split image of elephant and psychedelic pattern

In 1963, one of the most controversial animal experiments in history occurred, resulting in the death of Tusko, a 14-year-old Indian elephant at Oklahoma City Zoo.

By way of a dart gun shot into his right buttock, Tusko was injected with 297 milligrams of the hallucinogenic drug LSD. Almost 3,000 times greater than the normal human recreational dose, this remains the largest single dose of LSD administered ever.

The experiment was carried out by two psychiatrists, Dr Louis Jolyon West and Dr Chester M. Pierce, along with the zoo’s director, Warren Thomas.

Dr West was, put simply, an evil scientist. He was a documented experimenter in Project MKUltra, an illegal human experimentation programme designed by the CIA to identify methods of brainwashing, psychologically torturing, and forcing confessions from people during interrogations.

These methods included sensory deprivation, hypnosis, isolation, sexual abuse, the covert administration of psychoactive drugs, and various other forms of torture.

One of the most famous experiments overseen by Dr West occurred in 1959, when Peter Tripp, a radio DJ, attempted to break the record for the longest time to stay awake. Tripp went without sleep for 8 days 9 hours, causing his mental state to temporarily deteriorate into what doctors labelled ‘nocturnal psychosis’.

A wild Indian elephant in musth

Dr West and Dr Pierce were trying to induce Tusko into a state known as ‘musth’, an aggressive, hormonal surge during which bull elephants secrete a sticky fluid (temporin) between the eyes and ears.

However, their experiment did not achieve the outcome they were hoping for.

Five minutes after the injection, Tusko trumpeted once, fell over, and defecated. 

He then suffered a crippling seizure; his eyes rolled back and closed, his legs became stiff, he bit his tongue, and his breathing became laboured.

The doctors administered a large dose of the antipsychotic drug promazine hydrochloride, in addition to a dose of the barbiturate pentobarbital sodium, however, these drugs were not effective in reviving Tusko.

Sadly, one hour and forty minutes after being injected with the LSD, Tusko died.

Some researchers believed that the doctors’ fatal mistake was scaling up the dose in proportion to Tusko’s body weight instead of his brain weight, and without considering his metabolic rate.

Others attributed Tusko’s death to the combination of drugs he was administered during his seizure.

West and Pierce concluded in their research paper: "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."

In an effort to prove that the LSD alone had not caused Tusko’s death, a psychopharmacologist from UCLA, Ronald K. Siegel, repeated the experiment on two elephants. He administered equivalent doses (in terms of milligrams of LSD per kilogram of body weight), but he mixed the LSD in the elephants’ drinking water instead of injecting it. Both elephants survived unharmed, though they did exhibit abnormal behaviour for several hours.

After the experiment on Tusko, Dr West continued his work for the CIA. Later in the same year, he was appointed as the psychiatrist to Jack Ruby, who murdered Lee Harvey Oswald two days after Oswald was accused of assassinating President John F. Kennedy. West suggested that Ruby be interrogated under the influence of sodium thiopental and hypnosis. 

Dr Pierce left such sinister experiments behind him; he went on to become the founding president of the Black Psychiatrists of America and spoke on racism in the country, coining the term ‘microaggression’. He also became a senior consultant for the children’s TV show Sesame Street.

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