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  • Writer's pictureNeuro Logical

Lab Pup - Keli B. O'Connor

Sawyer was better off dead. He probably wouldn’t have minded dying when he should have, anyway. He, like thousands of puppies before him, entered the lab with the wrong genotype. Congenitally flawed. So, after his gene screening sealed his fate, he proceeded to euthanasia, dopey smile and all.

Now, if we wanted to house all the dogs bred for research who didn't meet the standards, there'd need to be kennels stacked one on top of another lining Central Park. Nature can be cruel but the exploration of it can seem crueler. But what's worse? Overpopulation a subsequent starvation or a brief life behind bars?

But that dog couldn’t have known the difference. In the eight weeks he'd been alive, he probably didn't know much more than the prick of needle sticks and the ache of being ripped away from his mother’s teat.

He didn’t seem bitter about it, though. These dogs never do. They don't have it in them to be anything but well-tempered. All the anger and animal instinct had been bred out of their lineage generations ago. Everything about his kind was calculated: smaller frame to fit smaller cages, shorter-haired to reduce groom time, more docile to prevent an irritable doctor from sending him to the path lab for experimentation because he was having a bad day. Even their trademark bellows had been reduced to the occasional benign boof.

So when that specimen was cradled in the arms of the euthanasia vet tech, IV in place and seconds away from his last injection, about to be lulled to a quick and humane sleep, he turned to the girl with a genuinely messy bun and scrubs stained from god knows what other sad sap and licked her cheek. You see, dogs have been evolving by our sides for roughly fifty thousand years. Early on, they developed those expressive eyebrow gestures that give them the "puppy dog eyes" we humans can't help but fall hopelessly for, it’s what they naturally evolved to do to earn a better spot in the pack. Here, some scientists have carefully engineered these dogs to be as sweet as can be to make their jobs in the labs easier, and of course, you have little manipulative puppies who know how to win over humans when they smell an increase of stress hormones.

The vet tech’s heart must have been too soft. We all start out that way. I know I did. Technicians start out wanting to help animals—perhaps because they loved them as a child, perhaps because they wanted to make a difference for them, perhaps both—but euthanizing and dissecting shelter runoffs every week during undergrad takes its toll. Eventually, we all learn how to detach.

But, maybe she had just grown exhausted from an especially busy week of putting entire litters to sleep. Our lab has been short-staffed for almost a year, so it’s entirely possible that she was overworked and weak. Whichever her excuse, she fell for the dog in the same way our early ancestors did millennia before, and ripped the IVs from the brat's foreleg. Tears falling and meeting the dog's lick, she announced that she had to keep the animal.

A flurry of phone calls ensued. The tech called mom, mom called dad, dad called me and asked how I could let this happen. Believe me, I tried to convince her not to. Her mind was made up. In the end, the tech snuck the puppy out of the sterile lab for the first time in his life.

Up until this point, Sawyer wasn't actually Sawyer. He didn't have a name or even a research number. Numbers are reserved for dogs that ultimately stay within the system and receive treatments. Until that time, they are a nameless commodity, like unsharpened pencils or reams of printer paper, except that they weigh heavier on our budget with their constant need to eat. Once the vet tech brought him home and he wandered the floor between his new human family, the tech said the name "Sawyer" came to mind. A bastard who got the family into a thicket of mischief yet figured out a way to make everything work out. One look at his big doe eyes and velvety, deaf ears, and it would appear as if things worked out for him.

For most rescue dogs, that would be about where the story ends, but for Sawyer, it was merely the beginning. As fate would have it, his family was not made of laypeople who’d go off adopting dogs out of the goodness of their heart, though that could have played an abstract part of it. The animal science lab isn't open to just any vet tech, otherwise, any PETA fanatic could gussy up their resume and get into the department, taking pictures and do a full "exposé" on the department, even though the animals are all treated quite fairly. They're fed and they're cleaned systematically. Really, the only shame is that an Ivy League institution has to hide its lab and its research animals six floors below ground in fear of a national backlash.

Just like the dogs and mice and monkeys in the research area, the vet tech wound up in the lab as a product of careful breeding. Her father was an internationally acclaimed geneticist whose work on bypassing inherited genetic mutations in certain forms of hearing loss won him praise and purses alike. Her mother, a nationally recognized neurotologist whose parents before her also blazed the field, developed numerous drugs and surgical techniques that are commonplace in modern medicine. When they married and had children, they were all expected to become world-changing physicians one day, the couple once told me as they dropped off a collection for cremation, so when the vet tech was still in college, navigating the world of pre-veterinary med, her dad arranged an internship at the university animal hospital. Unspoken favors were asked, and hidden strings got pulled, and she was ultimately placed right where she needed to be, where the sciences emerged, having her name snuck onto numerous papers in prestigious journals in the process.

Her placement in the lab was a well-thought move from her parents and the facility alike, and no one could have anticipated the tech would break protocol for a subject. Nor could her parents anticipate her rebelling against them a few short weeks later, dumping the dog at their house full-time when she decided she was “maybe not that much of a dog person after all.” Too bad she couldn’t have come to this realization while his IV was still placed; however, by that time, her father had begun eying the mongrel for his damaged DNA and brought the dog to live in his eponymous research facility. Little Sawyer became the office dog in the Robertson Auditory Genetics Laboratory and, much to my dismay, received a lifetime of room and board in one of our lab’s kennels.

At first, Sawyer’s sole function was to get used to everyone in the office; walk around, get scritches and pats, be loved and adored. Once he won favor with the staff, and, more importantly, learned to trust them all, his tasks in the office grew starting with a tattoo—DNF-SAW, “DNF” for DFN89-associated hearing loss testing and “SAW” for his pet name— on his peach-fuzzy inner thigh. Get a shot here, go to sleep there, all the while our labs imaged and studied his misfiring inner ears. Because while the facility where the Labrador was born was only looking to study subjects with two different faulty genes, the geneticist’s facility was studying treatment for those with a matching set. Serendipitous for the dog, really. Instead of being born with two different versions of genetic information from both parents, the unfortunate Labrador instead held a set of identical mutant alleles. In the sentence that is the dog's genetic sequence, one of the words had a serious typo. The scientist hoped to give the pooch a treatment that would allow the dog to read the sentence by skipping over the word, sort of like how people do when skimming over a research paper. But, in science, nothing is immediate.

Sawyer seemed just happy to be. He'd come to work, get poked and prodded, have surgery upon surgery, biopsies, and blood draws. All with a smile on his snout and a wag of his tail. Starting at six months, the dog would get intubated and force-fed a then-experimental drug that would overwrite his defunct DFN89 gene in the hopes that his hearing would be even partially restored in at least one ear. He transitioned from daily gavaging to a slow introduction of the drug into his kibble once it was established he would tolerate eating it on his own, a process that took him to about a year old. His occasional soft "awoos" became permanently garbled with the built-up scar tissue along his throat and his food didn't go down as easily as it did before having a plastic pipe shoved down his gullet every day for six months, but who was he to care. He appeared happy simply to have food to eat.

But then the little cur had a breakthrough. It started benignly enough, an assistant would knock a tray over or a dog a few kennels over would let out a growl after waking from anesthesia, and Sawyer’s demeanor would change. A slight twitch of the ear. The audiology studies backed what the pup couldn't possibly understand and the research team had hoped for; for the first time in his life, the little sound vibrations were traveling along his inner ear pathway to his brain the way they do for a dog or a mouse or a person without a DFN89 mutation. Testing revealed that slowly and quietly, he began to hear. And in both ears, too.

Seemingly overnight, Sawyer became big news in ear care, gene therapy, and eventually health care journals. Many people have an affinity for dogs, so when a story broke with a cute little doggy from the top medical publications, layman's news sources took notice and wrote blurbs and blogs about the scamp, too. "The Dog That Cured Deafness," one headline would read, as if the dog had any part of the research behind his treatment. Another, "Deaf Dog Learns to Hear," erroneously told that Sawyer was taught to hear, as if it was a trick like sit or lay. Yet another, entitled "The Sound of Pooches", must have tried to be a pun based on "The Sound of Music" but tragically couldn't have been further from its mark.

Sawyer's hearing improved over time with treatment, so experimentation of withholding the drug commenced to see how long his benefits would last. Different conditions arose and variables presented. The mounting trials made it apparent that Sawyer's tests far would outlive him, so the lab approved a proposal to breed the dog out for his biallelic defect. Back at his spawning site, a suitable female was selected based on her genetic compatibility to Sawyer's and caged in the unit until her first heat. The pair mated artificially to guarantee a fruitful union and the bitch bore a litter of six puppies. Only one had the right wrong genes, and the team was able to successfully terminate the surplus. Sawyer’s surviving son, called Finn, DNF-FIN, temporarily escaped his siblings’ fate and landed in the lab, raised in a crate beside his Pa’s.

Finn, unlike his daddy, was celebrated by the media almost immediately. Everyone knows that the one thing more appealing than a dog is a puppy. When the papers found out that scientists were going to try to cure a puppy's deafness, journalists were all ears.

Behind the scenes, little Finn received the same treatment as his dad, tube down the throat, tube in the ears, tube in the veins. Lo and behold, just like his daddy, the dog began to hear, but, in his case, quicker and with better results. A scientific discovery, a puppy hero. Of course, his hearing diminished when his treatment was halted for the discontinuation part of the trial, but it came back, robust as ever, when he was fed his medicinal kibble again.

Sawyer and Finn had been their own case reports, but the two combined, along with countless other faceless and nameless animals, moved the trial process along into the first human phase. Once people started the therapy, the pharmaceutical grants that paid for their treatment and care terminated.

Experimentally spent, the boys lived out the rest of their days in the cages of the far corner of the Veterinary Clinical Studies Wing. Finn only made it to the less-than-senior age of six years old, his body taken off to the lab for one final experiment before joining his peers in an ash pile. The loss of his son and closest company proved too much for Sawyer in the end. The dog who could stomach harsh chemicals and recover from surgery with a wag in his tail stood in his crate waiting for his son until his legs grew tired. Then he laid Sphinx at the gate anticipating his beloved's return until exhaustion overcame him and flopped to one side. He stopped eating and drinking, eliminating his audition shortly before starving to death. And, like his pup, his remains shipped back to the lab for his final dissection and lab report, the findings pinned together for one last longitudinal brief report. In death as in life, he was more important unconscious than awake.

No pomp or tributes from human-interest rags followed this time. Death met him the same as every other dog, a case file in a drawer and ash in an incinerator. He escaped death once but the lab made sure he found his way back. And sure, his borrowed time led to fifteen minutes of fame and a few breakthroughs in academic audiology but ultimately, he landed exactly where he should have from the beginning.

Nearly eight years later and our lab is still not out of the shadow from the scandal the little nuisance bred—there’s easily enough protocol-breach paperwork in storage to fill a small dog crate and self-righteous pre-vet students still apply for internships hoping they too may find a dog of their own to rescue.

A stapler would never have caused me such grief.


Keli B. O’Connor is a professor of English Composition and an MFA Candidate. She is the author of The Optimal Tech, and her research has appeared in Ophthalmic Genetics and The American Journal of Ophthalmology. When she doesn't have a migraine, she enjoys nature hikes and petting dogs. When she does have one, she enjoys wearing stretchy pants while watching House Hunters International and petting dogs.

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