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 put Thorazine in the Coca-Cola Willie drank in the morning. He responded to the drug as many institutionalized humans do: He shuffled back and forth across his cage with dulled eyes.
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.
The Polar Bear on Prozac
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.
Gus lived in a 5,000-square-foot enclosure—less than .00009 percent of what his range in the Arctic would be. He was 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.
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.
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.
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.