Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 10, No. 23

June 6-12, 2002

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Holly and the Minotaur
It’s into Retirement for the New Gene Herd

In time the savage bull doth bear the yoke.
— Shakespeare: King Henry V

No yoke for Herman, but then again maybe he wasn’t savage. After all, he was carrying a human gene — though come to think of it, humanity does not rule out savagery.

His is a heartening story with a rather happy ending. Herman, the world’s first bull to carry a human gene, has been spared from the slaughterhouse as well as the yoke. Instead, he will spend the remainder of his life in a biotech museum in Leiden, Netherlands.

Dutch animal protectionists aren’t happy about it. One spokeswoman claimed “It’s ethically not right to exploit him in a museum.” Not at his age, which is 11, a ripe old age for farm animals anywhere in these days when just about everything on a farm, in a city or anywhere else is considered disposable.

One thing’s for sure. Herman, who has a white face and black eye patches, is better off than the 55 offspring he sired. All of them were killed when Pharming Group NV discontinued the biotechnology program that produced him. He, too, was headed for the slaughterhouse until intervention by the Dutch Parliament spared him.

Admittedly, I don’t know much about biotechnology — what little I have learned came from Bill Lambrecht’s fascinating book Dinner at the New Gene Cafe, published last year — but methinks any animal that has outlived its usefulness, whether in research, grunt labor or other types of production, is entitled to a contented retirement.

Old Beef
On the New England farm where I was raised during the Great Depression, cows and bulls represented beef for the table — the cows after they’d produced milk and calves.

But Herman’s destiny was never to be a porterhouse or prime rib. In 1990, he was engineered in a laboratory with a human gene as part of Pharming’s experiment to produce an iron-rich milk protein called lactoferrin that kills germs and stops or even prevents infections.

Anyway, who’d want a grilled sirloin from an 11-year-old bull of a ton and a quarter? Especially one carrying a human gene? What to do? Slaughter the bull just to save the expense of caring for it in old age?

On the farm, over the years we had a favorite cow or two that made it to old age, too old and too beloved (and probably too tough) to end up on the table. Like old Bill the horse, they ended up put out to pasture for the remainder of their days. The same with Billy the goat and several aging white ducks, a ewe whose name I can’t recall and even a pet hen long beyond laying her last eggs.

It seems Pharming was about to reward Herman with a well-deserved retirement package and use him for an advertising tool. But Herman’s golden parachute didn’t open. The firm nose-dived into bankruptcy last year.

So it was obvious where Herman was headed. Not often does corporate management reward those who have outlived their usefulness in good times. Under bankruptcy, never.

Now Herman, along with the world’s first cloned cows, Holly and Belle, will go on exhibit in Leiden. Two other corporate sponsors will pick up the tab: $38,700 annually for Herman alone. Life, even in something of a zoo, sure beats the alternative.

Herman pays a price beyond that of Holly and Belle. The Dutch government has decreed he must be neutered, this to insure he will never sire another calf. But at his age, even this fate shouldn’t impact his life style too much.

It will probably soothe his temperament, which is more fitting for a bull on exhibit, though his current keeper says he already is pretty docile. He won the hearts of the Dutch citizenry when on television he was seen licking a kitten.

The Invisible Farm
In my way of thinking, in retirement, Herman, Belle and Holly will probably earn their keep just by being around where they can be seen. In these days, farm animals are far removed from the general public, a distance that no doubt is appropriate for the business philosophy of MacDonalds, Burger King, Wendy’s, KFC and other fast food chains.

As farms get bigger and bigger while also fewer in number, livestock — whether cows and bulls or chickens and ducks — become less visible. The big farms are often far enough from the beaten path that kids no longer get to see a cow up close. Or a pig. And when was the last time you saw a chicken that wasn’t encased in hot, golden-brown, crisp coating or wrapped in clear plastic with a heat indicator embedded in its breast to let the cook know when it was done? No longer can a family take a ride in the country and see real chickens in farmyards. I’ll wager half or more of American kids have never seen a real live — and feathered — chicken.

Now I see by the daily press, they’re experimenting with featherless chickens, a crass move to save bucks on plucking. The perpetrators appear not too concerned about visible repercussions because you and I won’t see ’em.

Poultry operations for years have been hidden behind the walls of immense coops in which chickens are cramped inside, never to see real daylight until it’s time to head for the packing plant.

As for developing chickens without feathers, I suggest that if this is done, there be a law dictating that in every fast-food joint there must be a large poster featuring a naked hen to let patrons know what they’re about to eat. That should nip this inhumane research in the bud.

As for bulls, especially working bulls, other than in ranch country of the West, they’re more scarce than live chickens. Artificial insemination has made most Hermans obsolete. For the most part, they’re carted off to a slaughterhouse before they get even an inkling of their traditional role on a farm.

While on cattle, I wonder how many citizens have ever seen a yoke of oxen, a yoke meaning two because they worked in pairs. They were slow, but strong as an elephant, pulling plows to break rough new land or rocks on sledges, or logs. They were common in Depression days before farmers could afford tractors. Now they’re as rare as a bull with a human gene.

As for Herman, I can’t help but think of what Mark Twain’s comments would be if he were still around. Wasn’t it he who suggested that if a cat were mixed with man, the cat would be the worse for it? Poor Herman.

Enough said …

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly