Let’s get this out of the way, because we know what you’re thinking: no, a ‘Frozen Zootopia’ isn’t a new, encompassing Disney film that mashes up the company’s latest animated hits. It’s simply the title of a blog post that’s trying too hard, and an unfunny segue into the real, unanimated story: The Frozen Zoo.
The Frozen Zoo could be the most bio-diverse sanctuary on our planet. Dr. Kurt Bernischke created the animal house – The Center for the Reproduction of Endangered Species – back in the mid 70’s with a very Jurassic Park-ish objective. His idea was to develop a space where they could freeze cells of mammals, applying molecular genetics to save endangered species.
It’s important to note that the ethical concerns that weigh down cloning these days was non-existent.
And despite newfound cloning controversies, Dr. Bernischke’s vision lives on. Today, his zoo harbours over 10,000 stem cells of over 1,000 species, the majority being endangered. They even house the elusive ‘po-ouli’, a bird that’s considered ‘extinct’.
It’s arguably the most interesting zoo in the world, despite the fact it has no visitors or animals. …maybe Bernischke’s using the term ‘zoo’ a little too lightly.
YOU THINK THAT MOSQUITOES, MONKEYS, AND LIONS ARE BAD?
Dr. Oliver Ryder is a molecular biologist who’s been working at the Frozen Zoo since its inception. He’s now running the genetics department, with his belief in the zoo unwavering. He feels conservation research is all about studying animals in their natural habitat; or, an effective, non-intrusive approach in preserving biodiversity.
But aren’t these man-made zoos unnatural habitats?
You’d think the elephant in the room would be the cloning of animals, but its their reinsertion into the wildlife that’s virtually impossible. For any chance of survival, an animal ‘created’ from a cell preserved at the Frozen Zoo would need a long acclimation process in a real habitat first.
Cheetahs are a prime example. Forever alone in the wild, the additional stress of living with others in a zoo setting raises their cortisol levels. This hampers their ovarian functions, making reproduction in captivity much more difficult. Studying cheetahs in the wild in the first place, however, was how biologists came across this problem initially.
So, these endangered animals can’t be put back into their natural environment, while being poor case studies, seeing as they reside in a man-made zoo.
Then…what’s the point? Why bring these animals back to life if they’re to remain confined in a zoo, rather than reinserting them into the environment to boost endangered populations?
“The cells preserved at the Frozen Zoo are remote and distant, and not connected at all to the ecosystem. All it is, is the essence. But cells are life, and one of the questions is, what can we do with it?” says Dr. Ryder.
WHAT CAN THEY DO WITH IT?
There are two potential answers to Dr. Ryder’s riddle.
The first would be an idea called Endangered Species 2.0., a term coined by Carrie Friese in her book Cloning Wild Life. Essentially, these new-age animals wouldn’t need to adjust to their classic environments – they’d be tailor-made for today’s surroundings, and how humankind has transformed the planet.
The second – and more plausible – idea would be to simply preserve each animal’s genetic heritage, as is, in a nod to Mark Twain: nature prevails over society.
Of course, the Frozen Zoo has the upsides you might expect from storing cell lines, gametes, and embryos of wildlife: it’s an invaluable resource for conservation, assisted reproduction, evolutionary biology, and wildlife medicine. The zoo is currently working in collaboration with The Scripps Research Institute in an effort to rescue the near-extinct northern white rhino.
MORE CLONES, MORE CONTROVERSY
Despite the upsides of a visitor-less zoo that looks like a boring academic building, this type of stem cell research is never without its naysayers.
One area of trepidation the Frozen Zoo always hears is who’s responsible for deciding which species get cloned, and which don’t? While one scientist may be all for mass-producing tigers for gastronomy purposes, another scientist may feel their stem cell technology should focus on eliminating the mosquito problem in Hawaii.
Even though Dr. Bernischke’s Frozen Zootopia isn’t as glamorous or large-scale as the nearby San Diego Zoo, having 10,000 animal species and sub-species located entirely in a fridge-sized steel tank is pretty neat in its own right.
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