"I'm gonna help animals become better than they are now," was the response I made to questions about what I could do with my biology degree. So, I applied to graduate schools to follow that goal; a north Florida university accepted me.
Each new student needs a faculty advisor to supervise him and help him choose classes that further his goals. Working in the advisor's lab gives the student practical experience. Dr. Bluhen, a short, chubby man with thick spectacles, agreed to take me under his wing. His lab studied the control of animal growth; identification of genes and proteins involved in animal development.
Dr. Bluhen's animal model was the guinea pig. Being last in the lab's chain of command, I inherited the menial task of feeding the animals and keeping their cages clean. They shared a large basement room with caged rabbits, chickens, mice, and rats. I handled only the guinea pigs. They are cute, cuddly little creatures. With oversized heads and no tail, they are plump, little balls of white fur about the size and shape of your clenched fist. They have a pink nose and ears, tiny black eyes, and a pair of buck teeth which might be dangerous in a larger animal. They scurry around with their little legs splayed out to each side, conversing with squeaks and squeals. When you rub their heads, they make a cooing sound reminiscent of a contented pigeon.
It's easy to become attached to these cute little beasts. One particular guinea pig caught my eye. I especially liked him; he seemed to like me back. He looked at me with his little black eyes and sort of winked at me. So I named him Wink. Most days, Wink and I spent time playing together on the floor of the animal room. He scooted around as I tried to catch him. The other animal caretakers shook their heads as they watched the newcomer play on the floor with a guinea pig.
Dr. Bluhen wanted to express growth hormone in the guinea pigs. He explained that his approach would be to insert the growth hormone (GH) gene into a small virus, infect the animal with the virus, and piggyback the expression of the GH protein on top of viral protein expression.
It made me proud when Dr. Bluhen chose Wink as the first recipient for growth protein expression. I wanted him to be the best guinea pig he could be. He injected Wink with the virus cocktail, and we waited. Dr. Bluhen thought it might take anywhere from days to months before we would see any effect. He asked me to watch Wink and notify him if I noticed changes of any kind in Wink's size or behavior.
When I went in to feed the animals the next day, Wink had not changed. Within a week, however, he seemed larger and weighed about twice his normal weight. I noticed the weight gain when I lifted him out of his cage for our daily playtime. I doubled the amount of guinea pig pellets in his food trough before I left that day. I informed Dr. Bluhen of the change. He said he'd check the animals after teaching.
We kept guinea pigs in plastic enclosures covered by metal tops with ribs that resemble the bars of a cell. The cages are about eighteen inches long by twelve inches wide and nine inches high. The next day when I arrived to feed the guinea pigs, Wink filled his cage. His enlarged body pressed tight against the top of the container—his white fur sticking out between the metal bars. When he peered up at me with his large sad eyes, he looked uncomfortable, squirming around as if trying to break free. He seemed to plead with me to rescue him. Now about the size of a mature rabbit, I transferred him to a much larger cage. Again, I mentioned the change to Dr. Bluhen, but he said his administrative duties would keep him from visiting the animal facility that day.
When Wink had grown to the size of an obese Great Dane, he no longer fit into any cage in the animal room. I had to let him scramble around free on the floor. Since he'd begun to eat the other animals' food, he'd caught the attention of everyone who worked in the animal facility and their supervisors. Uncertain how dangerous a giant guinea pig might be, most animal caretakers stayed on the other side of the room from him or avoided going into the animal room altogether. Word swiftly arrived at the university's administrative building—all the way up to the top.
When the university president asked to see him in the animal room, Dr. Bluhen finally rearranged his busy schedule to accommodate an unscheduled meeting. Once Dr. Bluhen arrived, the president opened the door to the animal room. He took a quick look inside, then recoiled backward, slamming the door. With a look of sheer terror on his face, he glared at Dr. Bluhen.
"Sweet mother of God! What have you done?"
Dr. Bluhen just stared at the floor, shuffled his feet, and mumbled, "My research was designed to answer many important questions about human growth."
The university president was not impressed. He told Dr. Bluhen to take a leave of absence and banished Wink to the city zoo where he could grow to his heart's desire.
The little girl squealed with pleasure and rushed to the display. She squatted on the floor and pushed her nose up against the floor-to-ceiling glass partition separating her from a large, snow-white fur ball with piercing black eyes chewing on cabbage in the middle of a field of wood chips and shredded newspaper. She pointed, looked over her shoulder, and asked, "What's that thing, gramps?"
The white-haired man shuffled over to the glass barrier and looked in. He cocked his head and furrowed his brow. "Can't say I ever saw anything like that before." He edged over to the exhibit explanation board and began to read. His lips moving, he looked up at the animal and back down at the writing a couple of times. "Says that thing's the monster rodent we been hearin' about. Made in the lab of some professor here at the local university. The only critter like it in the world."
Wink became the zoo's star attraction, with receipts at the front gate doubling. I was happy that the public liked Wink, fast becoming a local celebrity. But it concerned me that he might develop PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). You see, the zoo had placed his exhibit too near to the lion house. In nature, the cat is a natural predator of the guinea pig. It was apparent from his continuous screeching that the roaring of the lions made Wink anxious.
Then one night, he disappeared from his enclosure. The newspaper article read that Wink managed to escape from the zoo. The report made him sound like a felon gone on the lamb from the federal police. Rumor had it, though, that PETA arranged his escape.
Reports found Wink lumbering around the city, feeding on shrubs and low-hanging branches of small trees, his path marked by devastated gardens and large, football-shaped droppings. The city fathers decided that they needed to put him down for the sake of public health and safety. PETA, more sympathetic, enlisting community support for his protection against cruel and unusual punishment by circulating flyers showing his photo. It's surprising how cute and endearing a four-hundred-pound guinea pig can look in a four-by-four inch photograph. The thought of intentionally murdering a cute little guinea pig disgusted north Floridians. The governor thought such an act of animal cruelty might reflect poorly on the state. Wink received a reprieve from the death penalty.
On the news today, they stated that Wink had finally stopped growing, having reached the size of a small Asian elephant. I guess there's a natural law involved. It dictates the maximum weight or volume a warm-blooded land animal can reach; it can't grow greater than about two to three tons—I suppose it has something to do with gravity.
The last time I saw Wink, he had migrated south down the Florida peninsula. I decided to drive south to see him one more time before I left the state. Since Dr. Bluhen was now persona non grata at the university, he had no laboratory in which I could work. A letter of recommendation from him would be worthless. I didn't think that having been his graduate student would help to advance my career. So I decided to move on and find greener pastures elsewhere.
A rumor circulated that Wink relocated to an area west of Lake Okeechobee. So I drove south down US Route 27, looking for him. In an unpopulated area just west of the lake, I noticed a group of cars parked at the side of the highway; their drivers crowded close together along the sandy shoulder of the road. I parked and joined the crowd. Before I saw him, I heard his loud, ear-piercing squeaks and squeals. There, in a Palmetto swamp, a vast unwashed version of the Wink I knew waddled around grazing on swamp cabbage. National Guardsmen supervised Wink and kept the crowd of onlookers at a safe distance. Local authorities must have realized Wink had become a great tourist attraction and decided to tolerate him so long as he brought in tax dollars.
Wink recognized me in the crowd—gave me a sad look and a soulful smile. I felt a tug on my heart when he gave me a wink. I waved him a farewell—wished him all the best. I know he wanted the same for me, so I winked back.