Dan Grant hopped over a narrow stream and landed ungracefully
on the other side, his heels sinking into the mud and face slapped
by the dripping wet foliage.
“Aw crap.” He put down the large pan of fruit and vegetables
he was carrying and brushed the water from his cheek
with the back of his hand.
“Awwwwwwww…cawwww…cawww.” A large hyacinth
macaw swooped overhead and landed on a branch overhanging
a nearby waterfall.
“You think that’s funny, Max? How about we feed you
last, and we’ll see how funny you think that is?”
The big bird grumbled a bit in response, but kept his eye
glued to the fruit. A rambunctious toucan pranced to and fro
on a nearby woody vine, twitching its wings, eager to get
Grant’s attention. He handed the exuberant bird a grape for
its trouble and continued on his way.
Practically everyone that knew Dan Grant thought him
a bit odd. Never married and blessed with the financial resources
that allowed an early retirement, Grant lived, quite
literally, in his own world.
A bright white cockatoo, its crest erect, was climbing in
fits and starts down a tree a few feet away from where Grant
stood. The bird was screaming loud enough to etch glass.
“Cool your jets, flyboy. There’s plenty to go around.”
Grant set the pan in a shoulder-high feeding station. A surly,
roughly feathered Amazon parrot alighted the second he
backed away and grabbed a piece of apple before the cockatoo
had a chance to flutter over. The bobbing cockatoo
screamed again, chasing the Amazon to the upper canopy and
causing a second cockatoo to fly over to investigate. The
macaw by the waterfall screamed even louder, as impossible
as it seemed. Other large parrots, yet hidden in the dense tree
cover, joined in.
“Can’t we all just get along?” Grant said. His cellphone
rang, startling the raucous ‘too into a momentary silence.
Grant handed the bird a chunk of carrot and pushed his way
about 25 feet through the humid vegetation to take the call.
He found a small clearing by the stream where he could hear
himself think and took a seat on a weathered sandstone boulder.
A flock of festively colored Gouldian finches, frolicking
in the shallows, took flight with his approach.
“What’s up, doc?” It was Grant’s younger brother, Paul,
the orthopedic surgeon.
“The trip’s on,” his brother announced. He and his wife
were flying to Las Vegas over the Columbus Day weekend for
a medical convention.
“Joyce asked you about taking the kids for the weekend,
didn’t she?” Joyce was Grant’s sister-in-law.
“Yeah, not a problem. I could always use the extra slave
“Great. We’ll put them on the train after they get out of
school; figure you’ll need to pick them up at the station
around five. Mandy will call you from the train with the exact
time.” Mandy, Grant’s 17-year-old niece, was a straight-A student
and a high-school track star.
“Not a problem. Will Zack be bringing his tent with
“I doubt it. He’s got a book report due next week so he’s
supposed to be working on that, not his survival skills.”
“I’ll try to keep him away from the matches,” Grant
snickered. Zack, his 11-year-old nephew, was a Boy Scout and
something of a budding pyromaniac.
“They’re skipping school on Monday, so you’ll need to
hang on to them until about 4:00, then just stick ‘em on the
train. We should be home by them. I’ll call you if there’s a
“So … what’ve you been doing with yourself? Still burying
your money in the backyard? When are you going to make
time for a little vacation of your own?”
Dan Grant had spent 30 years building a nationally successful
wholesale pet supply business. He recently sold the
operation to a major corporate conglomerate for a handsome
“You’re kidding, right? I am on vacation. My whole life is
a vacation,” Grant said. “And I’m going to leave all the money
to your kids, so you better be nice to them.”
The two brothers caught up for a few more minutes before
saying their goodbyes. Grant tucked his phone away and
sat quietly for a moment. The waterfall crashed into its pond,
the brook splashed its way through the stony obstacle course
that was its bed and the many birds chirped, trilled, screamed
and squawked. After a few minutes Grant arose, carefully traversed
a couple of flat stones to cross the stream, then turned
to his avian wards for a last word before leaving their company:
“I’m gonna make myself a nice grilled cheese sandwich.
Anybody else want something?”
The chatter in the lecture amphitheater, only about a quarter
full of students scattered across the hall, hushed noticeably.
Perched on a four-foot-tall, gnarled grapevine playstand atop
a wheeled pedestal table, a parrot was pushed into the room.
The bird was about a foot long, all gray, but for a bright scarlet
tail and pale yellow eyes.
Today’s class, a three-hour Seminar in Modern Biology,
featured a series of rotating lecturers and was required for
first-year Rockefeller University graduate students.
Escorting the unexpected visitor was the lecturer scheduled
for the next three weeks, Dr. Donald Ross. Awarded his
doctoral degree in Life Sciences just 30 days earlier by prestigious
Rockefeller University, Ross was now employed as a research
fellow by the same. Twenty-eight years old with a
pinched, squirrel-like face, he had a full head of messy brown
hair and generally fit almost anyone’s description of geeky.
The six foot two inch tall Ross rolled the playstand next
to his desk, and folded his thin, wiry frame down to retrieve
his books and notes from the bottom platform of the apparatus.
The parrot appeared nervous and started to tentatively
and repeatedly lift its wings, as if to take off.
“Heeheehee… Hey everybody, watcha doing? Heeheehee… Hey
everybody, watcha doing? Watcha doing?”The bird’s high-pitched
voice was a little cartoon-like but otherwise amazingly clear.
“A perfect example of adaptive auditory camouflage,”
Ross stated, straightening his glasses. “Hanna here, you see, is
prey. One of her most basic goals in life is not to get herself
eaten. In the jungle, one of the ways she does that is by mimicking
the sounds of the surrounding environment—screaming
monkeys, insects or frogs, other birds, the sounds of
rainfall or of the nearby river—in an effort to deceive nearby
predators. She’s quite good at what she does.”
“What kind of parrot is that?” a female student asked.
“An African Grey,” another answered.
“That’s right,” Prof. Ross confirmed. “She’s a Congo
African Grey parrot, reputed to be among the best talkers in
the parrot world. And we’re going to be putting Hanna’s talents
to work for us, right Hanna?” He stuck his face within
inches of the bird’s, so she was clear he was addressing her.
“Hanna… Hanna banana… Hanna banana…” she responded,
to everyone’s amusement.
“That’s the lab assistant’s idea of a joke. Her name is
“Has everybody read the advance material?” he asked the
class. “The Pepperberg readings?” There was a scattering of
grunts in response.
Professor Ross reached into his pocket and pulled out a
selection of hard plastic chips in a variety of bright colors and
shapes. He spread the red, blue, green and yellow chips across
his hand and held them up to the parrot.
“Find the red chip, Hanna. Find the red chip.”
Hanna picked the red chip from Ross’s hand and
promptly dropped it on the floor. “Here’s red. I wanna nut,” she
Ross reached into his other pocket and pulled out a pine
nut and rewarded the bird, then bent to retrieve the red chip
from the floor.
He pressed a finger to the bird’s belly. “Step up.” Hanna
climbed up. He brought her down to his desk and let her step
onto the surface. She immediately lifted her tail feathers and
made a little poop.
“Now that wasn’t very polite, was it, Hanna?” There were
snickers across the room. He cleaned up the deposit with a
tissue. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out some
more plastic chips, and placed them in a line in front of the
“Find the orange chip, Hanna. Find me the orange chip.”
Hanna waddled up to the orange chip and slid it forward.
“Here’s orange,” she responded. “I wanna nut.”
Except for a few hushed declarations of amazement the
class remained silent while Ross slipped the bird another tiny
“Hanna, find the three-corner chip. The three-corner
The bird waddled right over to a green triangle and slid
“Three-corner,” she stated. “I wanna nut.”
“Very good, Hanna.” Ross awarded her another pine nut.
The class was still silent. “Find the same color…”
The bird reached over to a green circle and slid it forward.
“What color is that, Hanna?” Ross asked before she
could demand her reward.
“Green. I wanna nut.”
She was given her nut.
“Very good Hanna. Now step up.” He again held out his
finger for the bird, who climbed on board and was transported
back to her playstand. She climbed over to a stainless
steel food cup and started eating her pellets.
Ross turned his full attention to the class. “Now who can
tell me what we just saw? Yes,” he pointed to a young lady several
rows back. “What did we just see?”
“I think we just saw a fairly convincing replication of Dr.
Pepperberg’s famous experiment where she proved that a
parrot, Alex, I think his name was, could distinguish something
like seven different colors and six different shapes.”
Speaking confidently, she proved that she, without question,
had read the required material.
“Very good ... Pepperberg, 1990,” Ross confirmed, quoting
the reference for the benefit of those scrambling for papers
in their bags.
“Now why is that important? Anyone else? Yes, sir…” he
pointed to a man with a lumberjack beard and red flannel
“It was the first time it was conclusively demonstrated
that a bird could comprehend the concept of categories, and
showed a level of complex cognitive organizational abilities in
a species with a markedly different brain organization than
that of mammals.” He glanced at his notes as he answered.
“Very good. Thank you.” Ross tossed a pine nut to the
student, to the amusement of the others.
“Do we have any idea why parrots are so smart?” A few
more hands went up this time. “Yes, ma’am,” he pointed.
“The social life of African Greys is thought to be as complicated
as those of chimps and dolphins, two species already
noted for their intelligence. In the wild, huge numbers of
birds congregate in constantly varying sub-groups, and need
to cooperate to exploit widespread, unpredictable food and
water resources.” As she spoke, she also referred to the highlighted
portions of her reading materials.
“Very good, thank you.
“I wanna nut.” Hanna leaned forward on her perch.
Ross lifted a blue chip from the desk. “What color,
“Blue. I wanna nut.”
“Very good, Hanna.” He handed over her earnings.
“Hanna banana… Hanna banana…” she carried on.
“Okay,” Ross offered another nut to distract her, “As difficult
as it might seem, I’d like to move the discussion away
from the bird for a moment.” He slid the plastic chips out of
his way and sat down at the edge of his desk. “Has everyone
here taken Dr. Shapiro’s class on germ cell mitosis?”
“Very good. You’ll find what you learned there will come
in handy as we advance the discussion. Has anyone here had
the opportunity to do any lab work with Doogie mice?” One
hand went halfway up in the back of the room. “Yes, sir.
Could you tell us all what Doogie mice are, please?”
“I didn’t actually work with them myself, but the lab
technician went through the explanation for the whole class.
They’re genetically enhanced mice … they’ve added a human
gene to make them smarter. They learn faster and remember
longer. Like Doogie Howser, MD.”
“Very good, thank you. I’m sure you’ll all agree that’s a
truly frightening juxtaposition of state-of-the-art microbiological
technology and cancelled network television programming.
Would it be fair to say that the genetically enhanced
mice have been proven to be able to form faster, and longer
lasting, associative bonds?”
There were scattered grunts of general agreement
around the room.
Ross picked a dry marker from his shirt pocket and
walked over to the whiteboard. He scratched out “NR2B”
large enough to be seen from every point in the hall.
“Heeheehee… Hey everybody, watcha doing? Heeheehee…”
“Not now, Hanna, we’re working. Has anyone heard of
the NR2B gene?”
“It’ll be in tonight’s readings. NR2B is a human gene
whose expression has been proven very important in controlling
the ability to associate one event with another.” He rapidly
sketched out a rough drawing of a neural bud, darkening
small segments of the surface of the bud as he spoke.
“NR2B is the blueprint for a protein—NMDA—that
spans the surface of the neuron. NMDA is a receptor that
mediates the associative bonds that are fundamental for
learning. Animal studies have shown that more responsive
NMDA receptors facilitate learning. Specifically, those studies
have demonstrated that younger animals have more responsive
NMDA receptors than adolescent animals—and the
younger animals learn faster, that is, they make easier associative
bonds, than do the older ones.” He turned away from
the board and reclaimed his seat at the desk.
“The NR2B gene was introduced to the germ cells of lab
mice, and eventually expressed itself in mice that learn more
quickly, and retain that learning longer, due to the resulting
more responsive NMDA receptors in their little mice brains.
Now … everyone here said they took Dr. Shapiro’s class. Who
can tell me the significance of attempting a gene transfer on
germ cells as opposed to somatic cells?”
A few hands went up.
“Yes, over there…” He pointed to a professional-looking
woman in her mid-30’s, old for this class but not terribly unusual
for Rockefeller University. The school’s advanced science
curriculum frequently attracted students who had
already graduated medical school, or had been awarded graduate
degrees from other institutions.
“Somatic cells are regular body cells … internal organs,
skin and bones and the like. Assuming you could even get the
gene to express properly at all in an embryonic somatic cell
transfer, it would, at most, affect that one animal. Germline
cells are the sperm and egg cells. If you can affect a successful
gene transfer to a germline cell, all future generations of the
animal will be, or at least could potentially be, affected. The
genes in a germ cell are passed on to future generations.”
“Thank you. Very well said. Now what are some of the
dangers or concerns associated with germline gene transfer
technology in general and transgenic transfers in particular?
Yes sir…” he pointed to a scruffy-looking guy with a goatee
and a motorcycle helmet on the floor next to him.
“Transgenic transfers—gene transfers between species—
could have unintended consequences.”
“That’s right,” Prof. Ross agreed. “We know what we
know, but we don’t know what we don’t know. What else?”
“Unpredictable health effects.”
“Very good. What else?”
“Any damaging effects caused by germ cell genetic engineering
will continue through the species forever.”
“Good. How about more specific technical problems
that we might run into? Something we know we can’t control
and know might lead to problems?”
No hands or knowing looks this time.
“What about position effects?”
“Oh!” the professional-looking lady took it. “When a
new gene is introduced into the double helix, there’s no way
of determining where it will end up … where it will be positioned
along the chromosome.”
“Why does that matter?”
“Genetic function is complicated,” she continued. “It’s
very likely that genes may well influence the expression of
neighboring genes … at least in some cases, with some genes.
So a ‘position effect’ could well lead to unpredictable changes
in the pattern of gene expression and genetic function.”
“Excellent, thank you. Now let’s try tying this all together…”
The following week, when Ross rolled in to the lecture hall
with Hanna once again in tow, the room was packed.
Word had traveled fast about Ross’s intriguing combination
of scientific inquiry into the genetic underpinnings of associative
learning and a wildlife-park circus act. And he had
given a number of research assistants something that never
failed to attract the attention of budding scientists eager to
roll up their sleeves: A chance to stop reading about somebody
else’s work and start doing some of their own.
He opened the class with another amazing performance
by Hanna, this time demonstrating her mastery of the abstract
concepts of “similarity” and “dissimilarity,” both as they
related to colors and specific items. Ross presented the bird
with different items, such as a plastic chip and a small toy
truck of a similar color, and asked her to identify if they were
the same or different. After correctly responding “different,”
she was then asked if they were the same or different color,
and she was able to correctly respond “same.” He repeated the
demonstration using various items and colors, with Hanna
racking up a respectable accuracy record—just over 80 percent
Once the show was over, Ross turned his attention to a
half-hour discussion of the reproductive biology of the
African Grey parrot. One of his handouts included a detailed
anatomical drawing of an avian oviduct, showing how the mature
ovum (the familiar yoke of a bird’s egg) is released into
the infundibulum (where fertilization takes place), and then
progresses down the oviduct where progressive layers of albumen
(egg “white”), membranes, and finally, the hard, calcium-
rich outer shell are added. When he was done he
apologized for the high-school biology lesson and promised
its relevance would become clear shortly.
After a break, Ross switched gears and started presenting
concepts concerning the use of vectors in effecting
germline gene transfers.
“What’s a vector?” he asked. He nodded in the direction
of a student who looked like she knew the answer.
“It’s a virus—generally a genetically engineered virus—
used as a delivery vehicle for a particular gene into the genetic
structure of the target organism. It’s sort of like a very specific,
“Very good. Why do we use viruses? Someone else … yes,
“Viruses already have the ability to deliver their genes to
cells, generally in a pathogenic manner. We just take advantage
of that ability, and re-engineer the virus to remove the
disease-causing genes and insert the gene we need to be transferred.”
“Excellent! Somebody’s been doing the reading. Any
major problems with vector transfers?” He pointed across the
“Vector viruses can cause toxicity, immune and inflammatory
responses, and possible gene control and targeting issues,”
the student responded, referring to his notes.
“Ah! Targeting issues? What’s a targeting issue?”
“Position effects!” three students said simultaneously.
“Very good. Any other available methods of gene transfer?”
“Pronuclear microinjection,” answered the guy with the
motorcycle helmet, sitting in the front row this time.
“That’s right. We use a fine glass needle to inject the
DNA sequence we want to transfer into the nucleus of an already
fertilized mammalian egg cell. Problems?”
“The technique has never been tried on birds.”
Professor Ross nervously glanced over the shoulder of the
surly microbiology lab technician. Hunched over a cluttered
stainless steel table, the technician was peering through a
powerful microscope set over a Petri dish. Using a slender
glass micropipette, he plucked a cluster of African Grey
sperm cells from their bath of Luria Broth. The clear, yellowish-
beige soup was infused with the Sindbis virus—the viral
vector selected for the task—“enhanced” with a copy of the
“Why can’t you work on Doogie mice like everybody
else?” The technician glanced at the clock on the wall. He had
one more procedure to complete before he could call it a day.
“Been there, done that. Mice don’t talk.” Ross’s doctoral
dissertation had been built around an experimental protocol
involving Doogie mice.
“Do you have any idea what a royal pain-in-the-ass this
The technician sat back on his stool and looked at Ross.
“Okay, these suckers should be ready to go.” The genetically
enhanced sperm cells would be used to fertilize an ovum surgically
removed from a parrot hen.
“How about the egg we fertilized yesterday?”
“Good to go,” the tech responded.
The facilities at Rockefeller University were among the,
if not the, best in the academic world, with more than 70
state-of-the-art laboratories catering to all aspects of the life
sciences. Overlooking the occasionally scenic East River, the
beautifully landscaped, 15-acre campus was located at York
Avenue and 65th Street on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Ross
had a one-bedroom apartment in the adjacent Scholar’s Residence,
on East 63rd, connected to the main campus by a convenient
footbridge. He rarely ventured far from the
protective academic enclave, except to pick up some groceries
at Gristedes on 1st Avenue, or visit the hot dog vendor
by the M31 bus stop by 64th Street.
“Are you guys ready?” Dr. Lea Perera asked, sticking her
head out from an adjoining room. Perera, dressed in green
surgical scrubs, was an attractive 40-something veterinary
surgeon specializing in avian treatment, a relatively rare specialty
in the New York region. As such, she was in big demand,
and did all the work at the Bronx Zoo and the other
area zoological parks, as well as getting a ton of referral work
from other, less specialized, veterinarians.
“Is the patient ready?” Ross asked.
“Prepped and anesthetized,” she responded. “She’s not
intubated, so we really shouldn’t try keep her under for more
than 15 minutes or so. Let me know when you’re ready and I’ll
open the incisions.”
The technician snapped on a fresh pair of latex surgical
gloves, then selected a larger, sterile pipette and retrieved a
Petrie dish containing the parrot egg, a tiny yoke-covered
ovum of less than a quarter inch across. It had been fertilized,
in vitro, with NR2B-enhanced sperm the day before. He carefully
plucked the egg from the dish with the pipette.
“Cut,” he said, unceremoniously.
Perera disappeared into the operating room, followed by
Ross and the technician. The patient, one of six African Grey
hens that would be implanted with enhanced eggs, was laying
on her right side. She was covered with a clear surgical drape,
with a small section of skin, plucked clean of feathers, exposed.
A small, malleable rubber face mask was secured over
“How do you like the facilities?” Ross asked the surgeon.
“Top shelf,” she responded. “The best small-animal facilities
I’ve ever seen. Even the Bronx Zoo doesn’t have a thermal
support table like this. And not many places have a
sevoflurane vaporizer … it offers all the advantages of isoflurane
with even more rapid post-surgical recovery. That’s very
important in our case here, where we want her up and laying
eggs tomorrow.” She slipped on a mask and a pair of latex
gloves and adjusted the surgical drape on the tiny patient.
“Are we ready to go?” She flipped on the switch to the endoscope
Ross and the technician nodded.
She selected a small brush, dabbed it in a vial of clear
fluid, and picked up a pair of tweezers in her other hand. She
carefully brushed the substance on two tiny scars on the
“What’s that?” Ross asked.
“A solvent,” she answered. “I’m going in through the
same incisions that I opened yesterday to remove the egg.”
“Poor little birdie,” Ross said.
“Oh, she’ll be just fine…” She gently pried open the incisions
with the tweezers and carefully plucked away the few
flaky remnants of the tissue glue. “Okay, that looks good.”
Reaching for the endoscopic equipment, she slowly inserted
a probe into the lower opening. She maneuvered it
gently, looking up at the monitor to ascertain her position inside
the unconscious parrot’s abdomen. “There’s the infundibulum
… Hand me that pipette, please.” She held out
her left hand. The technician handed her the sterile tube containing
the fertilized egg.
She inserted the pipette into the upper incision, again
watching the monitor to track her progress. When she was
satisfied with her position, she squeezed the rubber bulb just
enough to release the egg into the opening to the bird’s
oviduct, and stood quietly for a moment, studying the monitor
to be sure everything looked as it should. Satisfied, she removed
the pipette and, after studying the monitor for
another minute, removed the endoscope.
“That’s all there is to it?” Ross asked.
“That’s all there is to it.” Perera dabbed the incisions
with a cotton ball and prepared to re-glue the tiny holes in the
“Now you’re going to have to keep an eye on her, on all
of these birds,” she told Ross. “If it looks like they’re going to
start picking at the incision, we’ll have to put a collar on them
until it heals.”
Dr. Perera finished securing the incisions with the surgical
super-glue. She let it set for a moment, then turned to the
anesthesia vaporizer and switched off the sevoflurane, allowing
the bird to breath pure oxygen for a moment before removing
the face mask. She removed the drape and, gently
lifting the unconscious parrot, placed her in a recovery chamber,
which was oxygen enriched, and heat and humidity controlled.
“Make sure her cage is ready … she’s going to be hungry
when she wakes up.”
Ross studied the sad-looking bird, lying helpless at the
bottom of the portable recovery room. “Is she going to be in
any shape to lay that egg tomorrow?”
“She should be perching within the hour. That egg will
take about 24 hours to work its way down the oviduct. Make
sure the bottom of her cage is clean and check for that yoke
… in the worst-case scenario she may just excrete the yoke
with no shell, but I doubt it. She’s going to be a little shaken
up—this is her second surgery in as many days—and she’s certainly
not going to sit on that egg … you know that, right?”
“Sure. Greys won’t normally sit on just one egg, in any
case. It’ll be removed to an incubator.”
“Right. She should be okay. Just keep a close eye on her
and make sure she doesn’t pick at those incisions.” The vet
cleaned up the surgical work area and laid out fresh instruments.
“Are we ready for the next patient?”
The bird recovered fully, and, right on schedule, laid her egg.
The remainder of the week was a blur of genetically enhanced
viral soups, additional surgical and in vitro fertilization procedures,
recovering birds, and anxiously anticipated and euphorically
welcomed parrot eggs. Six birds received the
procedure; six eggs were laid.
An additional six eggs were taken from birds that had
not received any genetic enhancement, to be used as a control
group for future experimental protocols. All of the eggs were
marked accordingly, and placed in the incubator for their approximately
30-day journey from embryo to baby bird.
“Congratulations, Professor Ross. I understand that all of
your surgical procedures worked as hoped. Six eggs? Is that
correct?” A mild-mannered, brilliant and highly disciplined
man, Dr. Pradesh was wearing his ubiquitous white lab coat.
He waved Ross to a chair across from his desk.
“Yes, Professor,” Ross responded, returning the formality.
He still hadn’t gotten used to Dr. Pradesh, his Ph.D. mentor,
addressing him as “professor.” “They still have to be
DNA-tested to be sure that the gene transfer was successful,
but yes, the in vitro process seems to be successful so far.”
“Very good. And how is your guest lecture series going?”
“I’m doing okay. The students seem attentive and generally
interested. And Hanna is doing great.”
“Ah,” he smiled broadly. “Everybody likes the talking
Dr. Sanjay Pradesh, Professor of Neuroscience and head
of the Laboratory of Animal Behavior, knew a little something
about talking birds, or, more specifically, the neuroanatomy
of brain circuits used for vocal learning and song
production in birds. Under his direction, his lab had done pioneering
work, attempting to unravel the biological structure
underlying the complex repertoire of sounds that birds use to
manage their daily lives. His laboratory bred most of the necessary
research animals (canaries, zebra finches, and now, for
Dr. Ross, African Greys), and operated a Field Research Center
in Millbrook, N.Y., in rural Dutchess County—1,200
acres of natural habitat 80 miles north of the NYC campus.
A slight, dark-skinned man, Dr. Pradesh was largely bald
and wore delicate gold-rimmed glasses. He clasped his hands
together—he had willowy, feminine, surgeon’s hands—and
placed them on his lap.
“So Dr. Ross,” he began, addressing the business at hand,
“have you finalized your budget requests for the second phase
of the study?”
“Yes sir.” Ross handed three sheets of paper across the
desk. “It’s essentially the same as we’ve previously discussed.
I’ve firmed up the timeline issues and adjusted the budget requirements
“Yes, very good.” Pradesh glanced at the number at the
bottom of the third page. “Still very ambitious, I see.”
Ross was one of four Postdoctoral Fellows associated
with Pradesh’s lab. As senior researchers, they were normally
assigned a postdoctoral associate along with two research assistants.
Ross was requesting six.
Ross knew what Pradesh was looking at. “I’m going to
need those extra bodies. It’s the only way I can get 12 birds
trained as quickly as we need to. We’ve got to cover vocabulary,
then word/object associations, and then word/abstract
concept associations. And that’s just to get all of the birds to
baseline before we start the experimental protocol…”
“I understand. But must you use the Putnam County facility?
The commuter train fares are so very expensive. And
we’ve already got our university facility in Millbrook, with
Science Department members going back and forth. Now
you want us in Putnam, too.”
Truthfully, Ross didn’t have to use the Hudson Valley facility;
he wanted to use it. “I know. I know it’s expensive. But
it will be much better for the birds. It’s much quieter, much
less distracting for them. It’ll be a lot easier for them to bond
with their trainers and to learn to talk. A couple of the assistants
have cars and we’re hoping to save a few bucks that way.
But I thought I should budget for the worst-case scenario.”
“Ah … that you’ve done most effectively.” He gently
placed the papers down on the desk. “Very well. I don’t need
to remind you that all of this has given this study, and you, an
extraordinarily high profile around here. You understand
that, I assume?”
“Sure do, Professor.”
Dr. Pradesh was a remarkably intelligent man with a very
modest ego. Having spent his entire academic and professional
career surrounded by colleagues of equally remarkable
intelligence, he never felt the need to either flaunt his own insight
or overstate—or even state, for that matter—the obvious.
In this case, the obvious meant that equally brilliant
researchers would be denied budget dollars for equally compelling
research projects as the result of Ross’s ambitious
wish list of university resources.
Ross knew what was expected of him.
Founded in 1901, Rockefeller University had been home
to 23 Nobel Prize winners, 19 Lasker Awards recipients, 12
National Medal of Science winners, 32 members of The National
Academy of Sciences, 14 members of the Institute of
Medicine, and 13 Gairdner Foundation International Awards
recipients. This was, he knew, well beyond “publish or perish.”
At Rockefeller University, it was publish, bring fame,
world-class accolades and fresh grant money to the organization
and to your laboratory head, or perish. Or at least have
your budget sliced to ribbons.
A few steps beyond Dr. Pradesh’s office, Ross paused for
a moment. He had forgotten to mention the voice mail he’d
received that afternoon. Some reporter, Jerry Richter from
the New York Post, of all places, had left a cryptic message
about comments on ongoing research at the university. The
only reason he knew Richter’s name was from a pathetic, politically-
charged article on stem cell research he had written
some time back. Someone had brought it in and passed it
around for laughs. It was so wrong in so many ways no one
was sure if it was meant to be serious or just a parody piece.
Ross had no intention of calling him back, but thought he
should bring it to Dr. Pradesh’s attention, just to be on the
safe side. Public relations and all that.
It’ll wait… Ross decided.
The nursery vigil started in earnest three weeks after the
eggs had been laid. In the preceding weeks, Ross had finalized
his selection of six graduate assistants, and with their
input, started writing up and detailing the experimental protocols
they would use to see if the presence of the “smart
gene” would express itself in the hypothesized fashion. That
is, they wanted to see if they had produced birds that learned
more, learned faster, and retained more of what they learned.
He also had enlisted one of the assistants, a second-year student
who already had his master’s degree in Physiological Psychology,
to get a head start on drafting an article describing
their process of creating the transgenic birds. It could go to a
relevant scientific journal, but he’d hold it until after the birds
had hatched and had been DNA-tested to ascertain if the
procedures had been successful or not.
To the annoyance of the full-time lab technicians, Ross
had his research assistants check in on the incubator several
times a day. Totally digitally controlled and fully automatic,
the incubator held the temperature to 99.3 degrees, at 42 percent
humidity. The eggs were sitting on a series of stainless
steel rollers that turned them every five hours.
On Day 25, Ross and one of his research assistants were
observing the eggs, having timed their visit to coincide with
a rotation sequence.
“There.” Ross pointed to the first egg as it slowly turned
on the roller. “You see how it’s slightly out of round?”
“Uh-huh,” muttered the first-year Ph.D. student, a
chunky young lady of 25 who had finished top in her class at a
Midwestern university. She peered into the glass door of the
incubator alongside Ross.
“That’s the first egg that was laid; it’s starting to draw
“Okay,” she responded. “I can see that it’s flattening
slightly … what does that mean?”
“The air space in the egg is enlarging. We’ve got maybe
three days before it hatches.” Ross straightened up and
looked around the room. “Alan…” he called to a technician restocking
a supply cabinet with freshly sterilized instruments.
“Is the hatcher ready?”
“It’s in place,” Alan answered without turning around.
“We’ve just got to turn it on. It’ll take about an hour, I think,
to come up and stabilize at the proper humidity. Are you
ready to go?”
Essentially an incubator without the rollers, the hatcher
held the eggs at a higher humidity, to aid the chicks in their
struggle to free themselves of the shell.
“Yeah. No rush, but let’s get it ready. I’ll move this first
guy in later today, then we can expect to move at least one egg
a day for the next week.”
He turned to his assistant. “Exciting, isn’t it?”
“It is. We’re going to have little Frankenbirds. I hope
they’re okay … do you think they’re going to look normal?”
Ross shrugged. “They’ve bred probably thousands of
generations of Doogie mice without any known adverse effects.
You can’t tell them apart from regular lab mice but for
a DNA profile. They should be okay…”
Three days later, the first, tiny external pip mark appeared on
an egg. Ross watched the chick’s progress nervously, with
dental tools handy, ready to step in and assist if necessary.
Under more natural circumstances, the chick’s mother would
be available to help, although even mothers weren’t always dependable
in that regard.
“This could take some time,” Ross observed to an assistant,
this one a male with a Harvard MS degree in biophysics.
“We should give it a full 24 hours before panicking, but I hate
to leave it alone overnight without anyone monitoring its
progress. We should just play it by ear, I guess.” The egg had
stopped moving, the chick apparently resting after its initial
effort, just as Ross had been told to expect.
“Have you done this before?” the assistant asked. “Bred
birds, I mean.”
“Nope. I read up on it and checked with the vet. She said
to leave them alone and call her for a consultation if we think
there’s a problem. We should be okay here, I guess. It’s not
like birds have never hatched without me watching…”
The assistant chuckled as he scribbled a notation about
the chick’s progress in a log.
“Let’s get some coffee,” Ross suggested. “This is going to
end up being more stressful on me than it is on the chicks…”
One complication-free week later, the six experimental and
six control birds were all hatched and in good voice, chirping
loudly, frequently, and in unison for food. As Ross knew,
hand-feeding newborn chicks is a tricky proposition; experienced
breeders always let the parents feed their chick for the
first two or three weeks before the baby was removed from
the nest and hand-fed. Since that wasn’t an option for Ross,
he had to be sure the team charged with the chicks’ well being
was up to speed, skill-wise.
During the preceding weeks, all the graduate assistants,
and Ross himself, had spent time at local pet stores and
breeders mastering the intricacies of hand-feeding baby
birds. Their training included mixing the formula for proper
temperature and consistency, locating and filling the birds’
crops with the correct amount of formula, selecting the rightsized
syringes as the birds grew, and correctly supporting the
tiny, vulnerable creatures during feedings in their first weeks.
Ross had reminded everyone that newly hatched African
Greys were little more than bizarre-looking bundles of white,
fluffy down with oversized beaks. And, indeed, in the first
weeks, their necks were not yet strong enough to support
their heads—they needed to be gently rolled on their backs
to be fed. By the third week, they had sprouted a secondary
layer of denser, gray down, and were able to hold up their
heads on their own. Their eyes were starting to open, too.
Once all of their eyes were open, the decision was made
to move them from the lab into the bird room, so they could
see and hear their own kind. The room was a madhouse. With
a white tile floor and walls and no windows, the place echoed
like crazy, not a desirable feature in a space that was home to
small flock of loud, excitable parrots. Formally used to breed
white lab mice, rats, Rhesus monkeys, and other animals, the
room now housed 12 adult African Greys, six breeding pairs,
the egg and sperm donors for both the transgenic and control
Each pair had a 4’x4’x6’ stainless steel cage. Ross and his
colleagues had installed full-spectrum florescent lighting,
which was healthier for the birds; the existing heating, ventilation
and air conditioning (HVAC) system circulated plenty
of fresh air, and was equipped with an integral high efficiency
particulate air (HEPA) filtration system, a must with a roomful
of African Greys, who gave off a kind of natural feather
powder or “dust.” The room also had drains in the tile floor (a
handy feature when monkeys had been in residence). It was
an efficient, physically healthy and easy-to-clean space, but
also, Ross felt, a soulless one—he didn’t want his birds living
there any longer than they had to.
The rapidly growing chicks were kept in two large plastic
tubs on a table, surrounded by the screeching, whistling,
chattering adults. They had the six normal, control birds in
one tub, the transgenic birds in the other. Each spent the day
flopping around on a comfortable bed of wood shavings and
resting snugly under a warm towel and heat lamp.
When they were between 18 and 25 days old, each chick
was fitted with a size-14 leg band etched with a series of numbers.
Ross recorded the numbers, identifying each chick as either
transgenic or control. That list would remain a closely
guarded secret—the planned experiments needed to be blind,
meaning that the researchers involved in training and testing
the parrots could have no knowledge about which was which.
The birds were hand-fed three times daily until they
were eight weeks old. At that point, with their feathers starting
to fill in, feedings were decreased in frequency but increased
in amount until they were all weaned between ten and
11 weeks. Blood samples were also taken from the transgenic
chicks. Initial tests for sexing showed that they’d bred a split
team: three males, three hens. Ross’s team spent another anxiety
filled week before more comprehensive DNA tests confirmed
the presence of the human NR2B gene in all of the
With that hurdle cleared, the scientists removed the
table and brooder tubs and squeezed three more large cages
into the room for the chicks. Still a bit clumsy and unsteady
on a perch, the youngsters now appeared, except for their
telltale dark eyes, identical to adults in their overall size and
feathers. Ross personally moved each of them into their new,
albeit temporary homes, purposefully mixing the transgenic
birds and their normal siblings. The identifying numbers on
their leg bands, information that he kept under lock and key,
were the only way anyone would be able to tell them apart
from that point on.
Well… that’s done…Ross thought. The technically challenging
part of the protocol was complete and apparently successful.
Since Greys rarely talked before one year of age, there was
plenty of time before he needed to get ramped up for the second
phase of the study. He decided to treat himself to some
Chinese food for dinner.
“Ugh.” He stepped back from the curb as a passing bus
blasted him with hot, sooty, diesel exhaust. Snow in NYC
might seem romantic at the Rockefeller Center skating rink
underneath the giant Christmas tree, or when a young family
was huddled together, gazing at the idyllic, animated window
displays of the Fifth Avenue department stores, but everywhere
else it was a sloppy, slushy, pain-in-the-ass mess. He
plodded back up to the curb and made a second, this time
successful, attempt at crossing a still heavily trafficked, post-rush
hour York Avenue.
Ross sloshed up the north side of 65th Street towards 1st
Avenue. The block was entirely residential, with generally
nondescript six-story apartment buildings lining both sides.
The sidewalks were busy, though certainly not by midtown
standards, with scores of individuals darting home from
work, to or from a class, or, like Professor Ross, looking for
something to eat.
He was feeling pretty good about things. This latest success,
the creation of transgenic parrots, was just the most recent
high point in a short career dotted with high points. As
a Ph.D. candidate, he had done groundbreaking work on the
evolutionary role of intelligence—attempting to answer, at
the genetic level, basic questions—like how primates developed
such a high a level of intelligence, while, say, tree frogs,
had not. If intelligence held such great evolutionary advan-
tages, how come tree frogs and hamsters didn’t develop 140
IQ’s? In some respects, the answer was self-evident—for a
140 IQ the physics of anatomy demanded a three-pound
brain, something that could be a distinct disadvantage to an
otherwise two-ounce tree frog.
Ross pursued the overarching hypothesis that animal life
had all of the intelligence that any form needed to compete
effectively in its respective ecosystem, and no more.
So how did nature modulate that necessary intelligence?
What were the biological underpinnings that determined
why a parrot was smarter than a tree frog, but not as smart as
Homo sapiens? How did a creature’s genetic blueprint redraw
itself in order to express the necessary level of intelligence to
allow that creature an effectively competitive position within
Ross wanted to know. His research had already shown
that the NR2B gene had considerable influence on the biomechanics
of that question. His new line of inquiry would
test the limits of genetic involvement, utilizing creatures that
had already demonstrated the ability to master, at least on an
elementary level, associative speech.
Ross stepped aside and allowed a determined looking
nurse to barrel past him. New York Presbyterian Hospital was
right around the corner—just across the street from the university—
and whatever she was doing tonight was likely to be
more important to somebody than anything he had planned.
It was starting to flurry again. It looked like they had gotten
about an inch earlier in the day, and that was on top of the six
inches they’d been hit with a week before. But the sidewalks
on 65th were well-sanded and salted, melting the snow as soon
as it hit the ground, leaving a sole-sucking, sloppy slurry for
Ross to splash through.
I wonder what those little birds are thinking? Ross mulled.
He wore only a lined, cotton windbreaker and a pullover
sweater, but the walk to the restaurant was a short one, and
the dreary conditions made it seem colder than it actually
Even as a child, Ross had always wondered what was
going on in animal’s heads. He had been one of those kids
with a new pet every summer—turtles, horned toads, tadpoles
and the resultant frogs, green anoles, garter snakes,
hamsters, tropical fish, cats, the requisite dog, and a friendly
He’d wanted to be a vet for as long as he could remember.
It was an ambition that had lasted all through his childhood
right up through the summer before his sophomore
year in college, when he’d interned as a veterinary assistant
for the summer months. It was there he realized that 99.9
percent of a vet’s day was filled with routine vaccinations for
cats and dogs, neutering procedures for the same, weight loss
advice for bored, inactive house pets, and the occasional flea
or parasite treatment. Maybe an unusual skin rash if it were
an exciting day.
That dream may have faded, but his childlike curiosity
about animals never did. As his studies progressed, he became
more and more intrigued by the mysterious biological
underpinnings of behavior, both learned and instinctive. It
was that endless wonder and curiosity that drove him to his
place in the scientific community; hard work and years of
schooling were just the vehicles that got him there.
At the corner of 1st and 65th he was forced to hurdle a
four-foot puddle from the curb into the street; he managed to
do so with only his trailing heel clipping the water, thoroughly
soaking the bottom of his pant leg with dirty, icy brine. The
Chinese restaurant was just across the street, with only one
more flooded gutter between him and his nice, hot wonton
soup and broccoli with chicken.
Ross had barely secured his footing after his leap to the
curb, when he was startled by the voice, seemingly out of
nowhere, calling his name. He turned to face a short man, his
face barely visible beneath a snow-encrusted wool pullover
hat and a scarf covering his chin and mouth.
“Do I know you?” Ross asked.
“Dr. Ross, I’m Jerry Richter, New York Post,” he replied
holding out his hand. Ross shook it, more out of polite reflex
than any friendly intention. “I’ve left three messages on your
voice mail over the past few weeks but I haven’t heard back
from you; maybe I just missed your call … I was hoping to
have a word with you.”
“Uh, yeah, I’ve been busy. You should really just contact
the university’s public affairs people. They should be able to
help you out.” Ross retreated from the curbside to the sidewalk,
closer to the storefronts. The annoying little man followed,
stamping the snow and slush from his boots as he
“Is it true, Dr. Ross, that you’ve successfully implanted a
human intelligence gene into parrots? Doesn’t that make
them some kind of human clone? Is that legal?”
“Aren’t you the guy that wrote that stem cell article?”
“I’ve been instructed that for my penance I have to answer
‘yes’ to that question for the next five years.”
“Look, there’s nothing secret or unethical about the research
we’re doing. But all ongoing university research is considered
proprietary until the decision to publish has been
made. Once we’re in print I’ll be happy to sit with you and answer
any and all questions you may have about the study. Until
then I’m afraid ‘no comment’ is the best you’re going to get
“Lucky for me not everyone over at the university feels
so bound by the regulations. I don’t mean to be overly melo-
dramatic about this, professor, but the story’s going to get
written with you or without you. I’m just giving you a shot at
getting your two cents in.”
Ross reached for the door of the Chinese restaurant. “No
comment is the best I can do.” He opened the door and retreated
into the warmth and bustle, wondering where the reporter
was getting his information, and how much of a
problem this might become.