One of the islands in Harrington Sound has a controversial history:
Hall’s Island (Latitude: 32.339167 / Longitude: -64.713056) was, for a short period in the 1970s, home to an experimental group of gibbons. It is indeed a very small island at just 1.5 acres, and at the time was a mix of trees, rocky outcrops and low growing vegetation. Today it looks quite abandoned, no obvious evidence of its previous occupants.
It seems quite reasonable to rent out your island if you are lucky enough to own one, and, as recent news from Nonsuch Island shows, local scientific research is a popular and newsworthy topic. So why was this episode in Bermudian History controversial? My reading suggests that to begin with there were no issues of concern, it was reported in the local news as “research into epilepsy” and gibbons were housed for a while in the zoo so the public could see them. The project was endorsed by local charities, the Governor of Bermuda and several other Bermuda dignitaries.
However, there were concerns over the source of the animals, the nature of the experiments and the conditions on the island.
In 1965 the capture, trade and export of gibbons was banned in Thailand. There is no proof that these gibbons came from Thailand but a 1971 memo from one of the chief investigators to the staff of the Hall’s Island project told them to anticipate the arrival of 20 gibbons from Thailand. (IPPL.org). In the end only 6 came to Bermuda at that time, imported through an intermediary in Canada. At that time Canada had no legislation to control trade in rare animals, only a health permit for the transported animals was needed. It was not until 1973 that US ratified the Convention of Trade in Endangered Species. Prior to this time the method of capture of these gibbons was to kill the mother and export the infant. In a species with a family-based social structure this seems particularly cruel.
The experiments were not about epilepsy. The initial documents stated the purpose of the research was to observe gibbon behaviour in open field situations.
What was not made clear to either public or any scientific research boards, was that half of the gibbons had stimulating devices implanted into their brains and that one line of research was to “induce lasting modifications of free-ranging behaviour by means of long term stimulation of the brain”. One of the researchers subsequently wrote a book entitled “Physical Control of the mind; towards a psychocivilised society”. This book is available today, if you have $150 to spare, but the reviews include words “appalling” and “disturbing” – Delgado also experimented on humans.
The death rates among the Hall Island gibbons were high – of the first ten subjects, 2 died in the first 3 months and a further 3 in the next nine months and one was “sacrificed due to aberrant behaviour”. It was at this point that 4 “spare” gibbons were kept in outdoor cages at the Bermuda Aquarium.
In 1971 one gibbon drowned, one was found with unexplained head injuries and a third died following a bee sting. The scientists’ explanation for the high death rates was that radio frequencies for equipment at the military airport were affecting the brain stimulating equipment. However, two of the technicians involved in the studies reported that the gibbons were left alone for long periods, that the observations entailed a mere 6 days during 1970 and that they were not supplied with sufficient nutritious foods. They suggested in their report that the funds for the research were misspent on an expensive boat with water skis. Clearly boats were necessary to reach the island, but water skis?
But for the most part these concerns did not reach the public or the Bermudian government. A few years later they were well covered in newsletters of the International Primate Protection League.
Lar gibbons are apes from SW China and Thailand who live in trees. They live in families, male and female parents with young who are expected to leave home when they mature. They spend much of their daytime hours in trees and sleep in trees, choosing tall trees near cliff edges. They are territorial, with one troop holding sway over some 30-100 acres. Given that, it is hard to understand quite why such a small island was considered a suitable home for them.
Field studies of gibbons predate those of other apes, with a seminal paper written on them in 1940, by CR Carpenter, one of the Hall’s Island researchers. The 1970s were busy years for the study of animal behaviour – do you recall the book “Manwatching” by Desmond Morris? Gibbons are more closely related to man than other apes and because they are small with relatively short generational gaps then they were considered a suitable substitute for experimenting on man. But in the wild they spend most of their lives high up in tree and they eat fresh fruit – on Hall’s Island the trees were not exactly tall and the diet was Purina monkey chow.
In the end some 7 researchers have papers to their name resulting from the Hall Island research. The most prolificly published was Clarence R Carpenter, a Professor of psychology and anthropology at Pennsylvania State University and later University of Georgia. He studied primate behaviour, produced primate films and videotapes, and researched communication processes. Although he was involved in the project, at the time he did express his opinion that there was poor planning and protocols and poor record-keeping. His involvement was limited to observation of the gibbons during the Summer of 1971 and his papers concerned their patterns of walking and their daily activities.
Carpenter did not author papers on the brain stimulation experiments – that was the field of Joseph Delgado, a scientist who had previously left Yale after a dispute regarding his use of human subjects in brain stimulation experiments. It is not clear what his hypotheses were for the Hall’s Island work but he was working alongside a psychiatrist, AH Esser, whose research to that point had been in dominance and utilisation of space in psychiatric patients. Esser worked at Rockland Research Institute, the laboratories attached to Rockland State Mental Hospital, which has been described as a “therapeutic suburb”. However he claimed in the paperwork for the importation of the gibbons that he was doing research for the National Cancer Institute – no papers attributed to him have been published in that field. Esser is apparently still practising psychiatry, though a google search suggests that his license was suspended for malpractice in 2012.
The assistants, Baldwin and Teleki, who exposed the conditions on Hall’s Island, left the study group in 1972 after their request for specific experimental protocols was ignored. Both continued to study primate behaviour and contribute a substantial body of papers in that field.
The Hall’s Island project gets short paragraphs in many current texts on primate behaviour. But you might know that situation where “common papers are cited commonly” and this leads to an overestimation of their scientific worth? Well, that seems to be what occurred here – the actual results of any of the Hall’s island studies can probably be summed up:
- the gibbons exhibited patterns of semi-vertical trunk orientation in walking and swinging – but without many trees to climb on the island then they really didn’t have much choice
- play occupied one third of the gibbon waking day
- they demonstrated complex dominance relationships
- they may have killed a chicken (one was found with a broken neck – but locals also had access to the island so draw your own conclusions here)
- one was observed using a leaf to dip for water from a puddle
- one died of the gibbon-ape-leukaemia-virus, apparently leukaemia is more common in captive gibbons
Were any Bermudian laws breached?
When residents reported hearing screams form Hall’s Island the SPCA investigated but any outcome was not made public. It is an offence on Bermuda to ill-treat or not exercise reasonable care in looking after animals but there are no regulations concerning scientific experimental research on Bermuda that I could find, certainly none appertaining to 1970s.
The whole episode took place at a time when, in US, there was a post-war federal funding commitment to civilian science. The field of psychiatry was looking for means of behavioural control at a time when locking people away in asylums was facing heavy criticism. Respected scientists were studying primate behaviour and the papers published in this area were increasing exponentially. It was an expanding field, scientists wanted to do research on the edges of conventional science and in Harrington Sound, on Bermuda there was an island for rent. It was opportunistic, if retrospectively controversial.