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Remembering 'Tusko' and the ill-fated '62 LSD experiment that killed him

Andrew W. Griffin
This marker remembers OKC Zoo's "Judy the Elephant" the mate of Tusko, the elephant who died in an ill-fated LSD experiment in 1962.
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OKLAHOMA CITY – Following our story earlier this month, “An
elephant, a psychiatrist, and one bad acid trip at the OKC Zoo
,” there was
interest from our readers in what became of Tusko the bull elephant and his
remains after he died in an LSD experiment gone horribly wrong.

The most obvious place, we figured, to get that information,
was the Oklahoma City Zoo. We ran into some resistance from the Zoo’s
media-relations department, but ultimately we spoke with knowledgeable and friendly zoo historian Amy

Stephens did her best to find information on Tusko and disappointingly
came away with little detailed information.

Stephens said the Oklahoma City Zoo really started keeping a
detailed archive in 2003.

“Prior to that, the zoo hadn’t kept a lot of its history,”
she said.

So, little information has been found on the events that
took place on that summer day in 1962, only that Tusko, Stephens said, “wasn’t
one of the elephants in our care for a long time.”

“During that time period, there was an interest in research,”
Stephens said. “That was the goal of many zoos. In the 60’s and 70’s there was
a lot of research and experimentation going on in zoos.”

Continuing, Stephens said “there wasn’t as much of a focus
on accreditation back then.”

Stephens said that in the information she has come across
that the LSD experiment was “about sleep” and that the researchers were “looking
for a type of anesthesia so that animals could be drugged and could be
experimented on in a less invasive way.”

Tusko’s death was “unfortunate and not what they wanted” and
because of “such a negative result, they didn’t want it out there.”

Added Stephens: “Not out of line to say there was a lot of research
going on in those days.”

Stephens said in her research of the zoo archives, little
comes up on Tusko and the LSD experiment. She does reference a 2007 book by
Alex Boese titled Elephants on Acid: And
Other Bizarre Experiments
. Tusko, of course, is the “elephant on acid” referenced
in the title.

And in an article referencing "the top 10 most bizarre experiments" as noted in a 2007 article in The New Scientist, the British newspaper, the
Guardian, addresses what happened:
“One Friday in August 1962, Warren Thomas, director of the Lincoln Park Zoo in
Oklahoma City (later the Oklahoma City Zoo), raised his rifle and took aim at
Tusko the elephant. With a  squeeze of the
trigger he scored a direct hit on the animal’s rump, firing a cartridge full of
the hallucinogenic drug LSD into the animal’s bloodstream.”

Continuing, the Guardian
said that the “dose was 3,000 times what a human might take for recreational

Poor Tusko, notes the Guardian,
charged around and trumpeted loudly for a few minutes before keeling over dead.

Thomas, along with University of Oklahoma psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Jolyon
West – another controversial figure in this sordid tale -  “maintained the mishap was the result of a
scientific experiment to investigate whether LSD brought on an unusual
condition in which elephants become aggressive and secrete a sticky fluid from
their glands. In a report of the incident submitted to the US journal Science four months later, the team
concluded: "It appears that the elephant is highly sensitive to the
effects of LSD."

A full report, as noted in the Dec. 7, 1962 issue of Science, is titled "LSD - It's effects on a male Asiatic elephant." It goes into further detail noting that after the acid injection, "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."

After his death, Thomas, OU's Dr. West and Chester M. Pierce suggested that they weren't really sure why Tusko died. But they end their Science report suggesting that an overdose of acid among human subjects is entirely possible. "LSD has been increasingly and sometimes irresponsibly administered to humans as a putative adjunct to psychotherapy." Of course Dr. West would go and embrace these methods.

Meanwhile, you could say that. And to this day the Oklahoma City Zoo
has done a good job of pretending Tusko did not exist. There is no record of
his passing. No information about what became of his remains. No marker.

As we noted in our earlier article, Tusko was “clearly … in
a heightened state of stress and pain and an attempt at administering Thorazine
was only partially successful. Tusko would linger for a little more than 90
minutes after the initial injection before expiring.”

But another report claimed to have more details on Tusko.
The magazine Freedom claimed Thomas’s
colleague, the previously noted Dr. West, “had ingested LSD himself before
injecting Tusko, ‘the prize of the Oklahoma City Zoo.’ He was ‘evidently under
its influence at the time he sloshed through the beast’s entrails, performing
an ‘autopsy’ which he recorded on film.” Where is that film?

When we asked Stephens about this aspect of the Zoo’s
history, why the Tusko incident is not more openly acknowledged, she replied: “A
lot of that information wasn’t revealed to the public. It was an ugly moment in
our history.”

Going over Thomas’s history via information discovered on
the Los Angeles Times website (little
was available on Thomas in the OKC Zoo archives) we get a better idea of what
kind of person Thomas was. Indeed he was a strong advocate for animals but he
was also reckless and condescending towards the public and government officials

In the March 2001 obituary in the Los Angeles Times, it notes that Thomas, who died on the 17th
of that month at the age of 70, arrived in L.A. in 1974, turning that city’s
zoo into “an important family and tourist attraction with more than 500 species
of mammals, birds and reptiles.”

Thomas, trained as a zoologist and veterinarian, delivered
the first gorilla born outside the wild at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio in 1956. “Colo”
the gorilla is now 54-years old and is the oldest gorilla in captivity.

The Times also
notes that “Gregarious, even charismatic, Mr. Thomas was well-liked and
respected by most of his zookeepers but seen by critics as arrogant and overly
eager to skirt government rules.”

Further research, thanks to the Los Angeles Times, notes that Thomas was a bit of a hothead. In
fact, that well-known arrogance got him fired in 1986 for “using racial
epithets around zoo employees, failing to assure proper paperwork for animal
transfers and appropriating zoo supplies for personal use.”

By the time Thomas resigned in disgrace as director of the L.A.
Zoo, in 1990, it was revealed, via an audit, that Thomas was keeping a secret “Zoo
Emergency Fund” without the city knowing about it.

The L.A. Times goes on to note that “Thomas was
also under investigation for reportedly ignoring citations from the federal
Agriculture Department over three years. The violations of the U.S. Animal
Welfare Act, which Thomas dismissed as “basically miniscule,” included
inadequate food storage, sanitation and drainage problems, pest and rodent
contamination, inadequate housing and rundown animal barns.”

Stephens did reference Dr. Jolyon West. We know he was a
leading advocate of LSD, mind control and exposing “cults,” like the Church of
Scientology. Interestingly, Thomas seemed to follow West out to Los Angeles
five years after West first arrived in that city, working at UCLA. And, as we
noted in our previous article, West would “study” famous subjects including Lee
Harvey Oswald’s killer Jack Ruby and more recently, convicted Oklahoma City
bomber Timothy McVeigh. West died in 1999, two years before Thomas, after his
son gave him a “deadly cocktail of pills” at his request. West and his son were
advocates of assisted suicide.

And what is disturbing is that neither man really seemed
sorry for their actions in Tusko’s unfortunate death. Clearly West had ulterior
motives for experimenting with LSD, as his later experiments would reveal,
including his “study” of hippies in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco.

Yeah, West’s obsession with death and apparently torturing
and killing animals “in the name of science” was all worth it.

According to a blog post critical of the mad scientist: “West
would later laugh about Tusko’s death according to the article,
referencing his appearance in the early 1990’s at a DEA-sponsored LSD
conference at a San Francisco hotel. West would tell the audience that “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.’”

How sad. It’s understandable, in a way, why the Oklahoma
City Zoo would want to whitewash or forget this dark chapter in their otherwise
stellar history. Elephants are beloved by humans. They are fascinating
creatures and we at Red Dirt Report are
excited about the baby elephant, Malee, recently born at the Oklahoma City Zoo.

Still, as a writer and researcher, it is frustrating that
there isn’t more about the circumstances before, during and afterward regarding
the LSD incident involving Tusko. It still begs the question: Why was a valuable zoo animal – an elephant,
no less-  allowed to be experimented upon. Yes, it was nearly 50 years ago but this tale is no less disturbing and is a reminder to us that these "scientific" experiments and methods were fairly common and sometimes deadly.

2011 West Marie Media

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About the Author

Andrew W. Griffin

Editor & Owner.

Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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