because that would have been too much for television in 1963, and might not fly now other than on South Park. But it's also true the chances of a goat or other animal full of dynamite detonating are low.
Dynamite is a mix of nitroglycerine plus an absorbent filler such as sawdust or diatomaceous earth, which its inventor Alfred Nobel found resulted in an explosive that was safer to handle than pure nitro. Dynamite normally won't blow up without a primer explosive such as a blasting cap, which is supposed to be inserted just before use. However, things can still go seriously wrong.
While neither sawdust nor diatomaceous earth is especially dangerous to eat, nitroglycerine can be. In small doses it's a vasodilator commonly used to treat angina, but greater amounts interfere with cardiovascular function, leading to severe low blood pressure, cyanosis (you turn blue), and death. The lethal dose varies greatly, but given the prodigious and indiscriminate appetites for which goats are famous, theoretically one could eat enough dynamite to get plenty sick and maybe die.
But let's get serious. Sick goats aren't the real concern here. Could an animal full of dynamite explode? Time for a dive into the databases:
• The earliest account we could find of a dynamite-eating goat was an 1899 story from a Boston newspaper relating a New Mexico mining-camp yarn in which a voracious specimen allegedly ate 27 sticks. The locals thereafter kept a respectful distance until one night a rambunctious cowboy taking potshots at random objects rode off in the goat's direction. Ten minutes later there was a "mysterious explosion; and neither the goat nor the cowboy were ever seen in New Mexico afterwards." Right.
• More believable is a 1900 Philadelphia Inquirer item about a goat belonging to a Mrs. McGlory in the coal town of Hazleton, Pennsylvania. The goat was chewing on a stick of dynamite when the "cartridge" (one assumes a ready-to-blow assembly including blasting cap) went off, reducing the animal to its constituent parts. A primer used in the old days was mercury fulminate, which is sensitive to friction, so despite its minimal length (two sentences) this story could be legit.
• A 1902 report from Eden, Wisconsin, says Patrick Mulligan's pet goat ate several sticks of dynamite, fell asleep in front of the fireplace in the Mulligan home, and soon detonated, taking the house with it. The family wasn't there, there's no indication witnesses saw any of this, and unless the animal was actually on fire, no way could a goat's gut get warm enough to set off an explosive. Verdict: BS.
Goats aren't the only critters said to favor high explosives for lunch:
• In 1900 a cow named Venus bit down on a stick of dynamite with a percussion cap attached and was promptly blown to pieces. The story provides copious detail and unlike many similar reports doesn't claim to describe events that occurred a thousand miles away from the newspaper carrying it—Venus was at a quarry near East St. Louis, and the article appeared in the St. Louis Republic. So yeah, coulda happened.
• Then there's this: In 1908 two steers reportedly ate some dynamite a farmer was using to blast stumps. That evening the farmer threw a stone—a stone, mind you—that struck one of the steers, supposedly detonating the explosive in its stomach and blowing it to bits. The blast jarred the other steer, which blew up too. The cattle were in Indiana; the newspaper reporting their fate was in San Jose, California. My question isn't what the steers were eating in Indiana, but what the reporter was smoking in San Jose.
We found a few more such accounts, all equally implausible. More common are tales of animals feasting on dynamite (apparently it tastes sweet) without result other than freaking out the locals, although sometimes the eaters got sick. Conclusion: detonating animals owe more to fancy than fact, as exemplified in a 1917 ditty by Bert Lee and R.P. Weston entitled "Paddy McGinty's Goat," about a goat that ate dynamite with predictable results: "So if you go to heaven you can bet a dollar note / That angel with the whiskers is Paddy McGinty's goat."