In May 1950 Henry Hoyt and Frank Berger, researchers at a small pharmaceutical company in New Jersey, submitted a patent application for a substance called meprobamate. They were impressed with the way the drug relaxed muscles in mice and calmed their notoriously testy lab monkeys: “We had about 20 rhesus and java monkeys. They’re vicious, and you’ve got to wear thick gloves and a face guard when you handle them. After they were injected with meprobamate though, they became very nice monkeys—friendly and alert. Where they wouldn’t previously eat in the presence of human beings, they now took grapes from your bare hand.”
The drug caused such relaxation in the monkeys that it prompted researchers to wonder if meprobamate, which would soon be called Miltown, might be a productive complement to psychoanalysis in people.
At the same time, a pharmacist at the French company Rhône-Poulenc screened a new drug, called chlorpromazine, for behavioral effects on rats. To reach a platform with food on it, the rats simply had to climb a rope. The drugged rats didn’t climb the rope, even when they learned that a shock was coming.
They seemed totally indifferent: They weren’t concerned with the shock or the food. And it wasn’t because they were sedated or uncoordinated; they were wide awake and physically unimpaired.
At Sainte-Anne Hospital in Paris in the early 1950s, doctors began giving chlorpromazine to patients with delirium, mania, confusion, and psychosis. The drug didn’t sedate these people or put them to sleep as other sedatives had done. Instead, patients on chlorpromazine were aware and, like the rats, indifferent to the outside world but could engage with it when needed.
In 1954 Rhône-Poulenc sold the U.S. chlorpromazine license to Smith Kline, which named the drug Thorazine. The market for the new drug was mind-boggling, generating $75 million in sales in its first year.
Miltown went to market in 1955 and became the fastest-selling drug in U.S. history. By 1957 more than 36 million Miltown prescriptions had been filled and a billion tablets manufactured. Tranquilizers accounted for one-third of all prescriptions in the United States, and the drug was active in redefining the very idea of what anxiety was and who could suffer from it.
One of the first nonhumans to be given psychopharmaceuticals as a patient (and not as a test subject) was a western lowland gorilla named Willie B., who was famous in Atlanta, Georgia. He was captured in Congo as an infant in the 1960s and sent to Zoo Atlanta, where he lived for 39 years, 27 of them alone in an indoor cage with a tire swing and a television.
According to Mel Richardson, who was working as a veterinarian at Zoo Atlanta at the time, Willie broke a glass window in his enclosure in the winter of 1970–71 and had to be transferred to a much smaller cage for six months while the glass was replaced with heavy metal bars.
“He weighed around 400 pounds, and the cage was way too small for him,” said Mel. “If he stood up and stretched each arm all the way out he could almost touch both sides of the cage at once.”
The vet staff decided to medicate him so that the six months would be more bearable. They put Thorazine in the Coca-Cola he drank in the morning. According to Mel, Willie responded to the drug as many institutionalized humans do: He shuffled back and forth across his cage with dulled eyes. “It was a little like watching the men in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Mel said.
Dolphins, whales, sea lions, walruses, and other marine creatures in parks like SeaWorld have also been given psychotropic drugs for what their vets see as depression, anxiety, compulsive regurgitation, flank sucking, or other distressing behaviors.
Two marine mammal veterinarians who have spent decades on staff or consulting for American animal-display facilities and the military’s marine mammal program told me that antidepressants and antipsychotics are commonly used but that “no one was going to talk to [me] about it.” Even they wouldn’t speak about the subject on the record.
But we do know about Gus, one of the polar bears in the Central Park Zoo, who started compulsively swimming figure eights in his pool for up to 12 hours a day, every day, for months. When the zoo paid a behaviorist $25,000 to help him, something of a Gus moment took hold of the city. The bear was on the cover of Newsday, Letterman cracked jokes about him, and the Canadian band The Tragically Hip wrote a song called “What’s Troubling Gus?”
The zoo’s public affairs manager said that Gus’s story was so captivating because “it’s like Woody Allen always being in therapy—the idea that all New Yorkers are neurotic.” In the wake of the news coverage, people called in from around the country to ask how the bear was doing.
The answer was complicated. Gus lived in a 5,000-square-foot enclosure—less than .00009 percent of what his range in the Arctic would be. He was also a major predator who, despite being born in captivity, no doubt still felt predatory impulses.
In fact when Gus first arrived from an Ohio zoo in 1988, his favorite game was stalking children from the underwater window in his pool. “He liked to see them scream and run in terror—it was a game,” the zoo’s animal supervisor told a reporter. But the zoo staff didn’t want Gus to scare children or their parents, so they put up barriers to keep visitors farther away from the window. Gus soon started to swim in endless figure eights.
Hoping to curb the neurotic behavior, the zoo hired Tim Desmond, an animal trainer who had trained the orca who played Willy in the film Free Willy. Desmond was able to reduce Gus’s compulsions by giving him new things to do, such as bear food puzzles or snacks that took him longer to eat: mackerel frozen in blocks of ice or chicken wrapped in rawhide.
The zoo redesigned his exhibit and installed a play area stocked with rubber trash cans and traffic cones that Gus could pretend-maul. They also put him on Prozac. I do not know how long he was on the drug, or even if it was as effective as his new exhibit and entertainment schedule, but eventually Gus’s compulsive swimming tapered off, though it never went away entirely.
The Gorillas Who Got Haldol, Valium, Klonopin, Zoloft, Paxil, Xanax, Buspar, Prozac, Ativan, Versed, Mellaril, and Beta-Blockers
Another case involves a whole troop of gorillas at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston.
In 1998 a 12-year-old male gorilla named Kitombe arrived at the zoo. The first week there, introductions between Kit and the other gorillas went smoothly. But soon Kit became violent. He also quickly impregnated one of the female gorillas, Kiki.
Kit was deeply agitated about the pregnant Kiki and wouldn’t let any of the other gorillas in the exhibit near her. His ire was focused in particular on a 36-year-old female named Gigi, who was the oldest gorilla in the troop.
As Kit chased Gigi around the exhibit, she screamed and shook. He bit her, tried to drown her in the exhibit’s moat, and tore open her scalp from ear to ear. Gigi, an already anxiety-prone gorilla given to repeatedly regurgitating and reingesting her food, eating her own feces, and sometimes slamming it on the glass of the exhibit in front of visitors, became a nervous wreck.
After two months of this, Dr. Hayley Murphy, the head veterinarian at the time, found her way to Michael Mufson, a psychiatrist and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.
To treat Kit, Mufson prescribed Prozac and increasing dosages of the antipsychotic Haldol. The drugs gave Kit diarrhea and slowed him down a bit, but they didn’t make him less aggressive. The keepers weaned him off the Haldol and Prozac and started him on Zoloft, which didn’t work either. They tried one last antipsychotic, risperidone, but after a few months with no change in the frequency of his attacks on Gigi, Kit was separated from the troop and put in a cement and steel holding area by himself. Sadly, this isolation period would last more than 10 years.
Mufson was more hopeful about his ability to help Gigi. He prescribed her a beta-blocker, the same drug that concert pianists take for nerves. She was on it for three months without much of an effect. Mufson then decided to try a combination of Xanax and Paxil. Gigi soon seemed slightly less anxious, but Kit still intimidated and bullied her. What actually worked was removing the violent gorilla from the rest of the troop, even if that didn’t help him. In the wake of Kit’s exile, Gigi was weaned off the drugs.
After their experiences at the zoo in Boston, Murphy and Mufson were curious about the use of psychopharmaceuticals in other captive gorillas, so they surveyed all U.S. and Canadian zoos with gorillas in their collections. Nearly half of the 31 institutions that responded had given psychopharmaceutical drugs to their gorillas. The most frequently prescribed were Haldol (haloperidol) and Valium (diazepam), though Klonopin, Zoloft, Paxil, Xanax, Buspar, Prozac, Ativan, Versed, and Mellaril had all been tried.
Mufson keeps photos of the Boston gorilla troop on his desk alongside pictures of his wife and children, and every year, he brings medical students on psychiatry rotations to the zoo to see the apes. Since he first began working with Gigi, Mufson has treated a number of gorillas in other American zoos. He also agitates for changes in their environments and daily routines.