There was once a man who owned five elephants.
This would not have been unusual in Southeast Asia or East Africa. It was, however, quite unusual in South Carrington Station, New Jersey.
These were, moreover, no ordinary elephants. They were miniature white elephants, about three feet from floor to top of head, pure white with pale pink eyes and a permanent, mischievous smile on their loose flapping lower lips, as if perfectly pinched with delight to be in the back yard of Dr. Oliver Turner in the tiny Pine Barrens town of South Carrington Station, New Jersey.
The five elephants, each a perfect replica of the other, as if stamped out by a stuffed toy company, marched around the two-and-a-half acre back yard in an unvarying line, tail in trunk, smiling happily in the hot summer sun. The sticky scent of pine tar mingled with the hot dry detritus of wood chips and brown pine needles kicked up by twenty little flat elephant feet shuffling along with the precise dull regularity of a chain gang. Heads bobbing, tiny pink eyes twinkling, loose lower lips laughing drily. Five tiny white elephants winding in and out of the stunted pine woods like a five year old's Christmas dream, watched with raised and anxious eyebrows by their solicitous mother, Rhoda, a big slobbery St. Bernard panting in the shade in the lee of the house.
How had this fantasy come to fruition?
For years, Dr. Oliver Turner, Chief of Genetic Diseases at Memorial Hospital in Philadelphia, had been working secretly on the application of gene splicing techniques to create new species of higher animals. By day he was one of the world's leading authorities on gene replacement therapy, and he had two years earlier been awarded the Nobel Prize for the pioneering replacement in a human embryo of a gene which would have caused juvenile diabetes. By night he played in his own private laboratory with evolution, a role, or throne, perhaps, which had heretofore been occupied mainly by God.
He did this purely for his own enjoyment, with no mischievous intent, taking the same safeguards as applied in his meticulously guarded lab at the hospital. His motive was to see what could be done, and his intention was immediately to destroy any new species which emerged successfully from his ministrations.
As the tiny white elephants emerged one by one from the womb of Rhoda, however, popping out like so many grinning rubber squeeze toys and immediately hooking on to one another, tail to trunk, as they stood blindly on their quivering little stumps, he did not have the heart to kill them.
Kill them? How could he kill them as Rhoda licked them lovingly clean, one by one, from the front to the rear of the tremulous, shivering little line? How could he kill them as they flapped their little white lettuce ears, grinning at him with tight shut little eyes, the front elephant exploring his palm avidly with his or her tiny trunk while the rear one flicked its white-tufted tail? How could he kill them as they began their stumbling safari around the hard tile floor of the lab, all immediately, instinctively in lock step, the front elephant keeping track of Rhoda's warm furry bulk with its outstretched trunk like a pointing forefinger, the rear elephant swaying behind like a fat woman in a hula skirt?
No way could he bring himself to kill that stumbling, swaying, hooked-up, grinning little line of five tiny white elephants!
Besides, what would be gained from the murder of these innocent, adorable creatures, other than protection of his own career? And he didn't care a fig for that. They were no danger to the environment. In fact, they would make an excellent species of pet. If they were like other elephants (which they were exactly, except for color and size), they were intelligent, loyal, affectionate, patient, gentle creatures, suitable in every way to be the companions of children of all ages, as the circus used to say.
Far from being eliminated, they should be bred.
Yet Dr. Oliver was aware of the storm that would erupt if anyone found out that he had created a new species of higher animal through gene replacement. The technique he had now perfected could be used for ill as easily as for good. It could even be used to direct human evolution, with results too terrifying, or intriguing, to think about. It was clear that Dr. Turner had let a genie out of the bottle, and that for the moment, at least, he'd better keep the genie locked up in his lab.
The elephants, however, soon brought their happy little conga line out into the back yard. Dr. Turner built a high fence around his property so that they could frolic undisturbed, and they wound joyfully among the stunted pine trees and over the gray dusty soil, swaying ponderously like pachyderms five times their size, nodding their little white heads, grinning like children consumed with a secret joke, the punch line of which was life! yes, life! which had so capriciously placed them in this brilliant back yard with its hot sun and pine-scented air.
In due time, of course, they were discovered. The very existence of a fence is a question crying for an answer, and so one afternoon a group of neighborhood boys climbed the fence and came back down asking one another whether they had actually seen what they had actually seen.
Five tiny white elephant heads lifted simultaneously, the front trunk waving hi!, the fat rear leg poised, all grinning merrily, lettuce ears flapping . . .
No way! they thought. Over they went again, and again were greeted joyously by the five white little railroad cars, coupled tail to trunk.
The jig was up.
Within hours armies of police, journalists, TV cameras, and representatives of humane organizations descended upon the neat little brick house with the interesting back yard. Helicopters took turns over the two-and-a-half acre enclosure, cameras snapping and rolling. A set of saw horses kept the curious beyond the front lawn.
Dr. Turner himself, notified of the commotion as he worked in his laboratory at Memorial Hospital in Philadelphia, arrived just in time to see his five little friends disappear cheerfully up a metal ramp into a truck belonging to the New York Zoological Society, which had facilities for strict isolation. Rhoda was also taken away for fear that she may have been contaminated, while Dr. Turner was served with the proper papers for the total destruction of his house and laboratory, and his eventual incarceration.
All of which would bring the story to a sad end, were it not for the fact that the population of the world, circus children all, fell in love with the five tiny white elephants who marched grinning with crazy delight tail in trunk across their TV screens. Their happy little pink eyes, their flapping white lettuce ears, the way the front elephant bobbed his or her head while the rear elephant raised one fat little leg, immediately endeared them to the entire population of the Earth.
When the President of the New York Zoological Society conceded that, rather than killing the elephants, he would recommend sterilizing them, he was greeted with a roar of scorn.
Sterilize them? Better sterilize him! He wasn't half as cute, and twice as dangerous! Let the zoos of the world be populated with little white elephants! Why not? What harm was there in it? And eventually the pet shops. Could you imagine owning a little choo-choo train of those things, grinning happily as they wandered through your living room and out your front porch?
The problem was that the first creatures created by genetic engineering were not Frankenstein monsters or terrifying microbes but five tiny white miniature elephants swaying adorably to and fro with the joy of life.
Why not live teddy bears? the public wondered. Tiny tigers. Bathtub-sized seals. A whole bonsai zoological garden.
After several years of intense litigation, the Supreme Court decided, first, that Dr. Turner had committed no crime, and, second, that the five elephants and their offspring were his property. The town of South Carrington Station passed a special ordinance permitting him to keep miniature elephants in his back yard, and he returned in triumph. He was ineligible to receive government grants and could no longer practice medicine, but what did it matter? A career as the Earth's sole breeder of miniature white elephants awaited him along with cheering crowds.
In the decades that followed, the human race slowly and painfully came to terms with the fact that it was now in charge of evolution. There was no ducking the opportunity. The means had become commonplace and not susceptible to easy control.
The problems of regulation and legal responsibility were solved in the usual slow, bumbling way.
A rich array of species came into being, each just as bent as the rest on self-perpetuation.
But who could regret what had come to pass as he or she sat in his or her armchair, watching the little freight train of joyful white elephants shuffle aimlessly by, lower lips grinning with their secret joke, lettuce ears flopping, tiny pink eyes twinkling with happiness?
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