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LAWYER: What Harvey Weinstein has done is wrong. He has caused pain. I can't talk about whether there are any settlements, I can tell you that generally when there are settlements confidentiality is always a term so people can't talk about it.
ANNA MARIA TREMONTI: Well the lawyer who worked very briefly with Harvey Weinstein before resigning would not confirm the existence of confidentiality agreements, but journalists have dug up their own details and it is clear that legally binding agreements have silenced multiple allegations of sexual assault and sexual harassment for decades. And so while an increasing number of successful and prominent women in the acting world are adding their voices to the accusations against the founder of Miramax, we’re asking about the widespread use of such agreements in this scandal and elsewhere in perpetuating the very abuse they seek to redress. That's in just a moment. And then Pat Loder has been exchanging a few letters with a man she does not know, a man the rules say she cannot meet, a man who received a heart transplant the night her son died.
PAT LODER: Instantly I knew our son was gone. This was never about him living on, it was how can we find a little bit of hope for someone else in this moment of darkness?
AMT: What happens when the family of a deceased organ donor and the donor recipient want to be more forthcoming than the rules allow? In half an hour, we bring you the story of the emotional and ethical equations that follow both sides when an organ donation saves a stranger's life. And just when you thought it was safe to tread on the tundra, another scientist is planning the return of the woolly mammoth.
SCIENTIST: The woolly mammoth only died out 3,000 years ago. There were woolly mammoths when there were people building pyramids. And so woolly mammoth DNA we actually have.
AMT: The rise of the necrofauna in an hour. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti, this is The Current.
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Harvey Weinstein case: Should confidentiality agreements exist?
Guests: Alyssa Rosenberg, Elizabeth Grace, Farrah Khan
ANNA MARIA TREMONTI: Well over the course of just a few days the whispers and rumours that followed Harvey Weinstein for decades have screamed from the headlines. The powerful Hollywood producer who has been fired by the company he co-founded stands accused of sexual abuse and harassment following a bombshell report last week in The New York Times. Yesterday Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie became just the latest well-known women to put their names to allegations against Weinstein. And The New Yorker magazine published some damning and disturbing audiotape. It was recorded by model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez as part of a police sting operation as the Hollywood mogul pressured her into watching him take a shower.
AMBRA BATTILANA GUTIERREZ: I don't feel comfortable.
HARVEY WEINSTEIN: Honey, don’t have a fight with me in the hallway.
AMBRA BATTILANA GUTIERREZ: It’s not nice.
HARVEY WEINSTEIN: Please. I’m not going to do anything, I swear on my children. Please come in. On everything, I’m a famous guy.
AMBRA BATTILANA GUTIERREZ: I’m feeling very uncomfortable right now.
HARVEY WEINSTEIN: Please come in now. And one minute, and if you want to leave when the guy comes with my jacket you can go.
AMBRA BATTILANA GUTIERREZ: Why yesterday you touched my breast?
HARVEY WEINSTEIN: Please, I’m sorry, just come on I’m used to that.
AMBRA BATTILANA GUTIERREZ: You’re used to that?
HARVEY WEINSTEIN: Yes, come in.
AMBRA BATTILANA GUTIERREZ: No, but I’m not used to that.
HARVEY WEINSTEIN: I won’t do it again. Come on, I promise you I won’t do anything.
AMBRA BATTILANA GUTIERREZ: I know, but yesterday was too much for me.
HARVEY WEINSTEIN: The guy is coming. I will never do another thing to you. Five minutes. Don’t ruin your friendship with me for five minutes.
AMBRA BATTILANA GUTIERREZ: I know, but it’s kind of like, it’s too much for me I can’t.
HARVEY WEINSTEIN: Please, you’re making a big scene here. Please.
AMBRA BATTILANA GUTIERREZ: No, but I want to leave.
HARVEY WEINSTEIN: OK. Goodbye. Thank you.
AMT: Well according to The New Yorker Harvey Weinstein never did face charges as a result of that sting. Eventually Ms. Battilana Gutierrez signed a nondisclosure agreement agreeing not to talk about the incident in return for a payment. It appears she was not alone amongst Mr. Weinstein's alleged victims. Some appear to have had their silence bought with nondisclosure and confidentiality agreements. And many onlookers in the industry chose to remain silent, reluctant to challenge such a powerful man. Today we're looking at the silence and its price. My first guest is Alyssa Rosenberg. She is an opinion writer for The Washington Post and she's been following the story closely. Hello.
ALYSSA ROSENBERG: Hi. Thanks so much for having me.
AMT: Can you just tell us what have been some of the allegations that have surfaced in the last 24 hours?
ALYSSA ROSENBERG: Well, Weinstein has been accused not just of sexual harassment by a number of women now but of rape. Which obviously makes this, not that it wasn't a serious conversation already, but it certainly takes it to another level. And a number of increasingly prominent women have been coming forward to say that Weinstein sexually harassed them and essentially to corroborate the methodology that other women said that he used. So both Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie who worked with him when they were much younger and much at earlier stages in their career have said that he sexually harassed them. Paltrow says that she told her boyfriend at the time Brad Pitt who confronted Weinstein about it. And Pitt confirmed that account. So I think the number of women who have accused Weinstein is now up to 22. And I wouldn't be surprised if that number continues to rise in the coming days.
AMT: And Gwyneth Paltrow also said that Harvey Weinstein then screamed at her after Brad Pitt confronted him. And some of the women cited a fear of retaliation and speaking out huh?
ALYSSA ROSENBERG: Yes. I mean, Weinstein long before these allegations came out was known for having a violently explosive temper. So much so that that was sort of a way that he was satirized in an arc of episodes of Entourage that had a character based on him. You know, he was a big guy, he was known for getting incredibly angry. And I think people both men and women alike were often genuinely in physical fear of him, whether or not he was trying to sexually assault them.
AMT: And how did these allegations remain secret for so long?
ALYSSA ROSENBERG: Well, Weinstein had a number of settlements with these women that included very restrictive confidentiality agreements. You mentioned the settlement he had with Ms. Gutierrez, that didn't just prevent her from talking about the incident, she had to sign an affidavit that said that her allegations were untrue, that the events had never happened. And the way that nondisclosure agreements work is they are effectively contracts, right? The person who is making the settlement is purchasing the person's silence in exchange for that money. If you break confidentiality agreement you may not only have to give the money back but you may have to pay the person who you made the settlement with, money in excess of that. And it's not everyone who can afford to do that. One of the women Ronan Farrow talked to in The New Yorker said that, you know, telling the truth was more important than the money. She's also a lawyer. She's probably in a position to pay back the penalty on her confidentiality agreement if she's found in breach of it. But not everybody can pay back 100,000 dollars, 200,000 dollars and then money in excess of that. So they’re a very powerful tool.
AMT: It's interesting because it is in fact the existence of those agreements that allowed reporters to actually get a paper trail so that they could report this story.
ALYSSA ROSENBERG: Yes.
AMT: And journalists have been trying to get this story for years. We also know that there were a lot of people around Mr. Weinstein who enabled this.
ALYSSA ROSENBERG: And I think that will be the next phase of this story. Obviously his company moved to terminate him promptly. But both The New Yorker and The New York Times story suggest that Weinstein pulled in some of his younger colleagues effectively as unwilling accomplices in these schemes. He would set up meetings where it was him and a younger often female colleague to make a woman feel comfortable and then he'd clear the room and make his advances on the woman in question. And so and, you know, there was a woman who worked at The Weinstein Company who wrote a memo about this, gave it to her boss. And so I would be very curious to find out what other people at The Weinstein Company knew and when they knew it.
AMT: What happened to her?
ALYSSA ROSENBERG: I think she ended up leaving the company. I would have to look at The Times story again. She may also have been the subject of a settlement and a nondisclosure agreement. But I would have to look at the story again. There are so many of them at this point, I mean I don't mean to be flip about it, but keeping track of all of the different settlements and all of the different victims, the fact that it's difficult is a testament to just how widespread this behaviour was.
AMT: It's interesting as well Angelina Jolie said she had quietly warned people who were going to then work with this company and with Weinstein.
ALYSSA ROSENBERG: Jessica Chastain has said that she was warned by people. So there was clearly a Hollywood whisper network where some women tried to protect each other from Weinstein. But it didn't sort of bubble all the way up because he was very influential. And I think one thing that a number of industry analysts have pointed out now is that Weinstein is somewhat less powerful than he used to be. And so there may be less fear of the professional consequences of crossing him. If you're someone who didn't have a nondisclosure agreement with him there may be a little bit more room to speak now.
AMT: OK. Alyssa Rosenberg thanks for your time today.
ALYSSA ROSENBERG: Thanks for having me.
AMT: Alyssa Rosenberg, opinion writer for The Washington Post. She joined us from Washington. Well as we mentioned some of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged victims signed nondisclosure or confidentiality agreements in exchange for payment. Some US critics have questioned whether these kinds of agreements should be legal if they allow allegedly illegal behaviour to continue. Confidentiality agreements are often used in Canada, including in sexual assault and harassment cases. Our next guest says they can sometimes benefit the plaintiffs. Elizabeth Grace is a lawyer and partner at Lerners Law Firm. She focuses on civil sexual assault abuse and harassment cases representing victims. And Elizabeth Grace is with me in our Toronto studio. Hi.
ELIZABETH GRACE: Hi.
AMT: So how often are confidentiality agreements used in Canada in sexual assault or sexual harassment cases?
ELIZABETH GRACE: Well if the case is able to be settled outside of court, then I would venture a guess that they are used 99.9 per cent of the time.
AMT: And is there a difference between nondisclosure and confidentiality?
ELIZABETH GRACE: Not really no.
ELIZABETH GRACE: The old term that we used to use when they were very sweeping was a gag order.
AMT: And so what are the benefits of such agreements for the alleged victim?
ELIZABETH GRACE: Well it's all, the devil's in the detail. I think the distinction that needs to be made is a confidentiality agreement that's sweeping and prevents you from talking about what happened to you and the impact on you. Versus confidentiality about the fact that there's been a settlement and the terms of the settlement. Meaning, you know, you've settled and how much have you been paid. The former, the broad sweeping confidentiality agreement I think is problematic, highly problematic. The latter one, the narrower one can be of benefit to plaintiffs first and victims. First of all, if it allows them to get a settlement and that is part of our landscape, it's expected that you will keep the terms of settlement and the fact of settlement confidential, then that's a good thing. But I think more importantly most victims of abuse, most survivors of abuse and harassment do not want to talk about it.
AMT: Let alone put it on the public record.
ELIZABETH GRACE: Right.
ELIZABETH GRACE: And so if there is a payment, then frankly it protects them as well. They have a simple answer to nosy questions by journalists or by other people who see that maybe they have a cash, an influx of cash, that is I'm not allowed to talk about it. And it just helps them get on with their lives.
AMT: At the same time, it can be like you can't even say there was a settlement. So if someone stands accused in a company of numerous cases of sexual abuse, sexual assaults, sexual harassment, can you as a lawyer even find that out? If you've got a client who then comes to you with similar allegations?
ELIZABETH GRACE: It depends. If there were legal proceedings that were started and I'm aware of that, or I'm aware of the fact that there were other people who came forward with complaints and either the legal proceedings have been ended and there is a formal court order, which won't say why but will say the action was dismissed, usually without costs. Or we knew there were complaints and nothing has come of them, then I can generally surmise, over many years of doing this, that there's been a settlement.
AMT: Mm. And this is the other thing, a lot of people, it costs a lot of money to go to court, and then you're up against somebody in a big corporation.
ELIZABETH GRACE: Absolutely. Yes.
AMT: Is this one of the other reasons why agreements are agreed to?
ELIZABETH GRACE: Well yes, what's the alternative? And what I find, we don't see so much of anymore in Canada. When I started practicing, we saw this all the time, these sweepingly broad confidentiality agreements were being demanded by settling defendants and institutions like the churches. And there was such criticism and outcry about how oppressive that was and how fundamentally problematic it was to silence people who had been abused and mistreated. That those have really fallen by the wayside, largely not exclusively, and now we see much narrower confidentiality agreements.
AMT: Do you think that confidentiality agreements have contributed to an absence of open conversation when it comes to sexual assault in the workplace and in our culture?
ELIZABETH GRACE: Yes, I do. Because even though the terms may be quite narrow about what one can talk about after there's been a settlement, there are as your previous speaker said, punishments if you breach a confidentiality agreement, it’s a contract. Then the settling defendant can come back at you and sue you. So for many people, even though the terms might be quite narrow, there's going to be a certain reluctance to talk about what's happened for fear that somehow you might breach the confidentiality.
AMT: And you've pointed out why they can work in favour of the plaintiff, but can they also perpetuate the abuse within the culture, within the organization?
ELIZABETH GRACE: Well what's the alternative? The alternative is to force people onto court. And we know how discouraging that is and how that inhibits people from coming forward and so I think they're a necessary part of our civil court system, and in other tribunals and the like. If people are going to come forward, there needs to be a way to resolve the case short of years of emotional turmoil, incredible stress, putting your life on hold, the financial costs of going to court. Rarely rarely in anybody's interests.
ELIZABETH GRACE: So I think it's a necessary evil.
AMT: Right. And as you say, as long as they are not sweeping then it's that that's what you try to do, you try to make them less sweeping.
ELIZABETH GRACE: Absolutely. And I build in, when I'm acting for a survivor of abuse, I build an exception so that they can speak to family members, to therapists, to advisors. I try to build in mutuality so that not only can they not perhaps speak about some matters but the other side, the settling side, cannot speak ill of them. And I sometimes even try to limit the scopes. Because what I'm finding is while the big organizations and institutions don't ask for the sweeping confidentiality agreements, when it's a high profile individual that's when they ask for the more sweeping restrictions.
AMT: And we are reminded of that today in all of this. Elizabeth Grace thank you for coming in. Elizabeth Grace is a lawyer and partner at Lerners Law Firm. She focuses on civil sexual assault, abuse and harassment cases. She joined us in our Toronto studio. Let's shift our focus now from those who have accused Harvey Weinstein of abuse to the colleagues, employees, and peers in the industry who may have enabled the alleged behaviour. Farrah Khan is the sexual violence support and education manager at Ryerson University. She's also the co-chair of the Ontario Provincial roundtable on Violence Against Women. And she joins me in our Toronto studio. Hi.
FARRAH KHAN: Hi there.
AMT: I have to note that today is the International Day of the Girl. Interesting we're having this conversation today. The stories are coming out of Harvey Weinstein's elaborate system. Assistants who booked meetings, arranged hotel rooms, delivered what, the quote was delivered the talent to him and then disappeared. What do you make of the stories that surround all of these allegations?
FARRAH KHAN: That every time that sexual violence happens that it's not about just the perpetrator, it's the people that are complicit with them, that the people that collude with them, and the people that cover up. And so when we talk about sexual violence, we can only talk about the Harvey Weinsteins, we have to talk about the people that were on his board that were around him that knew about it and also supported it.
AMT: And so what are your thoughts as you watch this unravel now?
FARRAH KHAN: I'm glad that people are speaking out. I'm glad that this conversation is happening. I think what's really disheartening about it is that we know that the impact on why people didn't come forward. People keep saying well they should have come forward a long time ago, you're a young woman in a very precarious work conditions. The entertainment industry is about relationships. And if you speak out and say something, you're fearful of the retaliation that could happen, the loss of wages, and people left the industry after this. So I think about I'm so glad and so honoured and thankful to the women who did speak out. And also we've seen men also speaking out right now. We saw Terry Crews last night speak about him also experiencing sexual harassment. This cannot continue. And so we have to talk about the collusion and complicity of people around the abusers and how they allow this to happen.
AMT: You just heard Elizabeth Grace on confidentiality agreements in Canada. What's your take on the effect that those agreements have on the lives of survivors?
FARRAH KHAN: It's so challenging, because I agree with Elizabeth and the way that we can't force people to go to the court. And if you're in a situation where you want to continue in your industry or you’re fearful of working because you spoke out and said something, this might be an opportunity for you to get some closure. But what I also agree is that it does create a culture of silence. And so we have to weigh that. But I think what's important is not asking why people are signing it, but what is it about the industry that doesn't still hold those abusers to account? Because just because someone signs off and says yes I'll sign this confidentiality agreement, doesn't mean the industry around them, the people around them, the survivors, the supporters, can actually not call them out still and say you have to take these things. And not just go to sex addiction counseling because that's not what abusers need, they need to talk about the power and control that they feel like it’s OK.
AMT: This isn't about sex, this is about power isn't it?
FARRAH KHAN: Yeah.
AMT: Yeah. So is there too much responsibility placed on the victims to be the ones who have to speak out?
FARRAH KHAN: Way too much. And the fact that so many people knew, the fact that so many people participated in it. The fact that so many people were aware and didn't do something and the people around him. And you know what? Him. He should have done something because he knew what he was doing was wrong.
AMT: Well we heard that clip of that tape. That's, you know, what is it? You know, you're going to wreck a friendship for five minutes.
FARRAH KHAN: Yeah. And he’s such a good gas lighter in the way that he's making a survivor believe and pushing her to believe, and manipulating her to think oh this is a friendship, you're green to this. You're not. You are in a position of power and you're abusing your power.
AMT: So in the Canadian context what changes would you like to see to deter a culture of silence when it comes to sexual assaults?
FARRAH KHAN: Well we're seeing that. I think in Ontario we saw that with the Occupational Health and Safety Act including sexual harassment, and putting the onus on employers to investigate if they're aware of any kind of misconduct. So I think that's important. We need that across Canada. And I think we also need to hold industry more accountable when these things happen. That it can't be a whisper campaign, when we know something we actually take action. And actually have procedures in place to hold people accountable. Firing someone is not holding someone accountable. It's one thing, but we have to also say to them OK what are you going to do now? How are the people around you going to hold it so you don't do this again?
AMT: Farrah Khan thanks for coming in.
FARRAH KHAN: Thank you.
AMT: Farrah Khan, sexual violence support and education manager at Ryerson University. She's in our Toronto studio. Let us know what you think of this conversation, you can tweet us we are @TheCurrentCBC. Find us on Facebook, go to our website cbc.ca/thecurrent. The CBC News is next. And then Pat Loder of Newfoundland and Labrador would like nothing more than to meet the man who lives with her late son's donated heart. He'd like that too. But the law will not allow it. That story right after the news. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti, this is The Current on CBC Radio One, Sirius XM, online on cbc.ca/thecurrent and on your radio app.
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'This heart is working real good': Organ recipient's letter exchange with donor family
Guest: Pat Loder, Rebecca Greenberg
ANNA MARIA TREMONTI: Hello, I'm Anna Maria Tremonti and you're listening to The Current.
AMT: Still to come, human activity is believed to be causing the planet's sixth great extinction. So should we help the planet adapt by bringing extinct species back to life? The science and ethics of de-extinction is coming up in half an hour as part of our project Adaptation. But first, two strangers joined at the heart.
AMT: Pat Loder is on a quest. It began in July of 2016 when her son took his own life. Jeff was 20-years-old and had grown up in northern Newfoundland and Labrador. Here's how his mom describes him.
PAT LODER: He enjoyed the outdoors, the outdoors was his playground really. Like most children he grew up playing hockey until a concussion stopped him from doing that. But he also played, you know, soccer, he snowboarded, he snowmobiled, he loved to hunt, he loved to fish. He was friendly, he was humble, he was one of these guys that if somebody needed something it came second nature to him just to give it or offer up his parent’s services to give it.
AMT: Pat Loder talking about her son Jeff. After his death, Jeff's lungs liver and heart were donated to three people. All Pat was told about the recipients was that they were doing well. Now she wants to know more. She would like to connect with those people and if it is possible even meet with them. But the law in her province, Newfoundland and Labrador, prohibits that from happening, just as it does in most provinces. Donor families and recipients of organs are allowed to exchange letters provided they do not share their identities or identifying information. But that's as far as the relationship can go. So Pat Loder decided to put pen to paper.
PAT LODER: So we were told, you know, you might want to wait for a year to give, well obviously the recipients were in a situation where they were recovering. but also give yourself time to grieve. I ended up in St. John's, Newfoundland doing, looking, seeking grief counseling. And one day after a counseling session I just felt compelled to sit down and write to all three just to see how they were doing, you know, just to see if life was getting a little bit better for them.
AMT: What did you write?
PAT LODER: Well, I recall giving him a little bit of information about Jeff, who he was. I still kept being anonymous. You know, like I knew to follow the rules of the game I guess. And I didn't want to put any pressure on him. So what I wrote was enjoy an ordinary day, enjoy the simple things in life, you know, get out, let the sun fall on your body, smell the fresh air, the leaves rustling, because it was, you know, it was starting to get a little bit later in September. It was just the simple things. And, you know, then I wished him, you know, to get well soon and I hope their life was as complete as they needed to be. And it was it was very simple, I think it was a two page letter. So I had a get well card for each and I wrote that by hand, and it was signed donor family.
AMT: And then you get a letter back. What do you remember about the moment when you found out that one of those organ recipients had written back?
PAT LODER: Oh wow. It was on a highly emotional day. So I was in St. John's at the time and I got a call and they said Pat there’s a letter here for you. Well I got weak. I'm not telling you a word of a lie. I got weak. There was a part of me that was afraid, like it was instantly I thought of Jeff and I felt the loss. And so I got friends to take me over. It was funny, it was like a bunch of teenagers we were that excited but, you know, nervous. And the organ procurement ladies met me in the parking lot and we hugged and they passed me the letter. And I remember I just fumbled the letter around in my hands and they said, you know, you want to sit? And I said no I'm good. And so I got my friends to take me back to one of their houses. And I said OK make a cup of tea. Us Newfoundlanders we like our tea.
AMT: You haven't opened it yet, you're still holding onto it.
PAT LODER: No. Still feeling it. Rubbing it, touching it. And so we made a cup of tea and we went over on the sofa and we sat down and I opened it and I started reading it. And of course I couldn't get very far before I was crying. And so my friend, one of my friends then took it and she continued to read it. Since then I probably read it a thousand times. But yeah, it was like it was around the end of November and we were leaving to come home and Jeff's birthday was the second of December and I was like yeah. I’m sending you a present right?
AMT: A lot happening huh?
PAT LODER: Yeah. And it was funny because at the time, you know, when we read the letter I mean, you know, like anything you only have one plane of reference right? So we interpreted as this guy was a young man with four small children and, you know, Christmas was unbearable. But we celebrated it because Jeff really enjoyed Christmas and, you know, we tried to keep the things that we enjoyed as a family and stuff. But it was awful. But each of us would reach for the letter and, you know, we'd go off and read it ourselves or whatever to get through that. And to think that, you know, these four kids have their dad because of Jeff, you know, so it got you through that right?
AMT: Yeah. Each of you, your husband and your daughter as well right?
PAT LODER: Yeah, correct.
AMT: You did share that letter with us and we have recorded a reading of it. And I'd like to play it now if you're OK with that?
PAT LODER: Sure.
AMT: This is from the man who has been the recipient of your son's heart.
VOICE 1: Dear donor family, I'm glad you decided to contact me as I wanted to contact you people but I thought it might be too soon. And no, I can't imagine how you feel and what you must be going through. My wife and I have four children and I have thought what we would do if this ever happened to us. My whole family have sympathy for you and your family. I hope you can feel a little better knowing that in your way and that of your son, a part of him still lives within me and for that I'm very proud. His heart didn't have to make many adjustments, for my life and lifestyle seemed to be very similar to his life. The love of outdoors, traveling, fishing, boating, skiing and such. I'm a licensed carpenter and it sounds like he was heading in that direction also. I would love to know all about him. The big stuff, the small, his likes and dislikes, his favourite music, the car he drove, the places he traveled to. I want to know it all. We love travel also but haven't for the last five years because of my health but now can plan for a trip about a year from now once I'm back to normal. My whole family are so grateful and are forever in your debt for such a donation. Now I can stop being such a burden on my family, which by the way have never complained and stepped up to the plate when asked. There's a lot of work and preparation to this transplant stuff. For us it's three hours to a hospital, once a week at first, but now up to once a month. 114 days since the operation. I would love to hear back from you again and hopefully meet. Our door is also open. Sincerely yours, grateful recipient and family.
AMT: That's a reading of the letter that you received Pat Loder, what are you feeling?
PAT LODER: [laughs] Oh I may need a moment there Anna Maria.
AMT: You can take a moment.
PAT LODER: [breathes deeply]
AMT: Doesn't change no matter how many times you read it, to hear it again.
PAT LODER: It doesn’t. No, it doesn’t. There’s a lot of emotions. I'm probably the strongest is that we made the right choice, the feel of gratitude. You know, that our son's life gave an opportunity to others to start to live theirs. And there's also, you know, I have to be honest, I suppose I have to be real, there's also a feeling of a God this should never have happened. And I just want my boy back. But, you know, the other side of it is that I mean, they’re genuine right? Like this is stuff that the way I feel and the way, you know, you sense the way he's written and he feels, the recipient that is, we're not pretending it's real. It's true, it's humanity probably at its best. You know, we all have these walls where we don't want people to see how we hurt or how important things are or how unimportant things are. As human beings we just, you know, we think society doesn't want to see or feel that kind of stuff right?
AMT: Mhm. And yet he's reaching back out. He says I'd love to hear back from you again and hopefully meet. Our door is also open.
PAT LODER: Yeah, because I had said it in the first, to each one of the first recipients right? That our door is always open.
PAT LODER: And that's just, you know, Newfoundland culture. You know, we never lock our doors right? But totally. You know, like he will always be a part of us. All three of the recipients will always be a part of us. You know, they will always be part of our family. We will always be connected whether we are or no, you know?
AMT: So when you raise that idea of trying to meet them, did you know that the policy in Newfoundland and Labrador and most other provinces prevented such meetings?
PAT LODER: I didn't. To be honest with you, we were briefed the night we arrived in St. John's by the organ procurement staff. And to be honest with you I never heard that.
AMT: Understandably, there was a lot going on.
PAT LODER: Yeah.
AMT: You wouldn’t have heard all the detail.
PAT LODER: Yeah I didn't. And I asked my friends after, and they said oh yeah no they said that. And I'm like oh I didn't know that. I thought if we both consented we were fine. But I said it's not a big deal. It's a small world, you know.
AMT: Yeah. The recipient of Jeff's heart wrote you a second time. We’ve got the letter as well. We've had it voiced. Are you ready to hear that?
PAT LODER: [chuckles] Yeah, sure.
AMT: Yeah. OK. Here we go.
VOICE 1: Dear donor family, please accept my delay in returning your heartfelt letter to me. I did return a letter already to the hospital for you guys, but they decided my letter was way too detailed so this letter will be tamed down. I wanted to tell you guys more about my family and their loves and dislikes and accomplishments, but they won't let me. So here it goes again. This heart is working real good. I have most of my outdoor home projects done, garden planted, leaves and twigs raked and burnt, one boat in water ready to fish come opening day of bass season. Myself and oldest grandson are going. One more boat to get ready for water. Your son's interests are so similar to mine and all my sons and daughter. It's unbelievable. Four wheeling, skiing, fishing, hiking, the love of hockey, my favourite music is old country with some new and depending on mood, some Abba for old times sake. Myself and a whole family cherish this gift I have gotten every day. It has affected so many lives. We're having a family reunion this summer and there will be 48 immediate relatives and they all want to see grandpa, dad, uncle, great uncle. You know, when it comes down to it, it's family and friends that are the true measures of how well you went through life. And your family must be very proud of your son and all his accomplishments and all the friends he must have. All the people that love him in their hearts and think of him daily. Well that legacy is still alive in me. I better stop. I'm going to cry. Love, recipient and family. P.S. hope to talk again.
AMT: Pat Loder.
PAT LODER: Yeah. [chuckles]
AMT: He signed that one love.
PAT LODER: I know.
AMT: Since then your daughter suggested social media right?
PAT LODER: Yeah, so when the second one came she said, you know, what are you doing? And I said I’ll write him back. And she's like mom you’re going to write back and forth forever or are you going to use the power of social media and let's find this guy, you know. And so she said can I put it on Facebook? And I said well, you know, you have both letters, I said be, you know, be respectful. I kind of worried because they're personal right? These letters are extremely personal. And to publicly put them out there, they're not my letters. They're his. So I wrestled with that morally for a bit. And then I said you know what, at the end of the day if we get to meet each other and if he's, you know, genuinely wants to meet it won't matter, he'll probably forgive me.
AMT: I'm aware now that we're talking on, you know, with a nationwide audience and we've just read those letters out again.
PAT LODER: Yeah.
AMT: And you're identifiable in this conversation.
PAT LODER: Totally. But that's our intent. You know, our intent once we decided to make that move, and Facebook's powerful, so that's pushing it out. This is just upping it to another medium. We're ready. I say we're ready. I don't know what it’d be like but I think we're ready.
AMT: Are you worried you could be disappointed or that your expectations might be different than the reality?
PAT LODER: No. Actually I remember when we met with one of the organ procurement ladies, a friend of mine, and I went in and she said, you know, Pat like be careful right? Because like, you know, every recipient is, they're not angels right? And I said yeah but they’re people. And then my friend said well you don't know Pat because Pat’s the type of person that if she'll approach and hug and talk to an individual that has very little. And she'll talk to a millionaire and have the same type of conversation, she doesn't judge. And I don't. I don't know what to expect, but I know there's no such thing as disappointment because if there is another human being living as a result of the gift that my son had the ability, you know, we had the ability to give on behalf of our son, that's enough, you know. And they don't need to measure up. There's no such thing as success. If they love their family and friends that's enough for me.
AMT: Pat Loder, thank you for sharing your story with us.
PAT LODER: No problem. Thank you for your time Anna Maria.
AMT: Pat Loder lives in Happy Valley Goose Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador. Her son Jeff died on July 29 of 2016. She is searching for the man who received Jeff's heart who has written to her. Across the country provincial donor agencies will help donor families and recipients connect with each other through letters. Though as we heard they're careful to screen those letters and make sure everyone remains anonymous. Meeting in person is not allowed in most provinces, even if both sides request it. The only exceptions are Alberta and BC and even then there are strict guidelines. In fact BC has never actually facilitated a reunion. Rebecca Greenberg is a bioethicist at Toronto's Sick Kids Hospital. She specializes in ethical issues related to organ transplantation. She also co-chairs the ethics committee for the Canadian Society of Transplantation. She is in Winnipeg today. Hello.
REBECCA GREENBERG: Good morning.
AMT: I'm wondering what you were thinking as you listened to that conversation?
REBECCA GREENBERG: It's always a privilege to be able to hear individual stories, and to learn from them and reflect on them.
AMT: You know, I'm aware that she's reached out on Facebook, but in talking to me I have enabled this conversation on a level that could make the these two identifiable. What do you think of that? You know, it's a conversation that I'm having in my own head and with my producers at the same time.
REBECCA GREENBERG: So I think that this is a trend that we're seeing happening not just in transplantation but in many other areas of health care where people are using social media to reach out to families and communities and those who share similar stories. So I think this is the way things are going, and it calls upon all of us who are involved in this kind of work to think about the relevance of this shift.
AMT: So talk to us a little bit about the rationale behind preventing donor families and recipients from meeting.
REBECCA GREENBERG: So attempts are of course to determine best practice based on data and experience. And in Canada we have pulled from a lot of the literature from other jurisdictions, the United States, particularly in California, Brazil, Israel and so forth. And in health care we have a duty and obligation to minimize harm and maximize good. And based on the literature that is out there, government has taken a cautious approach to prevent parties from meeting.
AMT: What kind of harm could come out of finding another's identity?
REBECCA GREENBERG: Every story, every individual experience is different. If we look to the studies that have been done where both the donor families and recipients have been interviewed, we learn that harm can really be emotional harm and also physical harm. So from an emotional perspective it can be painful for both sides to meet each other. Expectations may not be met, it can renew or prolong bereavement, it can exacerbate experience of guilt for the recipient. Recipients also are in a position where there's a power differential in that relationship. And what I mean by that is that it's not really a choice as to whether or not someone is going to receive an organ. The alternative is death. And so with that carries, from what we know from the literature, a heavy sense of responsibility and burden and feeling indebtedness. And meeting sometimes may only add to that in a negative way. There's been some reports in the literature that it can actually negatively impact the healing process.
AMT: Do you know of cases where a meeting has turned out badly?
REBECCA GREENBERG: So there are reports where they have not turned out well. The largest reason cited is that a disappointment of who each had hoped or expected that the other party would be. How they lead their lifestyle, where they come from, where they're going, what decisions that they're made. Particularly if it is felt that they are bestowed a precious gift of life. And how one should treat that, you know, may cause issues. The other thing that we haven't touched on yet is what happens down the road to these recipients when and if the organ fails or when a natural time comes such that they pass. And there have been reports of this causing a renewed sense of grief for donor families.
AMT: Mhm. Interesting. So Alberta and BC actually do have policies to facilitate such meetings. What kind of resources or support would the team around the transplantation or the province have to have in place to figure out how to facilitate a meeting?
REBECCA GREENBERG: So there's a number of things that would go into if we were to consider changing policies and practice. And a lot of it has to do with education and support. To be able to provide support before and after meeting, and ensure that consideration is given to all the possible combinations, permutations of how a meeting may actually go. And if we can look to other jurisdictions who do this, they do ask for an assessment to be made, an informed decision to be made over a period of time, and also over a stepwise matter. So we don't just go from wanting to meet somebody to making that happen. But that first there should be letter exchanges back and forth, and then in a stepwise way go forward and ultimately meet.
AMT: But we live in a world where people can turn to Facebook or Google to do their own research. Are the policies changing amongst the jurisdictions in reaction to that? Does it have people like you thinking differently about it?
REBECCA GREENBERG: You've brought up a very important point which is that it is a changing landscape and it does call upon us to reconsider how we're doing things. I think that this is an issue that we're seeing not just in health care but in other arenas. And we're also seeing shifting perspectives related to the value of privacy.
AMT: And I guess there are people on both sides who are actually quite content not to meet.
REBECCA GREENBERG: So some people feel that it is too overwhelming emotionally for them. And is not something that they're wanting to or are able to engage with. The second most cited reason is that there is this sense of wanting to move forward on both sides, and that pursuing a relationship may not allow people to move forward in their journey.
AMT: OK. Rebecca Greenberg thanks for your time and your insights today.
REBECCA GREENBERG: Thank you Anna Maria.
AMT: Rebecca Greenberg, bioethicist at Toronto Sick Kids Hospital. She also co-chairs the Ethics Committee for the Canadian Society of Transplantation.
[Music: Neil Young]
AMT: In our next half hour, will woolly mammoths roam the Canadian tundra again? Our project Adaptation looks at the science and ethics of bringing species back from extinction. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti, this is The Current.Back To Top »
How scientists are bringing extinct animals back to life
Guest: Britt Wray, Bobby Dhadwar
ANNA MARIA TREMONTI: Hi, I'm Anna Maria Tremonti you're listening to The Current.
[Music: Adaptation Theme]
GRANT: It’s a dinosaur.
ELLIE: Uh huh.
GRANT: How fast are they?
HAMMOND: Well, we clocked the T-Rex at 32 miles an hour.
ELLIE: You said you've got a T-Rex?
HAMMOND: We have a T-Rex.
HAMMOND: Welcome to Jurassic Park.
AMT: Well most of us know where the story of Jurassic Park ends up. Cutting edge science brings dinosaurs back to Earth. But it is no day in the park after the prehistoric beasts break loose and wreak havoc. That was thrilling science fiction, but there is a thrilling real life scientific pursuit today known as de-extinction. And while the T-Rex isn't likely to be roaming or rampaging again soon, other extinct species from passenger pigeons to frogs and woolly mammoths may yet have a second act here on Earth. It is hope that bringing back such species could help our planet adapt to the mass extinctions humans are causing today. Science journalist Britt Wray has a new book on the topic it's called Rise of the Necrofauna. And as part of our project adaptation she is with me in our Toronto studio. Hello.
BRITT WRAY: Hi.
AMT: What can we learn from Jurassic Park? Is that idea really farfetched?
BRITT WRAY: Well, the thing about Jurassic Park that's unrealistic is its specimen of choice. This iconic extinct species that scientists resurrected in the film is not possible with the present day de-extinction projects. Largely because they've been gone so long, nearly 66 million years, that it's impossible to get good quality DNA out of their fossilized remains. And that's the first ingredient that you need to do any type of de-extinction. What we can learn from the film or from the books is that there is an interesting story warning us about acting on human hubris and potentially trying to capitalize on extinct animals that are brought back in unecological ways.
AMT: The best laid plans and all of that. Yeah.
BRITT WRAY: Exactly. And as Jeff Goldblum's character says, life finds a way when we try to control it.
AMT: So how much work is being done on de-extinction right now?
BRITT WRAY: It's a relatively fringe activity. There are a handful of groups around the world with particular candidate species that they're working on that are very fascinating projects underway, including the woolly mammoth, the passenger pigeon, the aurochs, the heath hen, the quagga, the Tasmanian tiger, aka the thylacine has been attempted in the past. There's also work underway on the gastric brooding frog, and there has been one successful de-extinction to date of the bucardo which is also known as the pyrenean ibex, a type of mountain goat that lived in the Spanish Pyrenees. And it was cloned back to life, the last living individual was cloned, and it only lived for about ten minutes.
AMT: Hm. OK well I want to get into some of those specifics. But first of all why? Why do we want to do this?
BRITT WRAY: The common argument that comes from a lot of proponents of de-extinction is that we might be able to do something beneficial for ecosystems that don't have as much productivity now as they once did when they were important what are called keystone species, fulfilling ecological roles there. So these are species that played a really huge functional part of an ecosystem and keeping dynamics flourishing. And the idea that we could take some of their genes to create new animals that have the traits of extinct species and then reintroduce them into habitats where the extinct species once were, we could actually restore those ecosystems in some way.
AMT: And that's key you say, create new animals that have a connection. So even if they are not specifically like the original, they will have qualities of the original? Is that what you're saying?
BRITT WRAY: That's exactly right. So it's about making proxies or close facsimiles, approximate versions of the extinct species using their closest living relatives as the template animal that you can then genetically modify to a certain degree in order to bring back the traits of that extinct species. Or in other cases you can actually use artificial selection techniques to breed back a certain type of animal. But that would be skin deep resurrection in terms of recreating traits of an extinct species. Similar to the way that we have been able to breed dogs from wolves, we would be able to breed animals that look like extinct species that are no longer here from their descendants.
AMT: The UN estimates that as many as 200 species of plants and animals become extinct every day. Does that add urgency to this work?
BRITT WRAY: That is a big part of the motivation for a lot of this work, is that we're in an extinction crisis. It's the sixth mass extinction that many scientists say we're in. We know that there have been five moments of species obliteration in the past that's been more pronounced than the regular background extinction rate would have species disappear. And this time in the sixth mass extinction, it's unique and it's not just that it's driven by a single species, that being us and our activities, rather than something like a meteor crashing into the earth or a lot of volcanic eruption. So there is a moral argument that some people use to bolster the claim for de-extinction, saying that because we've reaped these holes in nature and if we have the biotechnologies right now to do something beneficial about writing those wrongs that we've reaped, we ought to do it.
AMT: Mm. So let's talk a little bit more about what the methods are. We named a few animals there, but what methods are scientists using to try to do this?
BRITT WRAY: There are three main avenues for doing de-extinction. One is cloning, the other is gene editing, and the third would be back breeding. And so I'll just briefly go through each. With cloning what you can do is take a cell from the animal that you want to clone, whether it's extinct or not, and you can remove its nucleus. And the nucleus has most of the DNA of that organism stored within it. Then you can take the egg cell from a donor and that would be a living organism that's closely related for de-extinction. In the case of the bucardo for example, it was another type of goat that was used as the donor for the egg cell with the cloning. You then remove the nucleus that has most of that DNA from the donor cell and you insert the nucleus from the extinct animal that you want to clone. You can stimulate it to start dividing with an electro shock and implant it in a surrogate mother's uterus where it will gestate and develop if all goes successfully into a clone. This is not something that happens instantaneously. There's a lot of failure along the way with cloning projects in terms of embryos just not taking or pregnancies not developing fully. But eventually it sometimes works. Then there is gene editing as another method. And here there are tools, a commonly discussed one these days is CRISPR Cas9, which is a gene editing tool that naturally occurs in bacteria and Archaea as a defense system, that allows it to cut up invading viral particles of DNA and RNA. But here scientists can now direct it to cut up whatever DNA they would like in a variety of different cell types. And you can think of it much like molecular scissors that can target specific DNA and remove DNA from an organism as well as insert it on demand. So here working with the template cell of the closest living relative. Let's say for example Asian elephant cells if you want to work on a woolly mammoth. Then you can take genes that are from the woolly mammoth genome that you understand gave it particular traits that Asian elephants lack and then make the genetic changes one by one in the genome of the elephant cells in order to cobble together the traits that you want in the living cell. And then again you could implant that or potentially even grow it up in an artificial womb if you've edited an embryo as such. Lastly, there is back breeding. And here I'll use the example of the extinct aurochs. This is the ancestor of all of today's living cattle. So we can assume that it's genetic traits are scattered across it's living descendants today. And by looking at cattle lines that have, for example, the right kind of horn shape and size or coloration or difference between the males and the females that the extinct cattle have, you can select them and breed them together over a variety of different generations until you arrive at the traits of the extinct animal that you've been breeding them to have.
AMT: Fascinating, fascinating. And this is all going on in various parts of the world. You say it's fringe but scientists are turning their minds toward this.
BRITT WRAY: Mhm.
AMT: In enough numbers that we're starting to see some changes.
BRITT WRAY: There's an organized movement around it now, even though it's not something that every high tech lab is doing. There is an understanding that there's a community of researchers working towards de-extinction goals. And there's also a non-profit called Revive and Restore which has done a lot to create opportunities and galvanize resources, talent, and get donations for this type of work to occur.
AMT: Well we have somebody who's been listening in who's actually working on a de-extinction project. You mentioned the woolly mammoth. Bobby Dhadwar is a research scientist at Harvard genetics. He is working on bringing the woolly mammoth back from extinction. Bobby Dhadwar is Canadian. He is at Harvard. Hi.
BOBBY DHADWAR: Hello.
AMT: Well so let's talk woolly mammoth. Woolly mammoth de-extinction, what are you doing?
BOBBY DHADWAR: So I'm heavily involved in this project of, what we're doing is we've taken the closest living relative of the woolly mammoth, the Asian elephant. And the first thing we've done is we've compared the genetics. So we compared the DNA of the modern day elephants with the woolly mammoth and we took a look at what all the differences were that we'd have to make in Asian elephant cells to make them resemble the woolly mammoth. And then we prioritized what kind of edits we would want to make to introduce those traits into elephant cells. And so now what we're doing is we're taking, we’re using the CRISPR editing technology to systematically introduce those changes into an Asian elephant cell. So we would start off with something that's 100 per cent Asian elephant, and then as we make these changes we end up with something that's more like the woolly mammoth.
AMT: Mm. So would it be a hybrid?
BOBBY DHADWAR: Initially it would be a hybrid until we make all the changes that make a woolly mammoth distinct from Asian elephant.
AMT: OK and how long would that take? That process of changing as you go along.
BOBBY DHADWAR: Well right now we've made a number of changes to fully change the genome. Like for example, the Asian elephant is very similar to the woolly mammoth, 99 per cent similar. So we just have to change one per cent of the genome. That might not sound like a lot but when it comes down to base changes it ends up being considerable. But what we've done is we've actually prioritized our top traits that we want to go after. Right now the only limiting step in our process is really funding. If we had more funding we can move a lot faster and reach our end goal much quicker.
AMT: So it's not the science that's holding you back, it literally is the money, the resources.
BOBBY DHADWAR: Absolutely. It's funny because we always say this is the most interesting project that's going on in the lab where a lot of people have a lot of interest in it. But it's one of the most poorly funded projects in the lab as well.
AMT: Why do you want to see woolly mammoths walking the Earth again?
BOBBY DHADWAR: What got me really interested is I love Jurassic Park. I really love that movie and it's very iconic to see some of these extinct species come back. The other thing is woolly mammoth are an iconic species. So if you were to bring back a species why not something as iconic as a woolly mammoth? Another point is that humans had a hand in hunting woolly mammoth and perhaps to extinction. So you could say we have somewhat of a moral obligation to try and bring these species back into existence.
AMT: And you're also interested in these creatures being able to be in colder climates. Am I right?
BOBBY DHADWAR: Absolutely. That's one of the interesting traits of the woolly mammoth. And that could be very interesting for Canada as well. Because I know a lot of the Canadian zoos are losing their elephants so maybe if we produce this hybrid or the woolly mammoth, we'd have a home for them in Canada.
AMT: Interesting. What's their impact on permafrost?
BOBBY DHADWAR: Ah that's very interesting. So one of the arguments for bringing back the woolly mammoth is that when the woolly mammoths roamed the tundra they would stamp down the permafrost and help keep the ground cold so that carbon reservoir stays frozen. And that's something that's been examined in Siberia in Pleistocene park, and that's been demonstrated there. So there's been some evidence to suggest that this could be beneficial for climate change.
AMT: Interesting, because we do know we're losing permafrost now in the Arctic huh?
BOBBY DHADWAR: Absolutely.
AMT: So what challenges do you have? I'm wondering, let's start with elephant conservationists. How did they see your work?
BOBBY DHADWAR: [chuckles] At first when we called up elephant conservation groups, they're very interested about the project, they were very excited about it. I think when we got into the details of it they got a little nervous about sharing information or sharing materials with us, especially when we’re trying to get a hold of Asian elephant cells. When we told them the whole process and even mentioned that cloning may be involved once we finished all the editing, that's when a lot of conservation groups would pull their support for a couple of reasons. One reason is if you mention cloning they worry that a lot of their donors will not be agreeable to that. The second thing is if you were to clone a woolly mammoth you most likely you're going to need a surrogate mother to give birth to the woolly mammoth, and most likely we would use a modern day elephant. Now the concern there is that their gestation period is about two years. Then you're potentially taking away from a female elephant giving birth to a modern day elephant.
AMT: So in other words that's a period of time when you could have a regular elephant. And yeah there's so many problems with elephants and poaching and everything else.
BOBBY DHADWAR: Exactly.
AMT: Are you talking about zoo animals? You talking about animals in conservation areas? Which animals would you be using?
BOBBY DHADWAR: We’d be interested in using zoos in conservation in habitats and in zoos. And these are the groups that we've reached out to help us with this project.
AMT: So they're wary of you.
BOBBY DHADWAR: Absolutely.
AMT: So what about the ethical questions on the actual animal? Like when the elephant carrying a woolly mammoth, a woolly mammoth calf sort of its introduction to these little cousins who don't have bedhead. [laughs] Who look a little different, you know, like the differences amongst the calves if you were to go ahead. Would that be a problem? I don't mean to be flippant.
BOBBY DHADWAR: No absolutely not. That's something we'd have to look at in more detail, it’s uncertain how the parenting would evolve. And in a parallel form, we're actually taking steps to research an artificial womb so that after cloning, instead of introducing that clone into an elephant, that we could potentially use an artificial uterus for that gestation.
AMT: Mm. And you talk about the funding. What do you think of the argument that the money that is available would be better spent on conservation, specifically of elephant species, rather than on the de-extinction project?
BOBBY DHADWAR: I think if you're trying to look at the elephant conservation, you really need to diversify what you're investing in. Not only in zoos and conservation but also in frozen zoos, of freezing the cells and DNA, information of all these different species so that if they do go extinct you do have materials that you could actually clone from them or find a way to bring them back. Because even though you may have them in zoos, they're not complete protected in those environments. They're still susceptible to disease and old age. So you have to take a multifaceted approach to maintain these populations.
AMT: Bobby Dhadwar, thank you for bringing us up to date on that.
AMT: Thank you Bobby Dhadwar, research scientist at Harvard genetics. He's working on the de-extinction of the woolly mammoth. Britt Wray is still with me in Toronto. She's the author of Rise of the Necrofauna, all about de-extinction and looking at the ethics and the science around all of that. Britt, what do you make of that project at Harvard?
BRITT WRAY: There are many fascinating questions that it raises and many of them are ethically pressing. I think there's a lot of theoretical justification about how and why this would work, but we don't have the research to necessarily show that it's going to work out as planned and we need to get a lot of that modeling and research in place. For example, discussing what will happen when that calf is born, that hybrid calf, that looks somewhat like a hairy funny looking elephant. Let's say it is born and handed off to an Asian elephant family in order to behaviourally learn how to be a type of animal in the world. Is an Asian elephant mother for example going to accept a funny looking pseudo mammoth into its herd? We aren’t sure. It's not that it won't, it's that we don't know yet and there could be a lot of animal welfare issues raised if it doesn't. Because these animals are extremely social, they live in matriarchal societies extremely supportive of one another and if it doesn't work out to have acceptance, what kind of existence will that make? We can look to other areas where we have used surrogates to help endangered species, to help us see some of these problems that could arise. For example with the whooping crane, it was heavily endangered at a certain point and there's a conservation program that would take whooping crane eggs from whooping crane mothers as soon as they were laid to free the whooping crane mom up to lay more eggs. And they were transferred to the more populous sandhill crane community. Sandhill cranes then were supposed to take care of these whooping cranes. But what happened was they would hatch, they looked a little bit different. The sandhill cranes would pick on them and physically ostracized them, moving them to the outer edges of their breeding colonies where they then became more vulnerable to hunting, predation, starvation. And although the intention of course was well-meaning for conservation aspects of saving the whooping crane. In certain programs we see that they became what researchers have called little victims of human curiosity.
AMT: That's fascinating. Well, let's talk about some other projects. Passenger pigeons, what are the scientists doing with that?
BRITT WRAY: Yes. So there is a scientist named Ben Novak who is extremely passionate about recreating some version of the passenger pigeon. He's been in love with this bird since he was 13. Now he is the lead scientist on its quote unquote, resurrection research foray. And they're also using gene editing techniques similar to Bobby and his colleagues at Harvard for the woolly mammoth. It's a fairly complicated process to do it with birds, because bird cloning is very difficult and they can't isolate an egg very easily to do the kind of manipulation. So what they have to do is work with the closest living relative of the passenger pigeon, and that is a band tailed pigeon. There are many of them around. And Ben will take cells from the band tailed pigeon that will turn into its sperm and eggs, they're called primordial germ cells. And then using CRISPR will edit in specific changes in the genomes of those cells to introduce passenger pigeon genes that he knows codes for certain things that were unique to that bird. Then at a certain point after the living bird lays an egg, which is an embryo, he will cut a hole in its shell and then use a glass capillary needle to inject these edited cells that will turn into sperm and eggs, that will then transfer through the circulatory system of that developing bird. He seals it back up, puts it in an incubator, and by the time that egg is ready to hatch it comes out as a bird that looks exactly like a band tailed pigeon. Which is weird because he's done all this work of trying to engineer it to be the extinct bird. But the thing is that that new bird has a secret in its genes. Essentially, it's carrying passenger pigeon sperm and eggs. So when that generation grows up and they get crossed together, the birds they will give rise to are the recreated version of the extinct passenger pigeon.
AMT: What is their purpose in the ecosystem?
BRITT WRAY: So the idea here is that because they were unbelievably massive in the way that they would flock, passenger pigeons used to fly in flocks of multiple millions to over a billion. There are records of it going over places in southern Ontario taking 14 hours for a single flock to pass overhead.
AMT: Like a cloud, it changes the temperature below everything right?
BRITT WRAY: Absolutely.
AMT: These are amazing yeah.
BRITT WRAY: Amazing. Mythical proportion in terms of how numerous they were. We hunted them to extinction in less than 50 years because they were so easy to catch and they were a cheap source of protein. A single bullet, there are records showing that it would make 25 to 99 birds drop down. So layered thick as they flew. So you can imagine that that many birds acted like a super organism. They did something massive to the areas that they were in and they dwelled in the eastern forests of North America. And what they would do when they would come down and roost and nest was disrupt the forests, they would break branches, scratch bark off trees, knock over old young and dying saplings, and basically cause a disruption. Today in the forest where they once were there's a relatively closed canopy which blocks sun from coming down and hitting the forest floor causing new life to regenerate down there. But if you have a bunch of passenger pigeons breaking that open and allowing sun to come down and reach the forest floor, regenerating life at that level, it will then allow all sorts of new successive forest productivity until it grows back so thick enough that it gets broken by the pigeons return the following year. This is the theory about why they could be beneficial. A natural force of forest disturbance. And many forests around the world need disturbance in order to regenerate, whether it's from hail or fire. The idea is that passenger pigeons could be a desirable way to regenerate the forest.
AMT: In terms of the science of bringing animals back, what are the main stumbling blocks then?
BRITT WRAY: Well there are many in terms of technological barriers, it’s not easy to get the cloning to work and you need to keep refining the process and figuring out what went wrong in the last attempt. There is the availability of good quality DNA, depending on the species you're talking about. If there isn't good quality DNA for your project you won't be able to get very far and ancient DNA is often quite broken up. A lot of people have talked about cloning the woolly mammoth, in South Korea for example, there's been a team trying that for a long time, as well as in Japan. But the thing is that woolly mammoth carcasses are often disintegrated to some degree even if they've been frozen in permafrost and pulled out of Siberia. And that means that their DNA and their cells are somewhat disintegrated and it becomes impossible to clone them and that's why Bobby’s method is much more realistic, using gene editing to cobble their DNA together in a new animal for example. There's the ethical issues of whether or not we should subject its closest living relative to the invasive procedures of getting eggs out of them for example, and making them be a surrogate for the growth of clone or gene edited embryo. Because sometimes that involves laparoscopic surgery and inflating their abdomen to be able to visualize where their egg follicles are and then go in with instruments and get them out. And that is not insignificant. And sometimes it's an already endangered subspecies that people are talking about using.
AMT: Really fascinating. So when you look at all of this, you've spent years researching this. In the end does it excite you or does it keep you awake at night?
BRITT WRAY: It keeps me awake at night while exciting me.
BRITT WRAY: It's both. I am enthused by a lot of the research in de-extinction that can be applied to currently endangered species. And I believe that that's where most of the energy should be put. We're realizing that there's a lot of amazing regenerative capacity for increasing biodiversity that biotech can lend us, whether it's through cloning or gene editing. And where there are depauperate, threatened species today that aren't doing so well or hanging on by a thread, we can use these types of tools to regenerate them rather than only focus on extinct species. And that's come out of a conversation that de-extinction has ignited because it's brought the conservation community together with synthetic biologists, which is a novel thing for scientific culture.
AMT: Thanks for coming in.
BRITT WRAY: Thank you so much for having me Anna Maria.
AMT: Britt Wray, science writer. She presents the BBC podcast Tomorrow's World. And her new book is called Rise of the Necrofauna: The Science, Ethics and Risks of De-extinction. She joined me in our Toronto studio. That's our program for today. Remember you can take The Current with you to go on the CBC Radio app free from the App Store or Google Play. Now, let's go back to our second half hour. I was speaking with Pat Loder about her late son Jeff, her wish to connect with a recipient of his heart. And we heard that the man who lives with her son’s donated heart likes Abba. Pat Loder says she has a soft spot for Abba as well. So we'll end things off with Thank You For The Music by the group. I'm Anna Maria Tremonti, thanks for listening to The Current.
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