Mystified by the new wonder drug LSD, the psychiatrist Louis Jolyon West and his colleague at the University of Oklahoma, Chester M Pierce, were looking for a new way to investigate the drug in 1962. They came up with an idea so outlandish it could only happen in the world of experimental psychology.
Male elephants are prone to bouts of madness; LSD seems to cause a temporary form of madness; perhaps if we combine the two, they reasoned, we could make an elephant go mad. Their research paper about this venture is a tragicomedy of high hopes and lessons not learnt. For only mindless optimism and blind faith can account for the events that unfolded on a hot summer day in Oklahoma City's Lincoln Park Zoo 40 years ago.
Having established that "one of the strangest things about elephants is the phenomenon of going 'on musth'," a form of madness that sees the animal "run berserk for a period of about two weeks, during which time he may attack or attempt to attack anything in his path," West and Pierce enrolled the assistance of Warren D Thomas of the local zoo.
Thomas volunteered the services of Tusko, a 3,200kg, 14-year-old male elephant. They were all set to establish what an elephant on acid would get up to. One crucial point had to be decided - how much LSD would it take to make him run amok? Research had established that lower animals are less susceptible to the mind-altering effects of LSD than humans. It would be a waste to have an elephant ready to go and then miss out on the unique opportunity by giving it an insufficient dose.
West and Pierce decided to go for it. While 297mg might not sound a lot, it is enough LSD to make nearly 3,000 people experience hours of "marked mental disturbance," to use the researchers' phrase. This was the record-breaking quantity of the most potent psychoactive substance in existence fired into one of Tusko's rumps with a rifle-powered dart at 8am on August 3. What happened next is captured with an oddly moving economy of expression in the clinical voice of the research paper:
"His mate (Judy, a 15-year-old female) approached him and appeared to attempt to support him. He began to sway, his hindquarters buckled, and it became increasingly difficult for him to maintain himself upright. Five minutes after the injection he trumpeted, collapsed, fell heavily on to his right side, defecated, and went into status epilepticus." An hour and 40 minutes later, Tusko was declared dead. Surely a more anticlimactic moment or a greater tragedy was never recorded by scientists.
The animal they had hoped would stomp around its pen in mad fury had fallen to the ground and slowly expired in the dust. But they drew something positive out of what in anyone else's view would be considered an abject failure. West and Pierce's conclusion, a staggering feat of positive thought, sums up an era's belief in the infallibility of science: "It appears that the elephant is highly sensitive to the effects of LSD - a finding which may prove to be valuable in elephant-control work in Africa."
· West, LJ, Pierce, CM, Thomas, WD (1962) Lysergic Acid Diethylamide: Its effect on a Male Asiatic Elephant. Science, 138, 1100-1102
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