Dispatch #11: THE ALCOHOLIC MONKEYS OF ST. KITTS

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    By the late sixties Ervin had reached a point in his research where "I needed a social group with a complex behavioral repertoire to study," as he put it. He hooked up with some scientists who were doing experiments on the green monkeys at Livingston Falls, in what was then Southern Rhodesia and is now Zimbabwe. Greens were just what he was looking for. "The weed monkey of Africa,"  Ervin called them. "They range all over the continent and exploit practically every habitat. They are highly adaptable and aren't endangered, and their DNA overlaps 95.5 % with man." One of the experiments was to remove the amigdalas of the dominant, or alpha male of the troop, and to see what happened. As expected, the males' status in the troop plummeted. In fact, they became vegetables and were quickly eaten by leopards. 
      Just as Ervin was getting on the plane to set up some experiments of his own, Southern Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was then called, hit the fan. Livingston Falls fell to  the guerillas of Robert Mugabe, so Ervin needed to find another population. By chance, a colleague at the Smithsonian Institution happened to discover an old green-monkey skin labeled St. Kitts. Ervin flew down as soon as he could. He drove out to the arid southern tip of the island, where there is a great salt pond. A man named Mr. Wigley lived on the pond. Ervin asked him if there were any monkeys on the island, and he said, 'Yeah boss.'"
    Ervin dreamed of stocking the southern tip with monkeys and  doing a massive Calhoun experiment : fencing them off in a confined area and providing them with unlimited food until, as with Calhoun's rats,  every space was filled and they became a city and began to rape and murder each other and the mothers to commit infanticide, eating their babies. Ervin could play Animal Farm games-- control them with electronics and gadgets, make the weakest one the only one who could open the food, and watch how he became the leader, make the alpha male a criminal outlaw omega.
    All this was a little hard-core and Island of Dr. Moreau for my blood. I really had problems with what was going on here, however important to science and beneficial it was to the human race. I wondered what Brigitte Bardot would think of this place. "Is that where they blind them? " the primatologist Jane Goodall asked when I told her about my visit to St. Kitts. I reached her in Milwaukee, where she was giving a lecture. She is on the road three hundred days a year giving lectures and talks and making appearances to raise consciousness about the assault on Africaís remaining wildlife by the bushmeat trade, starving refugees, and a host of other things. "This is one of these off-shore medical labs where ghastly experiments that would never be permissible on the mainland are performed. Once you accept that humans are not the only beings with feelings or personalities and reason, a whole new concept enters in, and places like this raise a lot of questions. We have too long thought we can do anything we like as long as it is vaguely postulated to be good for us."
    To which Ervin, in one of our discussions on the island, had already countered : "Even if my motives were purely selfish-- intellectual curiosity, ambition, to be the one who discovers the genetic basis of alcoholism-- this research would still benefit the human race. Alcoholism is the third leading cause of preventable death in the U.S.. One in eight children has an alcoholic parent. The annual cost of the disease is a hundred and thirty billion dollars-- twice the cost of the Gulf War-- mainly due to absenteeism, but also because it causes chronic heart and liver disease and several kinds of brain rot and takes up half the nation's hospital beds, the health costs are staggering. 
Half of fatal car accidents are alcohol-related, and this is quite apart from the tremendous social toll-- fatherless children, abused wives, and other personal tragedies. So you can see why this is worth trying to understand. And to understand it you have to have animals whose neurobiology and endocrinology you can manipulate. No progress has been possible in any clinical problem you want to name-- cancer, influenza-- without an animal model." 
 

***
     For the next four years, after discovering that there were monkeys on St. Kitts, Ervin would come down whenever he could and study the monkeys in the wild. He found that true to their species, they had adapted to practically every one of the island's mini-ecosystems. The traditional African troop has eighteen members, half male and half female, a third of whom are adults. There is a sharp male hierarchy, with one predominant alpha male, and three or four betas, and a similar pecking order among the females. The troop moves in formal, almost military, array, with beta outriders keeping a lookout for leopards or other predators. But the St. Kitts greens have been without predators for centuries, and their social organization, Ervin noted, was much looser and more relaxed, "like a Quaker meeting," as he put it. The African greens have a repertoire of fifty-two vocalizations, but he had only identified thirty-six on St. Kitts. Had some, like LEOPARD ! been dropped, and others, like IT'S ONLY A TRACTOR been added ? he wondered.
    He paid particular attention to their diet. The ones on the arid peninsula ate sea grapes and clammy cherries, and plucked limpets off rocks. Most of them raided the crops, so the local authorities, who paid hunters to pop them, had no problem with Frank capturing some of them to study in a more controlled setting. But it wasn't until l972 that Kittisians began to take his requests for monkeys seriously, and the first ones began to come in. 
    Ervin read in an eighteenth-century natural history of the island by a Jesuit naturalist Father LeBlanc how the slaves would set out halved coconuts filled with molasses and rum to lure the monkeys in from the forest; barbecued monkey is still a popular dish on the island. This got him thinking about how the monkeys might be useful for alcohol research. It was during this conversation, driving down to Basseterre, that a serious confusion about the monkeys getting bombed on the fermented sugar cane emerged. Maurice and I thought we were going to see feral intoxication. This was what we had flown all the way down here to see. Ervin had assured me over the phone that seeing this was only a matter of patience and the amount of time we had. But now he confessed that he had never personally witnessed a single act of spontaneous wild drunkness, nor were there any reports of such a thing happening. Moreover, the cane didn't ferment after rain- he didn't know where we had got that idea. But there was a tree on the island known as the jumbie cutlass whose fruit was hallucinogenic, and the monkeys had frequently been observed tripping out after eating it. So wild drinking "would be expected," he now said. "Look at all the alcoholic dogs." 
      He pointed out that "Alcohol is not a bad food source, as Joe Six-pack's belly attests. One can imagine the selective advantage of being able to eat fermented fruit. One can even imagine genes for extracting the calories in alcohol, and seventeen percent who didn't get efficient at doing this and leave  acetaldehyde (which is what you make when you drink alcohol) in the brain long enough for addictive compounds to form."
    This was one approach that Frank was looking at : alcoholics may be pushed heavily by their genes or their environment, but alcohol itself may be also intrinsically addictive. "If you do your homework on the blackboard, you could show that acetaldehyde going to the brain can in theory interact with dopamine, serotonin, and probably other neurotransmitters, to form an adduct which would be an opiate-like compound that could be the basis of a true addiction like morphine, opium, etc.. But nobody has been able to demonstrate that this happens in man. So far such opiate compounds have only been found in the spinal columns of Parkinsonís disease patients, but not alcoholics. It takes a certain kind of enzyme to tie together acetaldehyde and dopamine."
     It was to explore such avenues that Ervin and Palmour started their alcoholism research program in l980.  Rats had been used in alcohol research since the twenties, but theirs was the  first monkey model. Since then rhesus monkey have been tested in Rotterdam and at Harvard, sinomologus monkeys in Denver, and Frank had just sold some of his drinkers to the University of North Carolina. "When I started the study, the literature said animals will not voluntarily consume alcohol in excess," he continued. "The existing studies were set-ups for the animals to self-inject intravenously, which is a more useful model for heroine, or forced-drinking set-ups, where the animal is shocked every ten seconds until he takes a drink. But I screened two hundred monkeys for voluntary consumption, and found thirty-five drinkers."
    I accompanied Amanda, a local girl who is responsible for putting out the rum and recording how much each monkey drinks, one one her rounds. The rum that is used is a hundred-and-fifty-proof local moonshine brewed in the hills and known as "hammond," for Lord Roy Hammond, whose agents cracked down on the practice after the Second World War. The hammond is diluted with water to thirty proof and is placed from nine a.m. to one p.m. in a bottle alongside an identical bottle of pure water. The monkey has the choice of which liquid he wants to drink. "After two weeks you can tell who is a drinker and who isn't," Amanda explained. "This tall one's a crazy alcohol drinker," stopping at cage 0609-3.   "He has already drunk 275 cc's in an hour and a half. He usually drinks over 400 cc. After three hundred they get drunk and lay down." 01907, however, hadn't touched his hammond bottle.
     The monkeys in the study were in small solitary cages, to keep environmental influences to a minimum. But I wondered whether boredom and isolation factored in a monkey's choice of which fluid; if I were locked in solitary like this day after day, I'd probably go for the rum myself. 
    Ervin had prepared a group of ten males so Maurice and I could  observe the effects of hammond on social behavior. We would be "sort of like a bartender observing his customers," he explained. A bald patch had been shaved on a different part of each monkey's body to tell it apart. Ervin gave us a crash course in first-level screening for sixteen basic categories of behavior-- the same techniques employed by biosocial anthropologists in the field, which he said have proved surprisingly useful on mental wards and in prisons in predicting recovery and recidivism rates. "Psychiatrists are too hung up on speech," he said. "A person can sound completely rational, but you can tell from his body language that he's dying to kill you." (Here Ervin became a psycho maniacally wringing his hands in his crotch and jerking his head uncontrollably to the right.) 
     "The first split is between social and individual behavior," he explained. "Individual is eat, drink, defecate, urinate, masturbate, orient (focus on something). Signs of anxiety include scratching, ear flapping, yawning; abrupt anxiety may be expressed by an involuntary liquid defecation. Social behavior breaks down into affiliative and agonistic. Grooming is the female affiliative behavior par excellence, as you can test by driving around the island and seeing all the girls platting and braiding each other's hair, while the boys are chasing each other and rough-and-tumbling. The same is true of monkeys.
    "For agonistic behavior you describe what the focal animal is doing. You separate the social hierarchy by the rate of threats received or emitted. The lowest level of threat is displacement. A big male displaces a smaller one from the shade. At the first level of aggression there is eye-to-eye contact, frequently accompanied by a smile or half-yawn, a slight demonstration of the teeth. At the second level, the mouth opens fully, the canines are displayed, and the monkey barks. The recipient escalates or backs off. In a full dominance confrontation the loser submits, and you get a pelvic present. In the case of stumptail macaques, the loser is buggered. 
    "If the conflict is not resolved by symbolic semiotics," Ervin went on, "the antagonists chase each other and cut each other up. Their canines are as sharp as straight razors. Eighty percent of the bites are at the axillary, femural, or carotid arteries, where they are most likely to kill." 
 
 

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