August 3rd, 1962, a group of researchers from the University of Oklahoma arrived at Tusko the elephant’s enclosure. His keeper, Warren Thomas, had volunteered Tusko, a three-ton male Indian elephant, for a particularly bizarre experiment. Tusko, 14-years old, had lived at the Oklahoma City’s Lincoln Park Zoo for a while. But now he was going on a trip.
At 8am, Dr. Louis West took aim and fired a dart into Tusko’s buttock. The dart was filled with 297 mg of a then-experimental drug known as lysergic acid diethylamide, a.k.a. LSD. Today LSD is famous for its hallucinatory powers but in the 1960’s it was still a relatively unknown chemical with unknown effects. The exact motives behind this particular elephantine experiment are cloudy, but it seems that West was acting on funding from the CIA’s infamous Project MKULTRA, one of the great early proponents of LSD. They believed it could be useful in interrogating Soviet spies. West, however, simply wanted to see whether they could induce musth (an aggressive hypersexual state) in Tusko. However, this is not what happened.
“Five minutes after the injection he trumpeted, collapsed, fell heavily onto his right side, defecated, and went into status epilepticus. The limbs on the left side were hyperextended and held stiffly out from the body; the limbs on the right side were drawn up in partial flexion; there were tremors throughout… The picture was that of a tonic left-sided seizure in which, mild clonic movements were present.”
— West LJ, Pierce CM, Thomas WD. Science, 1962, 1100-1103.
297 mg is over one thousand times greater than a recreational dose of LSD. At the time West believed that elephants were naturally resistant to the effects of LSD and so upped the dose.
West tried to counteract the seizure by administrating anti-psychotic barbituates: 2800 milligrams of thorazine followed by pentobarbital sodium, but within an hour and a half of the first injection, Tusko had died of breathing complications. Which drug, or combination thereof, was ultimately responsible is somewhat unclear, although the experiment was repeated (remarkably) in the 1980’s sans barbituates (this time the elephants survived). West published his results amid great backlash.
He concludes his paper with the somewhat macabre understatement: “It appears that the elephant is highly sensitive to the effects of LSD.”
Indeed, Dr. West. Indeed.