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Thursday, August 23, 2001   |    Fiction

An Animals’ Forum: Was It Right for Researchers to Grow Human Brain Cells in My Head?

by Michael Fowler

We couldn’t rule out the possibility that certain experiments could potentially alter the cognitive or emotional status of the animal in ways that would be problematic from an ethical point of view.”

—Dr. Ruth Faden, biomedical ethicist, Johns Hopkins University

Verve pipe.Tallulah, Vervet Monkey (communicating by speech): Except for the thirty-million human neural cells implanted in my cranium, I’m just an ordinary vervet monkey. Some things in my life have changed, of course, and I think for the better. A whole new world has opened up in my love life. Sure, I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for Chico, the male vervet whose cage was beside mine in the lab. He has the deepest eyes, the softest fur, and his generosity with bananas knows no bounds. Chico and I share a lot of great memories. But frankly I’m more into my human friend Mark right now. He’s an animal ethicist who has a pad overlooking the James River and a sporty coupe. After a night out with Mark recently, dinner with a movie and then a personal tour of the ethical research center at the university … well, let me just say that any vervet has competition these days. And as for Chico’s four quick thrusts with no foreplay behind the lab counter—please. Mark does a lot better, and at his suggestion I’m now thinking of breast implants.

Get it? Nuts.Jacko, Squirrel (communicating with pen and paper): I think it fair to say that I’m a lot happier now, and that I’m no longer so, well, squirrelly. I know I used to not see the forest for the trees. Now I have a greater conception for the meaning of it all. I’d like to thank the gang at the lab for the sets of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy they gave me at my going-away party, and I think when I finish them my understanding of the human condition—and I include in that my own hybrid condition as well—will be, if not complete, at least off to a good start. Now if I could just quit my menial job as a message runner at Western Union and get a university position.

Blowhole.Skipper, Dolphin (communicating by click analyzer): This is wrong. This is way, way wrong. All the other dolphins in the tank are smarter than me. They call me ‘retardo’ and ‘human wannabe.’ Even when I outperformed them all at SeaWorld, they told me I was just playing the Man’s game, just jumping to the Man’s tune. I think I’m having a nervous breakdown. Can I get a lobotomy, or at least see a marine therapist?

Supposedly, a dog.Zippy, Dog (communicating by canine interpreter): Well, first off, good morning! Ha ha! Hey, the first thing everyone usually wants to know is, am I still housebroken? I am! In addition, the band is doing fantastically well right now. Our first single “Smells Like Stem-Cell Research” is number one in the U.K. and catching on over here. And my guitar stylings have been compared to Steve Vai’s, so yeah, it’s great. I’m like permanently high on human brain cells.

Horse's assGrandstander, Horse (communicating by placing hooves on drawn letters): Was it wrong to inject human neural cells into my skull? Neigh to that. I remember one researcher saying, ‘Even if a horse has a hippocampus composed entirely of human cells, it isn’t going to trot out and recite Shakespeare.’ Well, it so happens I’ve got the title role in an all-equine version of Hamlet coming up in Central Park this summer. And John Simon, who saw the rehearsals, compares me favorably to Olivier. As a former also-ran at the derby, I’d say that’s right. Right for my career!

This isn't DollyDelilah, Sheep (communicating by bleating in code): I’m a triple implant, so I consider myself a special case. I was injected with human stem cells in embryo, with the result that my liver is 100% human, as is my immune system. Then I received an injection of a billion or so human neural cells in my forebrain. I tell you, I feel like I could leap over a tall building and fly around the sun. But you haven’t heard it all. I’m expecting, and my fetus has been injected with human cells. That means there’s a non-zero chance my baby will be human, at least in appearance. Isn’t that wild? And the irony in all this is, I voted for Bush. I knew he was opposed to experimenting with embryos, which I support, but I thought he’d get the job done in Iraq.

BirdbrainHenrietta, Chicken (communicating by pecking a keyboard): Let me tell you what I think. I think it’s safe to say that the expression “bird-brain” is about to take on a new meaning. My treatise on string theory will, I think, revolutionize physics. And with psychotherapy, I no longer have flashbacks of those confining months on the egg-production line. Still, I sometimes wonder, “Who am I?” I read that Aristotle defined man as a featherless biped. So am I supposed to pluck myself now, or what?

LobsterZeke, Lobster (communicating by waving claws in sign language): They gave me the brain of a killer, I know it. I’m a monster now with uncontrollable evil impulses. The villagers, I mean the other lobsters here in the tank with me at the seafood place, call me Frankenlobster. No, it wasn’t right at all. Not for me.

Binky! The Red Ear Slider Turtle!Binky, Red Ear Slider Turtle (communicating by tracing words in sand): Of course, it was the right thing to do. If I didn’t have human brain cells I’d be a nameless jackass walking endless circles around an aquarium, not able to properly enjoy life at all. What would sunlight mean to me, food, water, sex? But now I have my own talk show starting next month, and this week I’m on Oprah.

Crab LouseTige, Crab Louse (communicating by microscopic etchings on dermal tissue): Wrong! Dead wrong! Jesus, to find out where I live and what I eat. Do you know how humiliating that is? I’m vermin, do you hear? I cruise somebody’s pubic region. No one likes me. I wish I just didn’t know. Why’d you have to tell me? If I could end it all, I would. Spread some permethrin ointment on me so I can end this misery, right now, or I’ll bite you where you’ll feel it.

Michael Fowler wears a penis patch for more inches and sucks only meatless lozenges. Something of a bon vivant, he enjoys going through revolving doors with women.