An Open Letter to the Lab Mouse, Presumably Deceased, Upon Whose Back Scientists First Grew a Human-Looking Ear

earmouseNote: Timothy McSweeney’s Internet Tendency has a section called “Open Letters to People or Entities Who Are Unlikely to Respond.” Many of these are amusing, some less so. But after I read a few, the Muse descended, and, aflame with divine inspiration—the gods whispering in my hearing aids—I wrote my own epistle. In a puzzling lapse in taste, McSweeney’s rejected my letter. Bums! They’re wrong!

Or are they? Since “Open Letters to [Etc.]” is a feature that is unique to McSweeney’s, as far as I know, I can’t shop this around at other publications and prove that editor C— (not his real name) made a grave mistake. Instead, I offer my multitudinous readership a chance to vote on whether, inexplicably, this famous publication blew it. (They did.) Here’s the letter to the earmouse:

Dear Little Friend:

True, we have never met, but I hope you’ll forgive the familiarity, up there in your nest of shavings in that great cage in the sky, where you certainly now reside, the average lifespan of a mouse being only two years.  But as you nibble your eternal supply of unsalted sunflower seeds, I feel as if I could lean over and confide in that human-looking ear on your back.  You would listen.  You’d care.  I say this not merely because you won worldwide sympathy as a hairless rodent who, without signing any consent forms, was caused by scientists to grow a wrestling coach’s cauliflower ear on its back.  The thing is (and I will admit this is selfish), I keep hoping someone will grow a new set of ears for me on some mouse’s back, and I can get rid of my hearing aids.

A hairless mouse

I first read about you back in 1997, after the scientist brothers Charles and Joseph Vacanti, using cells of cow cartilage, grew what looked like a human ear on your back.  You were drafted for the project because your hairless species of mouse has no immune system and thus would not reject the foreign cells.  Supporters of such experiments argued that medical knowledge justified their actions.  Spare ears might help people disfigured by house fires, swordfights, or acid-flinging criminal bosses.  Lepers whose body parts keep falling off might someday keep entire colonies of mice to replace missing ears, noses, fingers, etc.  Besides, one never knows when one might need an extra ear–just ask Vincent van Gogh.  Critics, on the other hand, argued that it was a moral crime to engineer an ear on your person (as it were).  Some of them took out a full-page ad in The New York Times with a picture of you stating, “This is an actual photo of a genetically engineered mouse with a human ear on its back.”  They, too, had a point, even if they got the science wrong and no genetics were involved.

Either way, it must have been a shock to find yourself an outcast, a freak among your fellow mice, who made you the brunt of jokes about ear candy and earwigs and ear wax.  “Hey, pipsqueak, you gonna get that thing pierced?” one mouse bully after another chortled at you, each thinking he was original.  New acquaintances asked, “Does it work?”  Couples having illicit rendezvous in restaurants said, “Shhh, I think that mouse is eavesdropping.”  You no doubt struggled with your sense of balance–and self-worth–beneath the weight of an object as unwieldy as the sail on a Dimetrodon’s back.

Another mouse in your shoes (if mice wore shoes) would resent the boffin who rendered him incapable of receiving a satisfactory backrub.  Some mice thus transmogrified would have filed a multimillion dollar lawsuit, or gotten an MFA and authored a painful memoir of victimhood and earned kudos from reviewers who were aghast at the way scientists play God.  But as best I can tell, you never hired a lawyer, never wrote a book, never held a creative nonfiction reading, never appeared on Oprah, never danced with the stars.  Instead you spent your days nosing about for food pellets.  After your personal calamity, inflicted on you for no reason other than that you were a hairless mutation of mouse, you seemed to think, What’s a guy to do?  Gotta pick up the pieces and move on.

Sounds of teapots, Mozart, rain, wild dry threshing palms

Knowing of your plight and your plucky response, is it cruel, then, of me to yearn for a future in which scientists figure out how to grow not just an auriform cow gristle on top of a mouse, but an entire functioning human ear, that miracle of biological technology: an ear complete with cochlea and stirrups and hammers and anvils, ears that can hear teapots whistling and the high notes in Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” aria and rain on the windowpanes and the threshing of Faulkner’s wild palms in the wind, the wild dry sound of them?  Is it all right to hope, at the expense of your great-great-great-grandchildren, that someone might come up with ears that could be grafted onto my head in place of the old ones, getting rid of the

tinnitus that we who are hard of hearing constantly hear: a cacophony of shrills, whistles, bagpipe skirls, snow blower roars, and metallic shrieks like the noise of a factory full of knife sharpeners?  Would it make your earthly plight any more meaningful to learn that now, eighteen years after your deformity shocked the world, there has been progress in the production of artificial tissue thanks in part to the sacrifices of mice like you?  As PBS noted in an article on the topic:

In the not-too-distant future, lab-grown cartilage and bone could relieve arthritis sufferers, while blood vessels, cardiac valves and muscle tissue could save thousands of cardiovascular disease patients.  Ultimately, custom-made hearts, livers, breasts, corneas, kidneys, bone marrow and bladders could offer elegant solutions to most life-threatening illnesses.

These won’t be grown on the backs of mice, I am confident.  But you were the pioneer.  I believe I speak for all of us who can barely hear voices on our cell phones; who chuckle irrelevantly in funerals because we thought we heard a joke that wasn’t actually told; who answer, “Uh-uh,” when our spouses say, “Can you hear those birds singing?”; whose children say, “Papa, turn up your hearing aid!” when we walk right past the librarian who said hi to us; who reply, “Sure,” to mumbling barbers only to find ourselves leaving the shop with a Mohawk; who, when the bosses order Thai food or pizza at work, retreat to our cubicles to eat alone so we don’t have to laugh at jokes we cannot make out, because those new-fangled, thirty-five-hundred-dollar digital hearing aids we buy at Costco every few years can’t isolate a simple conversation in a noisy room; in short, I speak for the hearing-impaired segment of our entire self-centered species, indeed for every human who needs a liver or a colon or a spleen or an eyeball, when I offer you, little mouse, heartfelt thanks for getting this whole thing rolling.  We will benefit.  Mice will not.  And yet you were remarkably cool about it all.

Now, are you sure there’s no way I can give you a backrub?


Russell Working



Filed under Graphomania, Rodents

2 responses to “An Open Letter to the Lab Mouse, Presumably Deceased, Upon Whose Back Scientists First Grew a Human-Looking Ear

  1. Kathe Stratton

    Russell, Very clever, very thoughtful, thank you for insight into the world of the hearing impaired…& the mind of a mouse. As always, keep writing!!!

  2. Thank you, Kathe. I really appreciate your reading it.

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