#11: THE ALCOHOLIC MONKEYS OF ST. KITTS
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|THE ALCOHOLIC MONKEYS
OF ST. KITTS
by Alex Shoumatoff
Dr. Maurice Dongier, a neuropsychiatrist who studies the causes of alcoholism at McGill University, and I are related by marriage, through an extended family of Rwandese émigrés in Montreal. His son is married to the sister of my wife's sister's husband (if you can follow that). At a recent family gathering, Maurice started telling me about the alcoholic monkeys on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. They were African green monkeys, whose ancestors were brought over by French settlers from Senegambia in the eighteenth century. Ladies of the garrison, parasols atwirl, would stroll with them on leashes, like poodles, along the ramparts of the fort. During a battle with the British for control of the island, some of the monkeys managed to escape into the island's thickly forested interior. Now there were forty thousand monkeys on the island, about the same number as the human inhabitants-- and they were such a serious agricultural pest that the government paid hunters to shoot them. They particularly liked to raid sugar-cane fields. After a rainstorm, it was Maurice's understanding that some of the cane would ferment, and the monkeys would come out of the forest and get drunk from chewing it. Some of the males would beat their wives and children and would exhibit what he called, in his Marseilles-inflected English, "skeedrow behavior." A McGill colleague of Maurice's had been studying the monkeys, and had found that seventeen percent of them displayed classic symptoms of alcoholism-- the same proportion reported in an alcoholism study of Swedes-- and that the monkey's alcohol-susceptibility showed clear family linkage. I sipped in appreciative silence the magnificent Sauterne that Maurice had brought up from his wine cellar. Complementing his scientific interest in intoxicating fluids, Maurice is a serious oenophile.
I told Maurice about my fascination with primates-- how I had observed lemurs in Madagascar, mountain gorillas in Rwanda, mixed troops of squirrel and capuchin monkeys in the Amazon, and many other species in the wild. I was very familiar with African green (also known as vervet) monkeys-- no one who has spent any amount of time in Africa can fail to be-- and had written about them in connection with AIDS-- the theory that the human immunodeficiency retrovirus is a mutated simian virus transmitted by the bite (or the butchering, or the ingestion ?) of a green monkey. "I'd love to see these monkeys," I mused to Maurice, and he said, "So would I," and he added that it would be even more interesting if we flew to St. Kitts from Montreal in a small plane. He had a pilot's license and was part-owner of a Beechcraft that he took up most weekends.
Every time Maurice and I saw each other after that, I would ask him, "When are we going to St. Kitts ?" and he would tell me that he was working on it. After the third blizzard of the winter, the idea of actually doing this had become very attractive, and on February 26 the two of us took off in sub-zero weather from Montreal's Beloeil Airport in a two-engine Aztec Piper and headed south. It was twelve hundred miles to Florida, and another twelve hundred over open water to St. Kitts. We could get there in two days, Maurice said, but he warned, "we are at the mercy of Aeolus."
At seven thousand feet and a hundred and seventy-five knots, a trip like this becomes an epic voyage. Ploughing through Himalayan cloudpeaks, catching glimpses of the earth below, is
An almost hallucinatory experience. "We are literally 'getting high,' I yelled to Maurice over the engine's drove, and he yelled back, "of course." We marvelled at silver rivers slithering to the sea, at the baroque swirls of estuaries, half-frozen, like milky cataracts, as far down as Virginia, where winter began to lose its grip; at the transition from snow to frozen brown ground to green; at how every twenty minutes a strategically sited skyscraper thicket would appear, as if each were a kingdom : the kingdom of Philadelphia, the kingdom of Wilmington, the kingdom of Baltimore.
The first night we made Florence, a friendly little burg deep in the piney woods of South Carolina whose claim to fame is that it was, fifty years ago, the first stop for Nazi p.o.w.'s. Florida, the next morning, was lost under mountains of fluff which parted occasionally to reveal an enticing golf course in Palm Beach, the launching pad at Cape Kennedy. By lunch we made Nassau, but then the radio conked out. It was Sunday, and no one was around to fix it, so we spent an unscheduled night in the Bahamas (airborne the next morning, I had never realized there were so many of them-- cays, and the wave-smashed lines of incipient cays, where a coral shelf had finally broken to the surface) and another in San Juan, the swinging, seething capital of Puerto Rico, due to a cracked seal on the right wing's oil tank. It wasn't until the morning of the fourth day that we spotted a string of lushly forested volcanic cones poking up from the cobalt sea-- tiny, ex-Dutch Saba and St. Eustatius, then the slightly larger, ex-British St. Kitts and Nevis.
Maurice's colleague, Frank Ervin, was waiting for us at the little airport. Sixty-eight, with long flowing white hair and beard, Frank looked like Walt Whitman or an eminence grise of the Sixties. Ervin had grown up in East Texas and he had an expansive, easy drawl that made him instantly likeable. "My mother was a widow, and during the Depression she worked for the Farm Security Administration, giving out loans to poor rural blacks, so I feel completely at home among the Kittisians," he told us as we drove to Estridge Estate, a working sugar plantation on the northern part of the island where he and his wife, Roberta Palmour, a human geneticist also at McGill, were conducting the alcoholism study. .
"You will find the Kittisians extremely polite," he went on. "A few of the younger generation affect a faddish, emulative Rastafarianism, but this is basically an old-time scene, right out of Mr. Pickwick." The island, only twenty-three miles from tip to tip, one of the northern Leeward Islands in the Lesser Antilles, was discovered by Columbus on his second voyage and named for the patron saint of travellers (St. Kitts is steamlined patois for St. Christopher). From 1643 on, it was the first stop for slave ships, and the auction center for the entire Carribean. It had then, and has to this day, a single economy : sugar cane. There was a tourist compound with a casino and a golf course on the other side of the island that attracted charter flights from places like Dallas, Toronto, and Cali, Colombia (in fact until a few years ago, when the Drug Enforcement Agency caught on to the fact that the cargo on these flights wasn't only human, the island was a trans-shipment station for cocaine), Frank told us, but the shortage of white-sand beaches had kept it from becoming a big tourist destination. "Unlike on other islands, ganja is frowned upon, but there's a lot of heavy drinking," he continued. "Neither Isben Williams [a Barbadian analyst who had many alcoholic patients in the capital], or I have a handle on how much is genetic and how much is sociocultural. Until television arrived five years ago, there was nothing for the men to do when they came in from the cane fields but go to the rum shop and play dominoes. Places like our local pub, the Cosmopolitan Bar, are still the big gossip and buddy centers, so if you have any vulnerability at all for one drink to lead to the next, you're going to drink a lot of booze."
A dusty road led between tall dense walls of cane
to the ramshackle plantation house. Inside were computers and a high-tech lab. In a compound in back were eleven hundred caged monkeys, some in small, solitary cages, some in larger cages, in groups of up to a dozen. I went out to see them just as it was getting dark. A frisson of panic spread through the compound at the sight of a new bearded honkey. In cage after cage, the scampering, screeching monkeys would flow into the farthest upper corner and plaster themselves into a tight, trembling pod, their eyes bulging. Never had my arrival on a scene inspired such terror.
This was not about monkeys in the wild, I realized. It was a laboratory for breeding monkeys for medical purposes. The main income of the operation was derived from providing laboratories in Europe and the States with monkeys for medical research or the manufacture of medicine, and from pre-clinical trials of drugs on the monkeys who remained on the farm. The alcoholism study was only one of about forty that Ervin was running. Some involved the removal of organs. A young doctor from Denmark had just arrived to process six perfused kidneys for her doctorate on hypertension.
Ervin was eloquent in his defense against the animal-rights questions the operation raised. "I'm an unrepentant specie-ist," he said. "I'm doing this for human health. If a baby monkey has to be sacrificed so its kidney can provide twenty-seven thousand thousand polio vaccines, to me this is a reasonable trade-off." He said he could provide three hundred virus-free monkeys-- enough to vaccinate the world. He had forty hypertensive monkeys with interlinking pedigrees, and he had just sold some of his drinkers to the University of North Carolina.
Maurice was the former head of the deparment, a Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur, an oenophile and a gastronome, and so each night a feast up to his culinary standards was prepared by Roberta and collaborators and was consumed on the porch of a stately plantation house further up the island the two of them were renovating. During these meals, and while driving around the island running errands and seeing the sights, we learned about the intellectual odyssey that had ended in Ervin's becoming what he described a "farmer." It was not alcoholism, but an interest in the biology of violence, that brought Ervin to monkeys. Fascinated from an early age by how the brain works, Ervin was a brilliant student. Starting in public school in rural East Texas, he rose metereorically through the academic strata until, by the Sixties, he had become a psychopharamacologist in the Harvard Department of Psychiatry. He was not impressed by the way Timothy Leary, over in the Department of Psychology and Sociology, was handing out lsd to all comers, and voted no when Leary wanted to transfer to his department.
Frustrated by the inability of clinical psychiatry to cure the most severe mental disorders, he gravitated increasingly to neurobiology. He studied schizophrenia, then the mechanisms of pain-- phantom limb pain and other syndromes; then he focused on
temporary-lobe epilepsy, which introduced him to psychotic behavior, on which he eventually became a recognized authority, in demand as an expert witness at psychotic-murder trials. "Some epileptics experience between seizures increasing dysphoria [the opposite of euphoria], irritability, and loss of impulse control, which in the right setting can lead to extreme violence," Ervin explained. "Epileptics who murder are acquitted under the Napoleonic Code, which recognizes that they are incapable of controlling themselves."
"I'm fascinated with people who feel like killing somebody with no external input," he went on. "They gives clues to the brain's machinery."
Ervin then began to wonder whether non-epileptics with similar histories of impulsive violence could be victims of other, unknown innate brain disorders, so he started looking for people with an established vulnerability to loss of control who had been ascertained by the criminal justice system rather than the mental health system. By l968 he had a hundred and eighty self-referred violent patients. "Thirty-five were murderers. We're not talking about small-time, getting-a-little-irritable. One federal prisoner who volunteered for the study was too embarrassed to tell me what he had done. He was a little guy-- looked like Peter Lorre. I read his file : he had eviscerated two girls, six and seven, masturbated on their entrails, and tried to burn down a cathedral to conceal the evidence. He was genuinely relieved to be locked up so he couldn't hurt anybody else.
“'Tell me what happens,' I said. The man explained. 'I go along fine, then I get these feelings like I want to do something, like burn down a house or mutilate a child. I start getting these nightmare images. What I used to do, when I was on the outside, was go to a bar to try to obliterate them.'" Ervin explained that the man "was turning to alcohol in an ignorant, miscarried attempt at self-medication. This is very common. It brought on the very violent behavior he was trying to fend off.
"If you take any maximum-security prison, the diagnosis is uniformly alcoholism," he continued. "The majority of murders, rapes, and property crimes are committed under the influence of alcohol. The question is, is drinking simply a common practice of the criminal subculture, does it contribute to the crime, or is it just contributory to their getting caught ?" Frank believed it plays an active role. "Alcohol in low doses excites the limbic system, particularly the amigdala, which organizes attack behavior, the fight or flight responses-- and at the same time it dampens the inhibiting mechanisms in the frontal lobe, the neocortex, which control primal agression," he explained-- "or as a psychoanalyst would put it, the superego is soluble in alcohol."