Animal Crossings

Frida, a beloved member of our family for seventeen years, eight months, and two weeks, crossed the rainbow bridge on the first day of spring. Her passing has left us heartbroken. But may she quickly find her sisters, Freya and Philomel, on the other side, and curl up next to them like she did here on earth.

Gregor Samsa breathed his last, the pain from his wounded back fading from consciousness. Fading, too, were Gregor’s awareness of the choking dusk in the room where he had spent his final weeks and of the murmuring of his parents’ and sister’s voices as they made plans for their springtime outing.

The moth buzzed and fluttered as it repeatedly circled a fixed point on the tile floor, like a wash of textured light moving in clockwise sweeps around a radarscope. Remembered: lamps burning, undimmed, in the summer night. Dreamed: winging upward after release from cupped human hands. Perceived: the darkening, shrinking center of the circle, ever denser, ever more irresistible—as once the lamps of summer had been.

The web camera positioned near the trailhead produced ghostly images of animals in passing, including raccoons, foxes, woodchucks, bobcats, and coyotes, among others. They glowed with the eerie iridescence of photographic negatives, blurred, electric-gray shapes that had the look of something transitory, epiphenomenal—except for their piercing camera-reddened eyes, fixed points in this blur of animal trajectories. Those eyes, in turn, snapped images of the image-generating device by which they could not be fully captured, but which licensed, it seems, inferences about their lives.

The camera stood in for human observers seeking to compile ethograms—to record the daily activities, habitual routes, and migratory movements, if any, of the animals under observation. However, inspected under higher and lower powers of magnification, i.e., zoomed in on or out from, the images revealed other forms of life, other crossings: centipedes, spiders, gnats, and ticks that moved linearly, diagonally, circularly, and meanderingly; Bacillus subtilis, Enterobacter agglomerans, and Escherichia Coli emerging, flourishing, and perishing; time-slices of predation, cycles of hibernation, individual life spans, and the transmission of nonhuman traditions, animal cultures, down through generations of beavers, birds, and other creatures.    

At first light, coastal birds of many kinds—gulls, snowy egrets, great blue herons, ibis, pelicans, moorhen—lifted off from the island-like cluster of mangroves, crossing from north to south, and from east to west, in the nacreous sky. The resulting avian crosshatching created a grid in which other events—a human’s inadvertent motion or deliberate gesture, the fluttering down to earth of a brown-yellow oak leaf, the photosynthetic reaction of sea oats to sunlight—could be situated, identified, correlated, contextualized. At position 0, 0, a wasp schismed the air just over the mangroves; at position 1, 2, a seated person watched a pelican skim the water; at position 2, 5, unknown object-event constellations took place at subatomic spatial and temporal scales.

Prior to the onset of Gina’s nephritis, and long before the renal failure that resulted from it, I knew through my contacts at the medical school that several university laboratories were exploring ways to increase the availability of donor organs—given the growing demand for transplants for patients experiencing end-stage organ failure. I also knew that one lab in particular had been conducting research on chimeric organogenesis using interspecies stem-cell injections. In particular, the lab had been experimenting with injecting human stem cells into animal embryos, with a view to creating human-animal chimeras from which patient-specific organs could, in principle, be harvested.

Thus, when Gina’s kidneys began to fail, I knew what I had to do. I contacted Dr. Herzbauer at the Organogenesis Lab and asked if Gina would be eligible to participate in the human trials that had just been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. At just forty-nine years old, Gina, I thought, had a good chance of being greenlighted for the trials, and sure enough, shortly after my inquiry she received the go-ahead from Dr. Herzbauer himself.   

Before Gina began the treatment regimen, I consulted Lu, Zhou, Ju, and Chen (2019) for a general overview of the variables, processes, and larger issues involved.† Stressing the potential benefits of using human-animal chimeras as “biological incubators for human organs,” the authors suggest that organs generated from autologous cells—that is, cells deriving from patients’ own bodies—can “minimize immune rejection, accordingly obviating the costs of the long-term administration of immunosuppression agents and reducing the risks of infection and tumorigenesis.” There are, however, biotechnological constraints as well as ethical issues to consider. In the first place, interspecies barriers impose a limit on rates of chimerism, or the degree to which human cells can be successfully interwoven with those making up nonhuman host bodies. Although evidence suggests that these barriers can be overcome via gene-editing techniques applied to host embryos as well as the injected stem cells themselves, such boundary crossings leave in place a second, ethical area of concern, given that “the possibility of inducing human cells into animal neural or reproductive systems has met particularly strong public resistance.” The authors nonetheless try to make a case for developing strict guidelines for, rather than completely prohibiting, organogenetic and other research based on human-animal chimeras. 

I never got a chance to discuss with Dr. Herzbauer how he and his colleagues had come to terms with the questions raised by this article, and I must admit that, at times, my mind was spinning with the complexity of the challenges and uncertainties involved. At one point, while grappling with the risks for Gina and also the larger socioethical implications of the trials, I found myself exploring the etymology of the term chimera itself, via the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED traces the word back to the fire-breathing monster of Greek mythology represented in some traditions with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail, and in others with multiple heads—namely, those of a lion, a goat, and a serpent. But the entry for the word also lists more general definitions (“A grotesque monster, formed of the parts of various animals”) as well as figurative meanings (“A horrible and fear-inspiring phantasm, a bogy”; “An unreal creature of the imagination…an unfounded conception”; “An incongruous union or medley”) before arriving at its meaning in the domain of biology, dating back, in English, to 1911: “An organism (commonly a plant) in which tissues of genetically different constitution co-exist as a result of grafting, mutation, or some other process.”

This last definition clearly predates research like Dr. Herzbauer’s, failing to register the expansion of chimerism from the domain of plants to that of animals. Yet the OED’s entry as a whole reveals the extent to which the very concept of the chimera is rooted not just in interspecies crossings but also in conceptual hybridizations. Chimeras are, in short, chimeric. These categorical misfits, these taxonomy-violating blends, both give shape to and are shaped by an ongoing fascination with phantasms, bogies, and other incongruous creatures, over which hangs an atmosphere of irreality. Why, then, had biologists and biotechnologists taken over this term and its ontologically compromised narrative lineage? Why risk connotations of myth, and of mythical creatures, when bringing the idea of cross-species composites to bear on the extraordinarily precise and hyper-technical grafting and mutation processes they were pioneering? Did the researchers seek to appropriate a mythological trope in order to beat skeptics to the punch and thereby rob the inevitable criticisms of their sting? Or did they genuinely envision themselves as the documentarians (if not creators) of a hitherto-unexplored cosmos, marked by creatural blends whose stories new Homers, new Hesiods and Ovids (dressed perhaps in white lab coats) would be required to tell?

In due course, we received word that Dr. Herzbauer’s lab had generated new kidneys for Gina by injecting her stem cells into the embryo of a sheep, one of the most common xenogeneic donors, I recalled from the article I’d read. It was time for Gina to prepare herself mentally for transplant surgery, to get her affairs in order (“just in case” the surgical team stressed), and to notify her employer and family members that she would be undergoing a major medical procedure that would be followed by an extensive recovery period. 

The surgery itself went better than expected, and, as Dr. Herzbauer predicted, the autologous nature of Gina’s transplant meant that she did not have to contend with the problem of organ rejection—and hence could avoid immunosuppressant drugs along with their serious side effects. Her prognosis was good or even excellent. She had been home from the hospital for several weeks, recovering well, when it happened.

Gina had already gone to bed, on the evening in question, when for some reason I chose to reread Lu, Zhou, Ju, and Chen’s article. I don’t know if this was a factor, but I do remember being disturbed by the authors’ comment that animal fetuses are especially suitable biological incubators because “animals are plentiful and ready-to-use.” Given this way of putting the matter, the authors all too narrowly circumscribed the “ethical issues” raised by human-animal chimeras, limiting them to the implications, for humans, of using chimeras for medical interventions. But what about the impact of chimerism on animal populations—populations that, unlike their human counterparts, have no say when it comes to being recruited for chimeric experimentation and blending?

Animals are plentiful and ready-to-use. The statement is shocking. It denies, in animals, the uniqueness and inherent value accorded to particular humans by the rule of law, not to mention innumerable codes of ethics. What did it mean for a goat, sheep, or pig to be used as fodder for genetic fusion, as substrates for a human graft or overlay? For the most part, chimeric combinations have raised warning flags because they represent a potential pollution of Homo sapiens, a dangerous admixture of classes, lineages, and legacies that might lead to . . . what? A biologically enhanced human better able to understand quantum mechanics, compete in stamina-requiring athletic events, or survive on the battlefield? As the paradox would have it, these “better” humans would in fact be worse humans, in the same sense that a game of poker won by cheating represents a worse outcome than a game lost through honest play. Yet, on the other side of the chimeric coin, the human quotient of an interspecies blend can itself be viewed as a diminution or degradation. From this perspective, a human-animal chimera is a displacement, a derailment, of other-than-human traditions by technoscientific encroachments. It is an advancement described as such by beings who consider themselves to be members of the planet’s apex species. Hence, it is a step back for all the other animals limited—cornered, confined, damaged—by that self-promoting species’ self-image, and more particularly by its unwavering belief in its own exceptionalism.

Was this whole chain of reflections, triggered by the article, to blame for what happened next? I’m not sure. But when I lay down next to Gina a couple of hours later, I found myself absorbed into a dream world unlike any other that I had ever encountered. Caught up in these dreams—if they were in fact dreams—I reached over to touch Gina on the shoulder. When she turned toward me, I saw, and felt, her morph into a new form. Her smooth skin gave way to coarse hair, the familiar contours of her cheek and jaw becoming more angular and elongated, her eyes enlargening and changing color, with her pupils assuming a rectangular shape. I drew my hand back in fear and leapt up from the bed. Scarcely had I begun to register Gina’s new, other-than-human outline when it started to change again, her face transformed into a visage that was smaller and rounder, her body taking on a thicker and heavier shape, the hair on her limbs and face becoming shorter and more bristled.

Other changes followed, too numerous to recount and indeed too rapid to comprehend. Among the life forms I caught fleeting, partial glimpses of, over the course of these multiplicitous metamorphoses, were a fruit fly, a mouse, and several types of nonhuman primates, not to mention cats and canids, worms and waterfowl. But all these forms were, make no mistake, fused, blended, with Gina’s; she was the thread woven through them all, the binding that made them, and her, into an ever-longer, ever-more-complicated volume of living beings, a compendium of creatural kinds. From that moment on, I knew that though I might turn the pages of this book, flipping backward and forward through the chimeric combinations that made Gina who and what she was, in my future life with her I would never be able to return to the beginning or reach the end of this book of transformations, this encyclopedia of animal crossings.

Since that fateful night of dreaming, if dreaming it was, I must admit to feeling tentative when I reach out for Gina’s hand while we are taking a walk or sharing a meal. What blur of anatomical transforms, what arc of appendages, might I see if I were to look too closely at her hand, or hold it too tightly or too long? Could I keep my grip even if I tried?

Our family mourned the loss of Shadow when she died this past winter. She was a husky with the bluest, purest eyes: it was as if you could see bright, clear skies when you looked at her face—that is, when her long white snout with its black tip of a nose wasn’t lifted into the air as she sniffed the fickle winds. We haven’t gotten another dog yet, and may never do so, because there could never be another friend and companion like Shadow.

The strangest thing happened the day after she passed, though. We saw a junco, with its white underbelly and grayish-black head and back, hopping, chirping, and pecking, for hours at a time, near our front doorstep. The bird returned day after day, remaining there long after the seeds and bread crumbs we threw outside were gone. And though the junco does not linger near our house as much these days, now that April is nearly here, we still see the bird regularly, a few days a week.

Call me crazy, but I feel that that bird is Shadow come back to us, checking to make sure that we are okay. I can’t look into the junco’s eyes like I used to stare in Shadow’s; but if I could, I feel certain that I would see there the tall spruce trees in our back yard, bending over nearly double in the fierce January storms; the orange glow of the fireplace that Shadow used to love sleeping next to, after a day spent outside in the swirling snow; the forest trails, thickly carpeted with leaves, that we took her on whenever we went hiking; and the fields with thigh-high prairie grasses she went bounding through, when the last hint of coolness in the late-spring air had given way to summer’s burgeoning warmth.

“Who’s Proteus?” the student asked. The answer, I said, varies.

Homer tells the story of Proteus’s shapeshifts in Book IV of The Odyssey. In Homer’s account, Menelaus has to hold on to Proteus, son of Poseidon, who swims and sleeps with the seals, long enough to learn from the soothsayer which gods he must propitiate to make it home from Troy. Disguising themselves as seals, Menelaus and several crewmates are able to surprise the namesake of the protean; but they struggle to keep a grip on him, as he cycles through multiple animal—and other—identities. He first becomes a lion, then a serpent, leopard, and boar. Next he morphs into water and, finally, a tree. Nonetheless, Menelaus, eager to discover the truth about how to get back to Sparta, holds fast to Proteus across these shifts of animal species and entity types, and learns from the shapeshifter that he must make a sacrifice to the gods to be able to return home.

In Virgil’s telling of the story, in The Georgics, it is Aristaeus, the son of Apollo and the originator of beekeeping and other forms of animal husbandry, who confronts Proteus—not to find a way home, but to solve the mystery of why the bees in his charge have all died of disease. Having been warned that Proteus will assume successively the form of a boar, tiger, dragon, and lion, followed by fire and water, Aristaeus, too, keeps hold of the inveterate shifter of shapes, who prognosticates paradox: Aristaeus must sacrifice twelve animals to the gods to restore his bees to health.

I am tempted to add: “Animal husbandry: note the grammatical shapeshifting here. Not to be a husband to other animals (intransitive verb), but to husband, to manage or conserve, them (transitive verb). The term thereby evokes not cross-species affiliation, but rather anthropocentric domination, with a patriarchal flavor.”  

What is the lesson to be learned here? Viewed from one perspective, the story of Proteus seems to suggest that the changeableness and uncertainty of species boundaries, and of the boundary between animate and inanimate beings, constitute an impediment to knowledge. Yet this story is itself protean; Homer’s versus Virgil’s tellings provide different instantiations of a mytheme that thereby ceases to be singular and unitary. Rather, the poets present alternative versions of the version-maker par excellence—of the ultimate refuser (and reuser) of identities who resists, with every ounce of his being, reduction to any single version of who he is or might be.

In this way, in tracing the genealogy of change, the contingent, unstable history of variation, these poems highlight the mutability of the characters involved, their circumstances, and the truths being sought—and told. Mortal or god? Warrior or beekeeper? Coming home to own’s own or ruling over a community of others? There’s no one authoritative answer.

In this sense, the story of Proteus—which turns on the (im)possibility of completing the search for a core being, a true, singular self, an indivisible species identity—is protean in its own right. Taken individually, the two versions of the story point to the existence of an ultimate self—if you can just weather change long enough, outlast variability. But overlaid on each another, the two versions replace singularity with multiplicity. They install difference in the heart of the human identity that might seem to ground and limit the protean nature of the Protean self. As it turns out, then, neither Menelaus nor Aristaeus glimpses the true Proteus. His story reveals not a human bedrock beneath the boar, lion, tiger, serpent, leopard, and dragon that he becomes, but rather a shadowy, always-in-process crosshatching of all these creatures, and more.

Following a line of moonlight stretching from shore to sea, the newly hatched sea turtle made its way toward the warm waters lapping gently at the edge of the sand. In crossing the distance between nest and ocean, the newborn turtle achieved individuation simultaneously with disindividuation, merging its just-accomplished bodily form into a larger matrix of living possibilities, and possibilities for living.

†Lu, Y., Zhou, Y., Ju, R., & Chen, J. (2019). Human-animal chimeras for autologous organ transplantation: technological advances and future perspectives. Annals Of Translational Medicine, 7(20), 576. doi:10.21037/atm.2019.10.13

David Herman’s recent publications include ‘The Task of a Translator: Engaging with Klaus Modick’s Anticipatory Ecofiction,’ in Barzakh Literary Magazine, and ‘Experimental Writing as Autoethnography: Thalia Field’s Decentered Stories of Personhood,’ in Transpositiones: A Journal for Transdisciplinary and Intermedial Cultural Studies. “Animal Crossings” is part of a collection of posthumanist fables titled Animal Crossings, two other stories from which, “The Fence” and “The Lost Notebooks of Black Beauty,” have been published in LandLocked and Open: Journal of Arts & Letters.