July 5

1996 — Birth of Dolly, the first cloned sheep

 

You count the sheep in the fenced field behind the lab.  There are so many of them, and they’ve eaten most of the grass and forbs in their enclosure.  You’re working on gathering other food supplements for them.

The best estimate you can come up with is forty.  The count’s inaccurate, though, since the sheep keep moving.  They all have the exact same markings, so it’s impossible to keep track when one wanders from one clumped mob to another.

Maybe you should just estimate the count at one, and leave it there.  They’re all the same.  They’re all Dolly.

Your assistant wheels up the barrel of hay you’ve borrowed from a nearby farm.  In unison, the wooly white mobs converge at the sight of food, and it’s like a storm cloud blown across the sky in time lapse, a rush of white and gray…with bleating, and hoofbeats that click like the patter of rain.

The sheep all make the same cry, which isn’t the “baah” or “meh” of a typical sheep, but more like the wail of a human infant during teething.  The Dollys make the sound to indicate hunger, but it’s the same sound their original made as she grew sick.

To be honest, they all sound sick to you, all the Dollys, but maybe that’s your reaction to the cloning process — an unnatural birth, an imperfect reproduction that typically magnifies any flaws in the originating animal.

Now they’re pushing to the gated side of the enclosure, and their hooves clack across dried mud where matted grass previously used to provide their meal.  The wheelbarrow of hay won’t be enough for them, but it should be a start.

You gather a large armload of hay and prepare to toss it over the fence.  Impatient hooves continue to clack against the dry ground, and you’re almost worried that they’ll crush each other in their excitement. The wire and wood fence bulges out slightly, and a few Dollys try sticking their noses and mouths through any gaps.  Their eyes look wide and bright…almost bloodshot.

That clacking, still, and there’s something unnatural about it, as if they’re walking on kitchen tile instead of outdoor ground.

A Dolly’s mouth opens at the nearest gap in the fence, and her strange infant bleat blends with the clacking sound.  It seems more like a gargle of gravel.  You look inside her mouth, and notice it’s full of teeth — not in the sheep’s bleeding gums, but loose in the mouth, clacking against each other over a wet red tongue.

You look at the number “31” tattooed inside this animal’s ear, and make a note to pull this one from the flock for further study.

But the gravel-click continues from other Dollys, even as their hooves stand still on the flattened earth.  If number 31 is sick, they’re all sick.  That’s how things go with these clones.

You throw your handful of hay over the fence, and leave your assistant to continue with the rest of the barrow’s contents.

Cloning is an imperfect process, with so many unknown variables.  You’ve been trying to get the lab to shift to other types of experiments — ones with clearer goals to benefit mankind, and better chances of success.

As you race along the paved driveway back to the lab, you start rehearsing the ultimatum you plan to deliver to your colleagues.  Your anger fuels you as you walk, and you realize that you’re grinding your teeth with each step.  A few of your teeth feel loose, as if they’re ready to fall out of your gums.

 

[Author’s Note:  for a previous story inspired by Dolly, written on the date her existence was announced to the world, see the entry for February 22]