Star in sheep's clothing Clone: At last, science offers animals a chance to break from the herd. But loserdom may be dyed in the wool.

March 01, 1997|By Charles Salter Jr. | Charles Salter Jr.,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It was an important week for science, but when all is said and done, a bigger week for sheep.

All of a sudden, sheep are everywhere -- on radio, TV and the front page. Dolly, the first higher mammal clone, has become an instant celebrity, a shoo-in for Ricki Lake and "Nightline," and perhaps the cover of Newsweek.

Maybe Dolly will become the next hot name instead of Chelsea. Maybe Dolly will land a role as Ross' pet sheep on "Friends," or a potato chip ad campaign with supermodels.

Anything could happen. Is it mere coincidence that today, March came in like a lamb?

Before, it was other animals that got the attention, other animals that contributed to science. A pig's liver or a baboon's heart can save someone's life. Monkeys and rats are the key to researchers learning more about countless diseases, and mice are used to test new drugs. But not a peep about sheep.

Cloning changed that. The silence of the lambs has been broken.

The muttonheads finally made history. For once, they led instead of followed. Now this extraordinary experiment could raise their stock, and boy, do they need it.

Sheep are about the only creatures on Earth with more image problems than O.J. Simpson. They're meek, timid and stupid. The dictionary says so.

You know anyone who wants to be seen as sheepish? Other animals are more charismatic, heroic and clever. We grew up watching Lassie rescue Timmy from a burning barn, Flipper save Bud from drowning, and Mr. Ed get the last laugh on Wilbur. Now we see Eddie outsmarting Frasier, Murray upstaging Paul and Jamie and a pig named "Babe" going to the Oscars.

Consider this: The best known sheep around isn't even a real sheep. It's a hand puppet. A has-been. A leftover.

In 1993, Larry King interviewed Lambchop, Shari Lewis' sidekick since the 1950s.

Lambchop: Where do generals keep their armies?

King: I don't know. Where do generals keep their armies?

Lambchop: Up their sleevies!

When it comes to brains, sheep are definitely batting ninth. They're docile, simple and gullible. Turn on the Cartoon Network. After all these years, they still fall for the old wolf-in-sheep's-clothing trick.

Seems the joke's always on sheep. Take Nancy Shaw's series of children's books, like "Sheep in a Jeep." The sheep are always lovable losers. They accidentally pour pepper on their dessert and practically sneeze a restaurant to pieces. They fall asleep sailing and get shipwrecked. They lose their compass on a hike and do what sheep do best: Get lost.

Gary Larson constantly skewered them in "The Far Side." In one cartoon, they even fell for a wolf in tacky clothing. Another panel showed a particularly enlightened sheep bravely standing up and telling the flock, "Wait! Wait! Listen to me! ... We don't HAVE to be just sheep!" Of course, sheep being sheep, wouldn't get the joke.

It's the old herd mentality. Sheep just seem to need a shepherd or a sheep dog to tell them where to go and what to do. Sheep don't ask questions. They don't have that much initiative or curiosity. They're just along for the ride.

In "Babe," a sheep dog explains to the little pig that, "Sheep are stupid. Sheep are inferior." They can't save themselves from sheep thieves. Babe has to. Turns out, the sheep are a secret society, with their own password and mantra: "Baa-ram-ewe. To your breed, your fleece, your clan be true. Sheep be true." But it turns out sheep aren't good at keeping secrets, either. Babe learns the mantra, the flock does whatever he asks, and the national sheep herding title is in the bag.

No matter how hard they try, sheep can't win. The St. Louis Rams? An embarrassment. They finished 6-10 last season while the Carolina Panthers and the Jacksonville Jaguars advanced to the playoffs.

Sheep, of course, do have one thing going for them: their looks. They look like waddling marshmallows -- oblong, puffy clouds with legs. They make cuddly stuffed animals, cute pot holders and soft, warm sweaters. Kids love sheep.

But looks don't last. After a good shearing, they look as naked as new recruits.

So now sheep have cutting-edge cloning going for them. But is it really going to help their image?

Will Dolly be seen as a genetic wonder representing all the possibilities of gene therapy, or some kind of Frankenstein-like freak of nature, a walking bioethical debate? And what was the sheep's role in the cloning anyway? Were they bravely helping to advance science, or simply going along, ever the sacrificial lamb?

Sheep don't need this kind of ambiguity. They have enough problems already. They need something simple and heroic:

"Sheep's eyes restore National Geographic photographer's vision!"

"Sheep experimentation cures common cold!"

Better yet, they need to get the better of some brainy pig or dolphin for a change. Or at least get Lambchop some new material.

Pub Date: 3/01/97

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