Sunday, March 27, 2022

Pet Joy and Grief: A Hamster Story

Picture of a long-haired white hamster with piece of pastry
In February 2020, we got our first hamster at the behest and insistence of my son. I had no reason not to oblige as he was well-behaved and was doing relatively well at school. He had always wanted a dog but that was - and is still - not possible at this point and stage, so we ended up choosing the "lesser evil" in the guise of a rodent. We went to the nearest pet store to look at the options available and a small albino Syrian long-haired hamster caught our immediate eye and attention.

Both my wife and my son quickly claimed him, but there was a brief tense moment: we had “seen” him first, and a few children came afterward with some curious glances steered in the direction of this same hamster. In my nonchalance and observant state of slight detachment, I found the situation rather amusing; at that instant and instance, it did not matter which hamster was chosen as long we returned home with one in the bag, figuratively speaking, of course, and rest assured, it was actually a box.

Shortly thereafter, I filled out all the paperwork, something I found both essential and amusing because it represented a contract and a promise to take care of this small furry animal, which we, in our minds and our deeds, contract notwithstanding, had solemnly pledged to fulfill anyhow. In my life, pet care and joys had been narrowed and limited to the feline sort, so it all came as a new experience and a potential challenge as well; this realization took hold of me as we walked out of the door with a small box that contained a living, breathing, moving, and occasionally scratching little thing inside.

Then, the many adventures began. Anxious parents anxious pet owners make! I was beginning to understand how and why some childless people tended to treat their pets as delicately and gingerly as if they were indeed their offspring, their flesh and blood. There was a natural inclination to take care of these endlessly cute, sweet, and at times hopelessly fragile-seeming little beings, and where I might have been slightly critical and on bad days even somewhat cynical towards these overzealous pet owners, after my own hamster pet experience, I understood and appreciated the whole dynamic a little bit better.

Our hamster was named Mr. Floofles, and he became a bit of a YouTube celebrity! My son had named him so and started documenting his pet, and, in a certain sense, his own growth, experiences, and adventures with his iPad. Mr. Floofles soon enough became our pride and joy. We would present him to friends and family members as one of our own, and this special hamster would even take short trips in my wife’s pocket, including a couple of visits to my son’s elementary school where both hamster and his respective owner became a sensation and the talk of the town.

Although Mr. Floofles was feisty at first, soon enough he became docile and, at least, for the most part, he enjoyed the attention, the caresses, but most of all, the many delicious foods and treats that he encountered in our home. He also got various upgrades in his home, which transformed from a simple single-story cage to a multi-story luxury home that was only lacking a swimming pool. Our beloved hamster had no reason to complain.

Then the pandemic hit. Everything went topsy-turvy literally overnight, while most of our lives came to a halt and was put on hold. Our weekend trips and frequent restaurant visits got canceled indefinitely during the lockdown, while my work and my son’s school went online. In addition to teaching remotely, I was also essentially homeschooling my son. But our main solace as well as hope and comfort was this furry little guy who would always be there for us. Our bond tightened and we ended up spending much more time with him; he would nap by our side and sleep on the couch, while we were watching movies. It is not an understatement to call him an actual and active member of our household and family because he simply was, and it felt like he had always been.

As much as he adapted to us, we did the same regarding him. We discovered, paid attention to, and tuned in with his likes and dislikes, his wishes, and desires. If there was a Zoom chat or meeting, he was never too far off, and he would sniff the camera up-close to figure out the other person talking to him via the screen. Apart from his YouTube videos and social media, he also showed up at other spots and places, including the UBC psychology website! Our life was fully enmeshed with him, and he made the arduous pandemic somewhat more endurable.

One night as I went to the washroom, I noted a small white balloon slowly and mysteriously floating towards me on the ground. I looked more closely and realized it was not a balloon, but it was him, Mr. Floofles coming to say hi. How in the world did he get out of his cage is still a mystery to me, but he had always been an escape artist! Once he had managed to escape one morning, and we were very saddened, especially my son. We thought he would not return but then late in the evening he came back and was heading in the direction of his cage as if nothing had happened; my son grabbed him, held him tight, showered him with many kisses, and cried tears of joy.

After those instances, we knew that if he wanted to escape at night, he could, and indeed he would. Instead, we decided to make it easier and safer for him. We created his own open pathway from which he could freely descend and ascend any time he wanted. Incidentally, he would roam about almost every night after that. Most of the time, he would replace his hamster wheel with a hearty and prolonged run in the kitchen area. He would run counter-clockwise various times. If I saw him, he would briefly greet and sniff at me and continue his obsessive-like exercise.

Then, he got into visiting us in our bedroom at night. There would be no use in shutting the door as he would be able to crawl from underneath the door space. Soon enough, he would find a way to crawl up our bed. It would take him sometimes many attempts, but he would make it eventually. This hamster taught me so much about resiliency, to keep trying, and never giving up. On various nights, I would open my eyes with him just patiently staring at me. It was surprising but never creepy; despite the wee hours, I never bothered or minded and heartily welcomed his nightly gaze and presence.

The most amazing thing of those nights was that he would never scratch nor bite us, not even accidentally. He would also do his necessities in a specific small corner of the bathroom. And every single morning, he would go back to his luxury home where we would find him cuddled up and sleeping the next morning. This went on for many nights, and it was such a joy to have such a responsible hamster in our home.

Sadly enough, he got sick. He had an acute infection, and it limited his mobility. In a matter of hours, his cheek and tongue became swollen, and he passed away in our arms. His demise affected us very deeply, deep to the core, and my son was especially devastated. It was his first significant loss and sense of grief in his young life, and even I was thoroughly saddened and shaken by this. It all happened suddenly and unexpectedly, but he had been with us for about two years and had essentially reached the end of his expected and designated life span. Although we were aware that he would die and we would lose him one day, it was still a very painful experience.

And I feel that pet grief is not sufficiently talked about nor addressed, whether in conversation, in programs, or on social media. We had previously lost a goldfish, but this was a very different experience altogether, especially considering the close bond and the immense love we had for our little fellow. May he rest in peace, and we still think of him months after and shall never forget him as he shall always be in our minds and hearts. It took me a while to write this, and we have just recently acquired a new hamster, but Mr. Floofles will always be and live on in our memory and this post is dedicated to him with love and affection!

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Entering Bioethical Spheres: Should Gene-Editing be off the Table?

Our current era is at a decisive and definitive threshold and crossroad vis-à-vis the DNA and gene-editing revolution. The Covid pandemic has not only accelerated this in many ways, but it has proven that these methods and techniques can be effective in creating life-saving vaccines and how this has the potential to be used in the medical field to a wider extent. But every promise and each potential pound of cure will also contain an ounce of doubt and worry, or, to put it in superhero jargon, with great power comes great responsibility.

On this issue, I was a bit on the fence because I could see how this technology, like almost anything really, could be potentially misused for nefarious schemes and purposes. Recently, the nonpartisan debate series Intelligence Squared U.S. held a live debate on the motion whether “to use gene-editing to make better babies”, and I entered and approached this debate as undecided; I was curious to find out what each side had to say on the matter in order to become clearer about where I actually stand on this issue and to make up my mind by either supporting or opposing the motion at the end of the discussion.

Let me first introduce and give a bit of background information and the main arguments of the debaters from each side of the table. On the Pro side arguing for the motion of gene-editing, we have George Church, professor of genetics, geneticist, and founder of the Personal Genome Project. He explained that gene-editing is essentially about subtracting, adding, and replacing genes. He was in favor of using and regulating it as opposed to outright banning it, which is the case and situation at this current moment.  

By incorporating and regulating the science, we would minimize potential risks. We could ensure safety standards and measures in addition to encouraging whistle-blowing to uncover and reveal any misuse and abuse. This would represent a reasonable and viable alternative to covert unregulated government use, which can be much more dangerous, unpredictable, and harmful.

However, when it comes to gene-editing, we ought to be aware of a vital distinction between its use and potential therapies. The germline gene therapy is heritable and will be passed on to other generations, while somatic gene therapy is applied only to the current person. Either case may be justified and acceptable when there are strong health consequences associated with them. For instance, at some point, we may be able to treat Alzheimer’s in a patient, but would it not be an even better idea to ensure that future generations of that person will not be afflicted by the disease? We already have screening for healthy babies, but this could make it possible on a much wider scale and panorama.

George Church’s companion on the Pro side was Amy Webb, a social scientist, futurist, and author of "The Genesis Machine". She favored an ethical and cautious approach and measure to gene editing. Her argument was that nature is “full of bugs” but that we can fix errors on its biological code. In other words, we have the power to make corrections and prevent genetic risk, and hence, reduce human suffering by making people less vulnerable to pathogens and potentially making us all more resilient in the process.

As a futurist, she is aware that the survival of our system may need and require intervention but at the same time, we would want to use a measured and pragmatic approach that does not give in to the dangers of catastrophizing or falling victim to wild speculations. Gene-editing does not automatically lead to a Gattaca-like dystopia as films tend to prey on our fears about the potential threats of this type of technology; nor should we give in to or be overwhelmed and intimidated by an overall lack of diversity and dangerous and wild depictions of Aryan babies in the future. In fact, the aim and hope are not to make designer babies but to reduce suffering and make humans healthier, more resistant, and resilient to disease and pathogens.

Let us now move over to the Against-side of the debating table. The first opponent was Marcy Darnovsky, a bioethicist and policy advocate, and executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society who claimed that gene-editing was wrong and dangerous and that it opened doors to new kinds of social injustice via the practice of embryo selection.

Marcy was more concerned about the societal consequences of reproductive gene therapy and enhancements, which could lead people to essentially order and design their own babies according to their likes and desires. Consequently, this would resemble a type of eugenics and increase the genetic haves and have-nots, while on the other side, decreasing diversity and individuality.

Finally, last but not least, we had Françoise Baylis, a philosopher of trade and author of "Altered Inheritance". She first focused on the allocation of time, money, energy, and talent that we would spend on this technology at the expense of other urging and important issues and research.

Secondly, we would be essentially playing God by taking over human evolution. We have no right to have genetically modified children and we should not tinker with human lives in this way and manner. She likened the proposed measures as “enhancements” not unlike piano lessons and cosmetic surgery.

And yet, the overall aim of science should be to build a better world for everyone and that we should be aware of our worldview as well as the kind of humans we want to have in the world. It would come down to the difference between needs and wants. We would need food and should not then ask for croissants. It is about what will help all people everywhere and should not turn into a matter of privilege or luxury.

The problem of this type of “personalized medicine” is that it would lead to privileged access of the wealthy and become their realm and domain but that the rest of the world would be left out. Finally, she agreed that we could reduce suffering but when we do so, we also rob humanity of the chance for growth that comes from dealing with pain and adversity, and again, we should not intervene in this form and fashion.

Seen and judged purely in terms of debating, I must say that Françoise was the strongest debater of them all. This should not surprise much as she is a philosopher who debates for a living and relishes and is comfortable and at ease in these types of interactions and situations. At the same time, I think that Marcy hit a populist nerve as social injustice is on the mind and conscience of practically everyone these days and clearly resonates with them. This may explain why the Against side ended up gaining significant ground but fell short of overall winning the debate as 56% ended up supporting the motion with 37% being against it, and 7% remaining undecided and not being swayed either way.

In terms of reasons and arguments, I was undecided at first and was worried about tinkering with human nature, with the fabric and characteristics that make us all who we are but was then swayed by the arguments provided by the Pro camp. There are different reasons why I agree with them.

First off, whether we like it or not, whether we embrace and welcome it or not, technology is advancing and gene-editing is becoming more and more a reality. Instead of trying to suppress something that is outside of our control, we can regulate it to ensure that it does not lead to substantial and significant misuse and abuse.

Secondly, I agree that suffering is part of human reality but there is more than enough going around, especially nowadays, and it is our task as humans to try to reduce and alleviate it to the best of our powers. Gene-editing can eliminate certain diseases for ourselves, others, as well as the generations to come. Yes, it will change us, and yes, it will be tinkering with our evolution, but it will also prevent and circumvent many health risks and diseases, and that makes it a worthwhile endeavor in my view.

You can watch the full debate here or listen to the podcast version here.