Offbeat Unicorn

For those who like unicorns with sharp hooves and mystery

Behold, the unicorn!

Beautiful, isn’t he? And very mysterious…redolent with bovine charm.

Even if unicorns don’t exist naturally, it hasn’t stopped imaginative individuals from trying to make them.  Dr. W. Franklin Dove, of the University of Maine, used the creation of unicorn cattle and sheep in order to research horn physiology and tissue transplantation. But you can’t but suspect that he was also using his research to fulfill an imaginative inclination. In The Natural History of Unicorns, Chris Lavers suggests that Dove was inspired by the traditions of certain South African groups to shape the horns of their cattle and by Nepalese unicorn sheep gifted to the Prince of Wales as part of a collection of Nepalese animals in 1906 (203).  

So how does one make a unicorn? Dr. Dove took a day-old Ayrshire bull calf, removed the horn buds and transplanted them onto the center of its forehead. As the calf grew, the horn buds fused and grew into one horn. Hey presto! A unicorn!

To what effect? It seems the bull was a rather mischievous unicorn, who “is conscious of peculiar power” and “recognizes the power of a single horn which he uses as a prow to pass under fences and barriers in his path” (Dove qutd in Lavers 213). The unicorn, when created, grows independent and resists domestication, like its mythological counterpart.

The 1930s, we may recall, was not exactly a highpoint in thoughtful, considerate scientific experimentation. Even talking about the creation of a unicorn has the potential to inspire budding mad scientists.

Like me!

I first read about Dove’s unicorn bull in a book on unicorn mythology when I was ten or twelve. I immediately planned to become a veterinarian, biologist, or zoologist or something that would give me the skills to make a unicorn.

But I made the mistake of telling a friend of my parents my plans at a dinner party.  

“I don’t think that will pass the ethics board,” the grown-up said. Then they explained to me that experiments with animals have to “benefit mankind” or something equally inconvenient and unimaginative. “Because then unicorns could exist” was not going to cut it. And because Lamarckian evolution had been debunked, my hypothetical unicorns were not going to create a beautiful new species of bovine unicorns. Also, mad scientists don’t get grant funding.

 After that, I lost my interest in becoming a scientist. Which is probably good news for all those goats and bulls who get to keep their horns in their proper places.

More Reading:

Lavers, Chris. “The Scientist’s Unicorn” in The Natural History of Unicorns. London: Granta, 2009. 196-216

Dove, W. F. “The physiology of horn growth: A study of the morphogenesis, the interaction of tissues, and the evolutionary processes of a mendelian recessive character by means of transplantation of tissues.” Journal of Experimental Zoology, 69 (1935): 347–405.

McCurry-Schmidt, Madeline. “Dr. Dove’s Unicorns.” Scientific American. 29 November 2011.

The site has some images of more recent experiments. Obviously, these people didn’t ask the ethics board…

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