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LSD Related Death of an Elephant
Controversy surrounding the 1962 death of an elephant after an injection of LSD
by Erowid, with thanks to R Stuart and MAPS-Forum
1.3 Nov 30, 2012 (1.0 Aug 5, 2002)
Summary
In 1962, three men at the University of Oklahoma, lead by the idiosyncratic, CIA-collaborator Louis Jolyon "Jolly" West, injected LSD into an elephant for the first time. Their stated intent was to determine if LSD would induce "musth", a naturally occurring condition in which elephants become violent and uncontrollable. After a series of events, the elephant died. There is some controversy and confusion surrounding the cause of death.

Newspaper Picture of Dead Elephant
Details of the Injection
The 7000-pound bull elephant named Tusko was injected with a huge dose of LSD (297 mg) into one buttock with a dart rifle. Five minutes later, the elephant collapsed and went into convulsions. An excerpt from the original journal article about the experiment:
"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 eyes were closed and showed a spasm of the orbicularis occuli; the eyeballs were turned sharply to the left, with markedly dilated pupils. The mouth was open, but breathing was extremely labored and stertorous, giving the impression of high respiratory obstruction due to laryngeal spasm. The tongue, which had been bitten, was cyanotic. 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.
Twenty minutes after the initial injection of LSD, it was decided that promazine hydrochloride (Sparine, a Thorazine-like drug) should be administered in an attempt to counter the above reaction. 2800 mg of promazine hydrochloride was injected into his ear over a period of 11 minutes, and only partially relieved the seizures and respiratory distress. An hour later, in a further attempt to assist the elephant, Dr. West injected Tusko with an unspecified quantity of pentobarbital sodium directly into a vein. The elephant died 1 hour and 40 minutes after the LSD had been given. Dr. West's original article on the experiment can be found at: HofLSD1069. Several newspapers covered the story, one of which is available as HofLSD1069a. A german-language editorial mentions it at Hofmann Collection LSD1069b.

The Controversy
After the incident, a number of issues were raised which complicated the story written by Jolly West. The issues included the question of whether LSD was the cause of the fatality, whether Jolly West acted irresponsibly and unscientifically, whether the Sparine (promazine) was more likely to be the direct cause of death, whether there were any additional drugs administered which were not reported in the article, and whether Jolly West may have had ulterior motives in his work because of his interests in the potential mind-control and warfare uses of LSD.

The primary question is whether it is reasonable to extrapolate anything about LSD's lethality on the basis of this experiment. Controversy centers on whether a fatal mistake in scaling was made when calculating the elephant's LSD dose, or whether the elephant died from the massive amounts of thorazine and barbiturate that were injected into his ear in an attempt to counteract the effects of the LSD overdose.

The LSD dose given to Tusko was unwisely chosen based on the assumption that elephants would be resistant to LSD's effects. West wrote "we considered that the elephant possessed substantial resistance to neurotropic agents and predicted that we were unlikely to see much reaction with this dosage of LSD." Dr West was making the novice error of giving a drug to a new species of animal for the first time and trying to make that first time an extremely high dose experience for the animal. Whether the LSD killed Tusko or not, the dose selection was poorly considered.

If a human model had been used to determine the dose of LSD for the elephant, the dose would be in the neighborhood of 0.003 mg/kg. For a 60 - 100 kg human, doses of .2 mg (200 micrograms) is enough to cause substantial clinical effects. Based on this, the calculated dose for an elephant of Tusko's size (3000 kg) would be about 9 mg of LSD. West et al.'s choice to inject Tusko with 297 mg was more than 30 times the effective oral dose for a human of Tusko's weight. If the dosage had been chosen by metabolic rate, the amount would have been around 3.9 mg and if based on brain size (elephants have brains about 3 times the size of human brains) only .64 mg. (Schmidt-Nielsen, 1972) Interspecies scaling of dosages can be extremely complicated and variations in enzymes and metabolism can completely invalidate any type of calculated scaling. For more information about this, see Entomology.unl.edu, Plummer Lectures on Dose Scaling (including a mention of Tusko's death), Body Size as Determinant of Physiological Function (search for elephant).

It is certainly telling that the 'researchers' were willing to risk an extremely valuable zoo animal with their clearly irresponsible calculations. The times were certainly different then.

Albert Hofmann wrote, in Chapter 2 of "LSD My Problem Child",
"The weight of this animal was determined to be 5,000 kg [inconsistent with the weight published in the original paper], which corresponds to a lethal dose of 0.06 mg/kg. Because this involves only a single case, this value cannot be generalized, but we can at least deduce from it that the largest land animal reacts proportionally very sensitively to LSD, since the lethal dose in elephants must be some 1,000 times lower than in the mouse. Most animals die from a lethal dose of LSD by respiratory arrest."
-- From http://www.psychedelic-library.org/child2.htm.
Because this mention of the incident is by the respected discoverer of LSD, it is often taken as one of the more definitive comments on the subject. However, because Dr Hofmann does not mention that other drugs were administered or any of the controversy surrounding the incident, it seems inappropriate to deduce that elephants are "proportionally very sensitive to LSD" since the LSD may not have been the direct cause of the death.

Another piece of data which seems to make it less likely that LSD was the cause of the death is an experiment conducted by Ron Siegel in which he reports repeating the experiment. Unfortunately we have been unable to find the original paper, but the abstract can be viewed here. In a conversation described by Rick Doblin of MAPS:
"[Ron Siegel and I] had an excellent and wide ranging discussion today (Sun, 2/20/00) He said that he did indeed administer the same amount of LSD in mg/kg to another elephant. He had to sign an agreement that he was willing to replace the elephant if it should die. The elephant did not die. This study was reported in: Siegel R. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 1984 Vol 22#1 page 53-56. (View Abstract) There is an article in the same issue, pages 49-52, about Siegel's administration of alcohol to an elephant.

According to Ron, he had done pilot studies and wasn't worried that the elephant would die from the LSD and that he would actually need to pay the costs of obtaining another one."
- Email to MAPS Forum, 2/22/2000

There is widespready speculation that it was the Promazine which directly killed Tusko. Making the same error in dose calculation that he did with the LSD, Dr West is said to have adminitered a huge dose of promazine to the elephant, although the amount is not documented in the paper. Richard Mesco wrote to the MAPS-Forum:
"As for most major tranquilizers, a well known side-effect of thorazine is orthostatic hypotension. This represents the body's inability to mount a sufficient blood pressure when standing upright to adequately perfuse the brain, and possibly even the heart. When this happens, the blood pressure drops precipitously and the person or animal may experience a syncopal episode (sudden loss of consciousness accompanied by a fall to the ground), and a cardiac tachyarrhythmia (rapid heart beat). In any case there occurs what is termed 'hemodynamic compromise.'"
MAPS-Forum, 2/22/2000

Another curious rumour is that Jolly injected the elephant with amphetamine in addition to the other drugs, but did not include this in the notes from the experiment. This rumour is repeated by a student newspaper from Oklahoma University (the campus where the experiment took place), which blames the elephant's death on the "unspecified quantity of amphetamine" that Dr. West injected into it after it fell into a catatonic state. Unfortunately they provide no reference, source, or author for this important piece of data and the article's credibility is compromised by the fact that it references the book Acid Dreams as a reference for the story (Acid Dreams has only a very short mention of the experiment):
"Did You Know...?

In the 1950s, the University of Oklahoma conducted research with psychedelic drugs on behalf of the CIA's MK-ULTRA "mind-control" program. Doctor Louis Jolyon ("Jolly") West, then chairman of the psychiatry department, led these efforts. One of their noble experiments involved injecting a male elephant with a large dose of LSD (300,000 micrograms--a heavy human dose would be 300 micrograms) in an effort to recreate the rut madness that male elephants periodically experience. Unfortunately, the dose was calculated on the basis of the animal's body weight, and not its brain weight (which would have been the correct method). The elephant promptly fell into a catatonic state. Doctor West attempted to reverse this by administering an injection of an unspecified quantity of amphetamine--with the result that the poor animal's heart exploded. OU Pride! (For more information consult Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD by Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain.)" -- From December 11, 2001 issue of "The Undercurrent," http://www.ou.edu/student/ucurrent/archives/volVno6/articles/LSDAtOK.html
More About Jolly West
The bizarre story becomes especially strange when the rumours of Jolly's own use of LSD during the experiment and his involvement with the CIA are considered. There are a number of references which tie Dr. West to the MK-Ultra mind-control projects of the 1950s and which suggest he continued to work through the 1960s in highly questionable pursuits, but we have been unable to find solid documentation for any of this. The book Acid Dreams mentions West and his involvement in CIA-projects, but it doesn't provide much specific detail.

Unfortunately one of the most widely quoted sources on the topic of Jolly West's ties to the CIA mind control program is the Church of Scientology, which had been targeted by West in his "anti-cult" work. The CoS is not known to be a reliable source of information and cannot be taken seriously as a primary source without a great deal of scepticism, but the following is included for the sake of completeness.

The Church of Scientology published an article that calls into question the reputation of Dr. West, who administered the dose to Tusko. As chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oklahoma, he was deeply involved in LSD work as part of his research experiments for the CIA. The text of the Church of Scientology article can be found at http://www.freedommag.org/english/la/issue02/page12.htm.

According to the article, West had ingested LSD himself shortly before injecting Tusko, "the prize of the Oklahoma City zoo". He "was evidently still under its influence at the time he sloshed through the beast's entrails, performing an 'autopsy' which he recorded on film. He later issued a report to advance his "discovery" that elephants could be killed with LSD and to promote use of the drug to cull elephant herds in Africa."

Dr. West was also a prominent figure in the research and development of mind control and brainwashing techniques. His career included not only the controversial LSD experiments for the Central Intelligence Agency but also secret studies into behavior modification:
"In a document released under the Freedom of Information Act, for example, it was revealed that more than four decades ago, the CIA sought to set West up in a clandestine laboratory to perform "mind-control" experiments with hypnosis and LSD. A portion of the experiments with LSD and other drugs in which West was enmeshed at the CIA's behest were exposed in the mid-1970s by the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, chaired by Senator Frank Church."
-- From Church of Scientology
Dr West used the story of him killing the elephant to ingratiate him to members of the LSD-using subculture. In the early 1990s, West spoke at a DEA-sponsored LSD conference at the Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francsisco. At this lecture, West said "Back in the sixties, I wore a crew cut. I didn't even have my beard yet, but I was already quite elephantine myself [he chortled while patting his large belly]. The hippies loved me, even though I had a crew cut. They loved me and trusted me after I told them that I was 'the elephant killer' - the famous guy who had killed an elephant with LSD." He showed photos of himself, standing with unkempt artists. He characterized the commune dwellers as having reverted to subsistence gardening because they were too brain damaged from LSD to participate in industrial life. He posed in one slide next to a skinny long-haired artist, proudly standing alongside an abstract psychedelic painting, and West gave commentary to the audience of law enforcement agents that the painting obviously showed the mental deterioration of the acidhead artist. (From an unpublished article by H Goldberg and several personal accounts of having spoken with him.)

If you know of other books, articles, or resources which have information about this incident, please let us know.


Additional Resources Mentioning This Event

"Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD" by Martin Lee and Bruce Shlain, pg 22.
Includes a brief account of the elephant's death, but is not a primary source and provides few details. [Erowid Library Entry].
"In another experiment Dr. Louis Jolyon ("Jolly") West, Chairman of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oklahoma, injected an elephant with a massive dose of 300,000 micrograms. Dr. West, a CIA contract employee and an avid believer in the notion that hallucinogens were psychotomimetic agents, was trying to duplicate the periodic "rut" madness that overtakes male elephants for about one week each year. But the animal did not experience a model elephant psychosis, it just keeled over and remained in a motionless stupor. In attempting to revive the elephant, West administered a combination of drugs that ended up killing the poor beast."

CultBuster.com - Jolly West doing CIA mind-control experiments
"While West today purports to be repulsed by the "mind control" and "brainwashing" supposedly practiced by some of the new religions ("cults"), in the 1950s and '60s he was involved, through the CIA-funded Geschickter Fund for Medical Research, in experiments employing LSD as a means of mind control. During these experiments the CIA used ethnic and racial minorities as human guinea pigs. At the Lexington, Kentucky federal prison, for example, African Americans were singled out and used as test subjects for various mind control experiments (Citizens Commission on Human Rights, 1985)."

Other Unsubstantiated / Undocumented Rumours

  • The dart hit the elephant in the neck, not the buttocks, and the LSD went directly into its jugular vein. Status: no known documentation says this and it contradicts the available documentation.
  • Elephant was surplus and the zoo was looking to get rid of it. Status: Hard to know how to document this, if true. Tusko was called "the pride of the zoo" in some articles discussing it at the time.
  • References #
    1. West LJ, Pierce CM, Thomas WD. (1962). Lysergic acid diethylamide: Its effects on a male Asiatic elephant. Science, 138, 1100-1102.
    2. Siegel, R. K. (1984). LSD-induced effects in elephants: Comparisons with musth behavior. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 22(1), 53-56.
    3. Schmidt-Nielsen, K. (1972). How animals work. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    Revision History #
    • v1.0 - Aug 5, 2002 - Erowid - Initial text (thanks shell, r stuart).
    • v1.2 - Aug 16, 2002 - Erowid - Minor updates.
    • v1.3 - Nov 30, 2012 - Erowid - Corrected chlorpromazine to promazine (Sparine).