When Dr. Paulson Kurtz clones the mammoth Sukari, the whole world gushes. Blog posts, interviews, TV spots, websites, opinion pieces, essays, tweets, and podcasts, the message is always the same: everyone’s enchanted, everyone’s in love. YouTube viewers thrill to her image: Sukari chases a big red ball; Sukari bathes in a plastic pool; Sukari sucks from a bottle, held by a comely grad student. Everyone agrees that her name, taken from the Inuit word for “sweet,” suits her perfectly. Her golden eyes, her shaggy fur, her obvious intelligence make her as popular with adults as she is with children. Sukari mouse pads, Sukari iPhone skins, even Sukari backpacks pop up at fine retail stores everywhere.
The most popular video online is one of Sukari learning to grab a tuft of grass with her trunk. Kurtz shows this clip over and over on talk shows and it is played again and again online. In it, Sukari gambols in a field, adorable and furry. She grabs for the grass, but aims a little too high. She tries again, but dips a little too low. Finally, she curves her tiny trunk around a tuft and pulls. Success! She rocks back, carefully attempting to propel the blades to her mouth. The trunk advances … her mouth opens… but darn it! She hits her cheek instead. So funny! She’s such a star! How can you not fall in love with Sukari?
Of course, everyone also asks, over and over, if she’s lonely. She’s the only one of her kind in the world. Doesn’t a baby mammoth miss her herd?
Dr. Kurtz’s answer is always the same. He says, “Quarantine is necessary, for Sukari’s safety. But she doesn’t know she’s alone. How can she miss a herd that she’s never even seen?”
School children write Kurtz letters, asking for a mammoth of their own. Jesus freaks write too, and condemn him for a heretic. Women send him naked pictures. Meanwhile, corporate investors publicize the construction of a five thousand acre compound in the Pribilof Islands, off the coast of Alaska. The acreage will be for Kurtz’s exclusive use. Everyone waits breathlessly for a whole herd of mammoths to manifest.
On her second birthday, Kurtz releases another Sukari video. In it, bearded and tanned, he kneels under a perfect blue sky. The summer green grass of the Pribilofs ripples around him. Sukari’s trunk, hairy and pliable, explores his wrist and then his forearm. She seems to be laughing as she tickles his shoulder, his neck, all the way up to his face. She gently pats his cheeks, his lips. She seems to be saying, “I love you. I love you.” Kurtz strokes her head, rubs her neck. Sukari closes her eyes.
“You’re very fond of her,” an interviewer prompts, after being thoroughly charmed by the video.
Kurtz clears his throat. “It’s more accurate to speak of attachment,” he says, “which is a biological imperative, as opposed to a poetic construct. Baby mammals behave in a way that releases hormones in their caregivers. These hormones cause pleasant sensations, and insure they will continue to be cared for. What Sukari and I feel for one another is merely attachment. But we both enjoy it.”
On Sukari’s third birthday, Kurtz does not release a video. No more extinct mammals have appeared in the Pribilof compound. Reporters inquire about Sukari’s welfare, about the future of the mammoth-cloning project. But Kurtz does not reply.
A Twitter account surfaces, one purporting to be from Sukari’s handlers. It says there’s a problem with her internal organs. A subsequent grim picture is painted in a series of 145 character reports. Sukari is in pain. Kurtz is keeping her alive anyway. Kurtz is Mengele. Sukari is a victim. Hash tag SaveSukari rises to the top of Twittering Trends, even though the account disappears, just as mysteriously as it began.
Public outcry intensifies. People demand a statement from Kurtz. The President receives a flood of outraged e-mails, begging for an intervention. Finally, a White House press spokesmen, balding and beleaguered, emerges from the West Wing to wearily explain that, though the President cares deeply about Sukari, the White House has no jurisdiction over extinct animals, especially ones manufactured in a laboratory.
In retaliation, several Congressional critics of the President attempt to draft bills to save extinct mammals. But since such legislation would also encompass the protection of certain endangered species, and possibly infringe on key oil and timber company holdings, the bills die before reaching the floor.
Meanwhile, a lone woman raises half a million dollars on GoFundMe, and pilots a boat to the Pribilofs. She braves perilous Arctic seas, only to have armed guards turn her away when she tries to dock at the compound. Undaunted, she sets up a streaming cam from a distance, on the mast of her ship. Fuzzy images transmit along with breathless narration. “Someone walked across the compound. I think it’s Dr. Kurtz.” “I saw a tractor.” “I’m sure that truck is carrying Sukari.” “There goes another person on the dock.”
A colleague from Texas A & M University attempts to defend Kurtz. “Cloned animals usually don’t have long life spans,” she explains in an online piece. “Especially if they are cloned from elderly animals. And health problems are not uncommon either.” She goes on to say, “But whether or not Sukari lives, whether or not Dr. Kurtz is able to repeat his success, the cloning procedure is a great leap forward for science, and for the preservation of endangered species. There is hope for the black-footed ferret. We can bring back the Balinese Tiger. We mustn’t lose track of what Kurtz’s achievement means to the future of science.”
The subsequent deluge of hate mail, sends her into a suicidal depression. Missives such as, “If I were a Balinese tiger I’d eat your fucking heart out, you bitch,” appear daily in her e-mail inbox.
Nothing is said of the messages Kurtz receives. But lab techs and grad assistants flee the Pribilof compound. Corporations withdraw their sponsorship. Association with Sukari is bad for public relations. Also, the mammoth industry has proved not to be as profitable as anticipated, although Toy Directory Online reports stuffed animal mammoths are still a very popular item in stores.
The last videos of Sukari appear to be from a crib cam. They are clearly pirated and transmit on an anonymous website, grainy and rippling, through an untraceable address in the Philippines. In the videos, Sukari lies in a lab, chained to a pallet. Tubes feed her intravenously. Sometimes her eyes open and close. She paddles her chunky limbs. She tries to raise her head. Latex coated hands administer sedatives. A faceless tech combs and washes her fur.
At one point, Kurtz steps into view. His beard is shot with gray. He looks pouchy and depleted. He stands by Sukari. She pats his arm weakly with her trunk. He scratches her head. He rubs her neck. She closes her eyes.
But in much of the footage, Sukari is alone. While she sleeps, the skin around her cheekbones flutters. A zoologist postulates that she hums to herself then, as elephants do, in a frequency too low for human ears to hear. Sukari hums like an elephant, and the earth beneath the lab vibrates in tandem. Her transmissions can be heard over long distances. The message will always be the same. “I am here,” it says, “I am here. I am here. Are you there? I am here. Please, come back to me.”