Remembering Tusko the Elephant, Given Largest-Ever Dose of LSD

In the name of science, clumsy researchers in the ‘60s dosed a hormonal bull elephant with a massive dose of LSD, with dire consequences.
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Guinness World Records—the definitive list of world records of both human achievements and the extremes of the natural world—recently posted a eulogy to Tusko the elephant, who was tragically given an extreme dose of LSD, for science.

LSD research was conducted on animals such as dolphins or cats, starting in the ‘50s and ‘60s, with goals ranging from mind control to animal communication. A team of researchers in the early ‘60s came up with the brilliant idea of dosing a hormonal bull elephant with a massive dose of LSD, and lo and behold—the outcome was tragic. 

Tusko was a male Indian elephant located at the Oklahoma City Zoo in Oklahoma. Tusko was a victim of the poor treatment of animals, and he did not survive the experiment. 

But before his tragic end, Tusko earned a spot in the Guinness World Records. Other notable instances of massive LSD doses include a case study of an accidental dose during September 2015, when a woman took 55 mg of LSD—550 times the normal dose, which is around 25μg to 150μg. But this animal was given 3,000 times the normal dose of LSD.

Within an hour and a half, and after several doses of barbiturates to kill the trip, the elephant was dead.

The Procedure

Beginning on Aug. 3, 1962, (1963 by some accounts) the researchers dosed an elephant. Researchers injected nearly 300 mg of LSD into Tusko. 

Doctors West and Pierce attempted to induce Tusko into a state known as “musth”, an aggressive, hormonal surge that bull elephants get, causing them to secrete a sticky fluid between the ears. It’s critical for the reproduction of elephants as their testosterone levels rise to 60 times the normal amount.

“By way of a dart gun shot into his right buttock,” Guinness World Records writer Sanj Atwal wrote, “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.”

This ingenious plot was whipped up by two ambitious psychiatrists, Dr. Louis Jolyon West and Dr. Chester M. Pierce, along with the Oklahoma City Zoo’s director at the time, Warren Thomas. The experiment took place amid a surge in mind control experiments conducted by government agencies.

That’s when things went terribly wrong.

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

He then suffered a serious seizure; his eyes rolled back and closed, his legs became stiff, he bit his tongue, and he struggled to breathe. It didn’t take long until the elephant was dead.

“Given that a human dose is around 25 [μg], it comes as no surprise to hear that Tusko trumpeted once, ran around his enclosure then suffered a crippling seizure,’ Atwal continues. “He was administered a large dose of the antipsychotic drug promazine hydrchlroride, then the barbiturate pentobarbitol sodium, but died after 80 minutes, the victim of the largest single dose of LSD ever administered.”

Also during the ‘60s, NASA-funded experiments by John C. Lilly, for instance, injected dolphins with LSD. Then in 1977, researchers dosed cats with LSD.

“Dr. West was, put simply, an evil scientist,” Atwal writes. “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.”

LSD Experiments Involving the Government

Beginning in 1953,  the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) launched Project MKUltra, a human drug experimentation involving hallucinogens, intended to develop procedures and identify drugs that could be used during interrogations to force confessions. The CIA attempted to develop more effective truth serums.

“These methods included sensory deprivation, hypnosis, isolation, sexual abuse, the covert administration of psychoactive drugs, and various other forms of torture,” Atwal writes. “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 eight days and nine hours, causing his mental state to temporarily deteriorate into what doctors labeled ‘nocturnal psychosis’.”

Shortly after, drug experimentations would involve animals as well. 

After the experiment on Tusko, West continued his work for the CIA, Guinness World Records reprots. Also in 1963, he was appointed as the psychiatrist to Jack Ruby, who murdered Lee Harvey Oswald two days after Oswald allegedly assassinated President John F. Kennedy. 

West suggested that Ruby be interrogated under the influence of sodium thiopental and hypnosis in order to get the real story. 

Pierce on the other hand went on to become the founding president of the Black Psychiatrists of America and spoke frequently about racism in the U.S., and he even coined the term “microaggression.” 

A fitting end for a disturbing experiment at the expense of a rare Indian elephant.

Updated for clarity Jan. 3.

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