It’s not clear why the Times was so vexed. They don’t say much about the actual contours of Galton’s feline research, and they don’t quote him at all. Galton’s work on cats also failed to capture the attention of Nicholas Gillham, his biographer. “I didn’t know about this business with cats,” the author of A Life of Sir Francis Galton: From African Exploration to the Birth of Eugenics said. “It’s new to me.”
Galton’s efforts to genetically modify the the domestic cat were novel at the time, but there have been others since, some more successful than others.
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In 1981, anthropologists, engineers, nuclear physicists, and others assembled to form the Human Interference Task Force, at the behest of the U.S. Department of Energy and Bechtel Corp. The impetus of the task force, according to a technical report issued a few years later, was to “reduce the likelihood of future humans unintentionally intruding on radioactive-waste isolation systems.” Specifically, how to keep inquisitive people away from Yucca Mountain?
As recounted by The Atlantic a few months ago, the philosophers Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri came up with odd idea to create ‘radiation cats’ or ‘ray cats’ whose fur color would change when exposed to high levels of radiation.” They also suggested the development of an elaborate folklore, in the form of story and song, so that future generations would understand that a glowing cat was a harbinger of extremely bad news.
It’s believed that, in Sarah Zhang’s lovely phrase, these “walking, purring, yarn-chasing Geiger counters” never materialized.
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Twenty-three years later, in 2004, a biotech company called Allerca announced its intention to create the first cat aimed at the allergy-prone. In 2006, in a splashy story in The New York Times, its executives claimed the felines were ready to order, for $4,000.
Not just anyone could buy them:
Prospective buyers are interviewed for motivation and warmth, approved as if they were adopting a child. Will they punish if kitty has an accident on the floor or scratches the furniture? Their families and their homes—from carpets to curtains—must also be evaluated for allergies and allergens.
Shortly thereafter, Allerca pulled the plug, amid concerns about the company founder’s questionable past. Simon Brodie allegedly left a trail of “debts, court judgments, liens, and unpaid employees” across the U.K., Canada, and the United States. There were also reports that the cats were not, in fact, hypoallergenic.
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In 2011, The Guardian published a startling photo of two cats. The one on the right, laying mournfully across some linens, was brown. The cat on the left, gazing, it appeared, inquisitively over the left shoulder of the photographer, was green. The glowing cat was, for researchers, a tool to study HIV/AIDS.