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My life with a wolf

by Helen Pilcher

Humans have genetically altered animals throughout our existence. We are pretty bad at thinking through the consequences.

Fresh cow dung, a strand of Elvis Presley's hair, Nicholas Cage pillowcases? They say you can buy almost anything on the internet so when my husband and I saw an advert for a real, live, genetically modified wolf, curiosity got the better of us. We transferred an outrageous wodge of moolah, strapped the kids into the car, and set off to retrieve this apparent lupine freak.

Fast-forward eight years, and the furry anomaly is all grown up. We trust him so much that he lives in our house, sleeps on our bed and plays with the children. Higgs, as we call him, is an odd-looking wolf. His DNA has been altered to make him less than half the size of his free-roaming relatives. His skull is smaller, his snout more rounded and his ears flop down rather than standing proud. The classic grey pelt has been replaced with what can only be described as an embarrassment of soft, scruffy curls. He is black all over, except for his nose, and his belly, tail and feet, which are white - or brown when he's been burying chews in the garden.

If a regular wolf were to stop by and check him out (wolves can be cunning, so you never know), I think she would be disappointed. Higgs barks at bin bags and refuses to go out in the rain. Let me explain. I am not the only person to own a genetically modified wolf. Millions of people have similar pets but know them by another name. They are, of course, dogs.

All modern dogs are descendants of the grey wolf. Their journey out of the wild began around 35,000 years ago when our ancestors earmarked them for great things, such as snarling at strangers and guarding their settlements. Wolves hung out with people, and people hung out with wolves and, across the millennia that ensued, little by little, under the influence of those interactions, the wolf began to change. It changed physically, behaviourally and genetically. Today, although wolves and dogs still share around 99.5 percent of their DNA, the small part of their genetic code that is not the same is enough to imbue them with all their vastly different features. Dogs and wolves are related, both being members of the Canis genus - the former Canis familiaris, the latter Canis lupus - and so dogs are, by definition, 'genetically altered' or 'genetically modified' wolves.

The story of our relationship with the wolf is significant because it was the first time that our species, Homo sapiens, took one species and began to mould it into something we liked better. As we domesticated the wolf and slowly created the dog, we nudged evolution along a different trajectory. Natural selection, as outlined by Darwin, and as applied to all life on Earth up to that point, began to be railroaded by the activity of one species, Homo sapiens.

We domesticated other animals; plants, too. Then, a few hundred years ago, we started to pair key individuals together in a process of selective breeding, eventually generating many thousands of different domestic breeds. Mating was no longer left to the animals. With human matchmakers at the helm, it became driven by the whims and desires of people. We began not simply to push evolution in a different direction, but deliberately to mould it, enhancing key features of value to us, such as body proportions, muscle mass and temperament.

Around 25 years ago, we developed the ability to clone mammals and this, too, has become a tool of selective breeding. Valuable breeding bulls, for example, are sometimes cloned so that their genes can live on in perpetuity. Yet more recently, scientists have acquired the ability to directly alter the DNA of living things, in the form of a technology called CRISPR-Cas9. Welcome to the era of 'genetic surgery'. Now genes can be added in, excised, or amended at will, enabling us to further refine the organisms that we create.

The result is an eclectic and sometimes bizarre menagerie of new and 'improved' creations. Animals have been altered for pragmatic purposes. Holstein cows, for example, pump out four times more milk than they did 50 years ago - a staggering 40 pints per day. Modern pigs are longer and meatier than their wild boar ancestors; chickens, which used to lay only a couple of clutches per year, have been selectively bred to lay eggs all year round. 
Scientists have tweaked the DNA of mammals, fish and fruit flies to make animal models of disease, raising hopes for the development of new therapies for devastating disorders. And in a process known as 'pharming', some farm animals are being genetically modified to produce medicines. There are goats that produce anticoagulant proteins in their milk, and chickens that make anti-cancer drugs in their egg whites.

We've also, through various interventions, modified the way that animals look and behave. Hairless cats can be purchased, as can long-haired rabbits and pooches so petite that they can fit inside a handbag. We've created fluorescent tropical fish with added jellyfish genes, and canaries in every hue of the rainbow. There are hunting dogs, guide dogs and bomb-detection dogs. We have bred 'fainting goats' that go stiff as a board and fall over when they are spooked, and created Birmingham roller pigeons, which fly to great heights and then fall out of the sky in a series of backward somersaults.

We now find ourselves in a complicated relationship with the creatures we have forged. On the one hand, we enjoy their company and rely on the products and services they provide. On the other, we have a nasty habit of taking them for granted. We have acquired a tendency to modify animals for our benefit, rather than theirs, and to turn a blind eye to the suffering that can sometimes ensue.

Pigeon fanciers fashioned the Birmingham roller because they enjoyed watching its quirky behaviour, but they didn't think it through: roller pigeons don't always make the perfect landing. Some hit the ground while others are picked out of the air by raptors. Modern broiler chickens may be meaty but can struggle to stand. Dairy cows may produce enormous quantities of milk, but they can suffer from mastitis. We welcome into our homes pet breeds with congenital health problems caused by selective breeding. Bulldogs, for example, suffer breathing difficulties because of their flattened faces and fleshy jowls. Dachshunds are prone to spinal problems because of their altered body proportions, whilst the bulging eyes of pugs sometimes pop from their sockets because their skulls cannot contain them. Breeders have exaggerated benign features and made them pathological. Dog owners have bought into this.

Of course, I recognise that there are many healthy pets and farm beasts and laboratory animals, and yet - the examples I share are just the tip of an iceberg of centuries of short-sighted decision-making. We operate at the antithesis of natural selection, according to which useful features persist over time, while harmful ones die out. In recent times, it has become commonplace to engineer species with characteristics so indulgent to us that they fail to benefit the recipient. These features are at best neutral, at worst debilitating. All too often, we prioritise our own needs and, worse, our fancies, over the welfare of those species supposedly in our care. This is neither a kind nor sustainable attitude.

There are now three times as many chickens as there are people, making these feathery creatures the most numerous bird on the planet, outnumbering the most common wild-bird species, the sparrow-sized red-billed quelea of sub-Saharan Africa, by 14 to one. If someone were to round up and weigh all of the large, land-living mammals that exist (a daunting prospect, admittedly), they'd find that 96 percent of this biomass is made up of livestock and humans, while just four percent is wild. Humans and our domesticated protegees have taken over the world.

All these domestic creations are products of intentional design - and, as our global dominance reaches new heights, this influence has come to extend far beyond these engineered creations. As we raze wild spaces in order to house and feed our domestic livestock; as we pollute our oceans, warm our world, and radically alter the biosphere, we now influence the evolution of all living things, near and far. Hunting, for example, is causing elephants to evolve smaller tusks. Pollution is driving the emergence of toxin-resistant fish. British great tits are evolving longer beaks because it helps them snaffle peanuts from bird feeders, Nebraskan cliff swallows are evolving smaller wings because it helps them dodge the traffic near their roadside nests. White-footed mice in New York have evolved the ability to digest pizza.

Meanwhile, those species unable to keep up with the pace of environmental change face an uncertain future. Studies show that extinction rates are currently 1,000 times higher than during pre-human times, exposing the uncomfortable truth that all this is our doing. Homo sapiens is not just influencing life on Earth. Our species is influencing death on Earth too.

It's hard for us to grasp the magnitude of the transformation that is being caused by our changing relationship with the natural world. This is partly because so much of it is remote - out of sight, out of mind - and partly because many species disappear quietly, without fanfare or formal identification. We have developed a generational blindness to long-term change. Known as 'shifting baseline syndrome', this means we compare the state of our current world to the only baseline that we know, which is how the world used to be when we were children. What we fail to grasp is that species were already in decline back then. We have no idea that the default setting for most ecosystems is one of abundance, chock-full of wildlife; a cocktail of interacting elements that we need, to provide us with clean air, fresh water, food and all the other elements required to keep our planet habitable and our species alive.

As humans became more dependent on domestic animals and less reliant on wild ones, I think a dichotomy began to arise between ourselves and the rest of the animal kingdom. Domestic creatures became commodities that could be variously ignored, plundered and pushed around. In Victorian times, people thought that they were superior to the brutish, ungodly creatures of the natural world and the mindset persists to this day, continuing to fuel our neglect of both domestic and wild animals. It's a convenient view that makes it easier for us to ignore the harmful extremes of selective breeding and to treat the natural world as a resource that can be raided with impunity.

When conservation first emerged as a discipline around 150 years ago, it marked a fundamental shift in human attitudes: the first time that people began to systematically prioritise and protect non-human species. We began to think about the value of nature and the needs of wildlife. That approach was a breath of fresh air - and yet, here we are, over a century later, still riding roughshod over our animal kin. So many people think that they're somehow separate from the natural world when, in reality, all living things are just twigs on the same tangled evolutionary tree. We breathe the same air and we share the same planet. The natural world is vital to our existence, and yet, because of our actions, it finds itself in danger.

Domestic species have been the focus of our attention for so long, but now domestic and wild species are deserving of our compassion and care. Like it or not, we have become curators of this planet that we have come to dominate. It's our planet and our responsibility. Life is always changing, but with humans at the helm - guided by science and the need to protect the only planet we have to live on - I really believe that we can help life to change for the better.

Helen Pilcher

Dr Helen Pilcher is a tea-drinking, biscuit-nibbling author and presenter. Her most recent book, Life changing - How humans are altering life on Earth, was shortlisted for the 2020 Wainwright Prize for Writing on Global Conservation. She has the love of a dog called Higgs, and the tolerance of a cat called Tilly.

Penny Hawkins

Head of Animals in Science

Gene editing technologies could have a huge impact on farm animals. Research is ongoing to use these techniques to increase productivity, create disease resistance, and solve 'welfare' problems. This might sound positive, but creating gene edited lines involves harmful procedures and many animals' lives are wasted - even using so-called 'precision' techniques like CRISPR-Cas. The long-term effects on welfare of directly editing animals' DNA are also far from certain.

We believe that better farm animal husbandry and care, and human behaviour change, should be given much higher priority instead. For example, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 12 per cent of annual global meat production is lost or wasted. Reducing this would be much better than pushing farm animals ever closer to (or beyond) their physiological limits. Gene-edited hornless cattle are often held up as an example of a welfare benefit, as they do not have to undergo painful dehorning, but it is possible to co-house cattle with horns. This is more expensive, which means that the ultimate reasons for creating hornless cattle are economic, not welfare-related.

Despite the potential alternative solutions, we fear that gene editing farm animals is edging closer to reality. The UK Government's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs launched a consultation last year, asking whether gene editing could be redefined, and regulations around its use could be relaxed. The RSPCA submitted a comprehensive, evidence-based response, setting out the animal welfare risks and ethical implications - plus the risks to consumer choice. We backed this with our 'Stop the Splice' campaign, encouraging people to contact their MP with their concerns.

It was deeply disappointing to see a 'Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill' included in the Queen's Speech, which aims to simplify regulations around gene edited farm animals. We will continue to push back against gene editing, and to speak out for farm animals and those who care about them.