In Conversation with the Vacanti Earmouse–Steven Church

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In 1995, Dr. Charles Vacanti, an anesthesiologist from the University of Massachusetts and Professor Linda Griffith-Cima of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology implanted a pink hairless mouse with bovine cartilage cells and generated an ear-shaped structure that grew like an appendage from the animal’s back. The mouse became an overnight sensation. Pictures of the “Vacanti Earmouse” circulated widely on the internet and in newspapers, creating a brief but worldwide sensation.

The project was intended as an experiment in prosthetic ear transplantation for humans—with the potential for other applications–but the photographs caused an uproar amongst liberal animal rights activists who claimed the ear was cruel to the mouse, that the mouse was being used as a mere vessel for dubious human needs. Equally outraged conservative critics claimed that Vacanti and Griffith-Cima were “playing God” by manufacturing something—a human ear–that only the Allmighty can create.

Not too long after the initial crush of media attention had subsided, this writer caught up with the infamous Vacanti Earmouse in a laboratory facility at the University of Massachusetts. I was left alone in a cold room with the Earmouse, who had just awakened from a nap. After some initial pleasantries, we began our conversation, which I have transcribed here in an effort to record the reality of this amazing creature.

Writer: So, tell me what it’s like to have an ear on your back?

Earmouse: I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. Can you speak into my ear, please?

Writer: Um, OK.

I leaned forward over the lab table, dipping my face over the edge of the cage, and inhaled the sharp cedar smell of traditional cage floor-covering. The lab was empty and quiet, save for the hum of an electrical pump somewhere and the ticking of an old analog wall-clock, the kind you find in school classrooms and government buildings. I wondered what someone might think to see me with my head in the mouse’s cage—which was less a traditional cage than it was a Plexiglas habitat. I stared down and the hairless mouse, his nose twitching frantically. My face was just inches away and I could smell the cedar chips stinging my sinuses. I started to ask my question again, aiming for the ear on his back.

Earmouse: I’m only kidding. It’s a little joke I like to play because of, you know, the ear on my back. Because it can’t actually hear anything . . . It’s a joke.

I pulled back from the cage opening, looked around to make sure nobody had seen me get punked by the earmouse, and readied myself to take notes. I could do this. It was just like any other interview.

W: Yes, right. Can you tell me a little about that ear?

E: Of course, of course. I know that’s why you’re here. That’s the only reason anyone ever wants to talk to me. I understand.

W: It IS rather extraordinary, even if not so newsworthy any longer

E: Yes, I suppose so. It’s not really an ear at all, you know. I mean it LOOKS like an ear, but it’s made from cow cartilage, grown from cartilage seeds. And it is part of me, I suppose. But it’s mostly cow. Most mice would reject such things. Their immune systems would kill it or kill them. But they engineered me so that I wouldn’t reject the ear, and so I’d be the hairless beauty I am today. There’s nothing human about that ear except for the way it looks. And there’s nothing truly extraordinary about the ear. What’s extraordinary is context.

W: It’s small. Like a child’s ear.

E: It’s bigger than the ear on your back.

W: OK, how about if we talk about something else? What can you tell me about Dr. Vacanti?

E: The gas passer?

W: Excuse me?

E: He’s an anesthesiologist. It was a joke. Gas passer? Like in MASH? The movie? Do you even know who Robert Altman is? Or Jim Jarmusch. And that new kid, Wes Andersen. I like what he’s doing with film. LOVED Magnolia.

W: MASH was a movie? Did it have Klinger in it? I like Klinger.

E: Oh, never mind. I don’t know why I bother to try and have these intellectual discussions with people. Most of you are pretty dense, you know.

I stopped taking notes for a moment and reminded myself that I was talking to a mouse. A mouse with an ear on his back.

W: So you’re . . . uh . . . pretty bitter about having that ear on your back, huh?

E: Do I sound bitter?

W: Yeah, actually you do. Kind of jaded. Like one of those pop stars who nobody really cares about until she goes on some kind of celebrity rehab or dancing show, or gains a bunch of weight, shaves her head and runs off with a paparazzi photographer.

E: You’re probably right. I’m sorry. Really, I am. It’s just that I don’t get to talk to people much these days. Reporters and photographers don’t come around so much. Not that I really ever wanted them around. Not me. I mean, some of them were nice. Some of them actually wanted to know about things besides the ear. A lot of them wanted to feel it. Only a couple asked things like whether it bothered me when I slept. One of them, this real pretty young reporter from the AP, she actually asked Vacanti if he’d tried putting me in with other mice. She wondered how they would treat me. Now, that’s a good question?

W: What did he say?

E: He said, “No. Never tried it. Not in the parameters of the project,” or something like that, and just ignored her. I was scurrying around in the cage, rising up on my back feet, nose twitching at the glass, looking all cute and hairless, just to try and get him to listen to her. But he was too busy talking about the project and himself.

W: Well, I guess I was actually wondering what sort of relationship you have with Vacanti. I’ve seen pictures with you crawling around on his arm. It seems the two of you were pretty close.

E: Yes, it would seem that way wouldn’t it? I mean, after all I’ve done for him, you’d think we would be closer, that I’d be like a pet or something, that maybe he’d take me home, away from this lab, back to his house, away from all the prying eyes and maybe he’d let ride around in his pocket or sit on his shoulder while he reads the paper. Those are all things you might think would happen. But they haven’t. What can I say except that we don’t have much of a relationship at all? I haven’t heard from him in weeks, to be honest. Linda doesn’t speak to him much, either. He’s withdrawn a bit, I think. What now? So you can grow and ear on a mouse? So what? The last time he came into the lab, he was dragging all these reporters and cameras and strangers behind him like a dust cloud . . . Hey! What are you doing? Stop that! Don’t touch me!

W: I just want to see what it feels like.

E: Oh, for God’s sake . . . All right. Go ahead. Run your finger around the hard anti-helical ridges. Feel the cartilage. That’s the best part. Very real, don’t you think? Pretty impressive work, really. And my skin is always supple and soft as the underbelly on your arm. Go ahead. Wiggle your finger in there. Softly, please. Be gentle. Tug on the lobule a bit.

W: Thanks. I was curious. It feels soft. Not that different, really, from a human ear.

E: Yeah. I know. Everyone is curious. An artist used me in her work recently, or at least a model of me. Patricia Piccinini. That was her name. She posed naked women with me and my ear. Or really a model of me. Or some kind of digitized version of me. It’s not like Vacanti would actually let me out so I could go run around on naked women. But Piccinini made me all fat and grotesque, almost like a street rat. And the ear is flat as a pancake, not like my ear at all. And there’s like hundreds of me. It’s creepy.

W: Naked women? Seriously.

E: Is that a question? Are you even a reporter? I mean, why would I lie about something like that? Don’t you think she’s trying to make a statement about humanity or something? She’s making some commentary about body image and objectification of women, I think. Or something about science and freakishness. I’m not really sure, to be honest. But it’s undeniably compelling. I mean, you just can’t look away.Image

W: Interesting the way people seem to objectify you, to see you as some kind of human-animal amalgam. They even seem to fetishize you, the rat, the other, the marginalized creature burdened with this human appendage, as if you’re a side-show.

E: Oh, you don’t even know the half of it. One woman who visited the lab, she wanted to nibble on my ear.

W: That’s disgusting.

E: Is it? Don’t you nibble on your girlfriend’s ear?

W: Well, sure. But that’s different.

E: Is it, really? I mean, I know it’s just an ear. Or something that looks like an ear. And I don’t know if it would be better or worse for everyone if it wasn’t attached to a mouse, like if it was growing in a Petrie dish or something, maybe sprouting from a lily pad or clinging to the side of a glass jar like a shellfish. Maybe that would be better. But there’s something frightening in what’s been done to me—something funny and tragic. Perhaps it’s the slippery slope of this image, this picture of a mouse with an ear growing out of it’s back, and the fear is only partially related to the odd wonder of humans making their own parts and attaching them to a mouse, and instead more connected to how the singular instance of manufactured appendages suggests an image of the many and, before you know it, your imagination conjures up cages filled with ear-mice, thousands of hairless skittering surrogates growing new ears or noses or penises, or even aquariums of salty uterine brine tiled with ear-mussels, their lobes waggling in the artificial currents, fake rocks crusted with nose-coral, and the glass floor studded with the cartilage seeds of sprouting dicks.

W: I’m sorry. Can you repeat that? I wasn’t listening.

E: Very funny.

W: No, seriously. I think my recorder ran out of batteries. I missed that whole thing. Can you say it, again? I’ll take notes. Whatever it was, it sounded incredible. I’m listening.

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