How much acid should you give an elephant? These scientists learned the hard way.

From government mind control to an elephant on LSD.

An elephant causing chaos inside a restaurant
Tusko did not have this much fun.DepositPhoto

What’s the weirdest thing you learned this week? Well, whatever it is, we promise you’ll have an even weirder answer if you listen to PopSci’s hit podcast. The Weirdest Thing I Learned This Week hits Apple, Anchor, and everywhere else you listen to podcasts every-other Wednesday morning. It’s your new favorite source for the strangest science-adjacent facts, figures, and Wikipedia spirals the editors of Popular Science can muster. If you like the stories in this post, we guarantee you’ll love the show.

FACT: One of the researchers behind MKULTRA had an ill-fated run-in with a tripping elephant

By Rachel Feltman

Can we please talk about the elephant in the room? His name is Tusko, and he’s on a lot of acid.

So, it’s 1962 and an elephant named Tusko is “the prize of Oklahoma City Zoo.” He’s 14, in his prime, a robust specimen weighing more than 3 tons, and scientists at the University of Oklahoma decide to shoot him up with LSD.

Why give an elephant a hallucinogenic drug? The researchers were ostensibly trying to incite a state called musth: a period of intense aggression in bull elephants where testosterone spikes. It’s likely connected to mating, but scientists didn’t know a ton about how it worked or what triggered it, let alone how to stop it. That posed a problem in zoos, where male elephants who were usually great with humans could suddenly turn dangerously violent. If sending a young elephant on a wild trip produced similar behavior, the researchers reasoned, they and their colleagues could use acid (which was still legal at the time) to create experimental scenarios aimed at controlling musth itself.

But instead of inducing rage or violence, the drugs led Tusko to collapse and start seizing after just five minutes. About 20 minutes later the researchers gave him a potent anti-psychotic, which did nothing to help, and then they tranquilized him. He died shortly thereafter.

On this episode of Weirdest Thing, we talk about what went wrong, why the U.S. government was so obsessed with LSD, and what happens when you give an elephant acid the right way.

FACT: If you have to poop whenever you enter a bookstore, you’re not alone

By Corinne Iozzio

Sometimes, there’s crap science can’t seem to explain. Literally. Social media, reddit, and confessional blogs are full of tales of something called the Mariko Aoki Phenomenon: a sudden urge to move one’s bowels when browsing bookstores. First documented in a Japanese magazine in 1985, the effect has no clear scientific explanation. But, naturally, that hasn’t stopped everyone from psychologists to physiologists from positing a slew of hypotheses. Do we have a Pavlovian response because we associate reading with toilets? Is there something about the smell of ink and paper that triggers our digestive tracts? Or maybe it has to do with the posture we use when browsing the stacks? We endeavor to get to the bottom of this bum-fuddling mystery.

FACT: Howard Taft never actually got stuck in a bath tub, but he did decide how to define whiskey

By Sara Chodosh

Maybe it’s the philosophy major in me, but I think definitions are fascinating. What makes cheddar cheddar, or ale ale? If it tastes like cheddar and it looks like cheddar, isn’t it cheddar? I think that’s why I’m tickled by the idea that our definition of whiskey (at least in America) is essentially the same one that President Taft decreed a century ago—and his decision is still causing problems today.

Definitions are all arbitrary, but the truth is that a lot of what you eat and drink is very precisely defined. It has to be. If you want to regulate food, whether it’s for safety or for honesty in packaging, you have to write down rules and stipulations about what can and cannot be in certain products. It’s the same for whiskey as it is for ketchup or cherry pie or frozen lasagna, because it’s all an issue of public health. It’s a serious matter, but it still tickles me that someone had to decide what ketchup actually is, or what percent of a cherry pie has to be cherries for it to count. Whiskey’s definition just had the fun bonus of being decided on by a sitting president.