There's More Than One Way to Breed a Mutant Cat

The history and future of feline modification, from hypoallergenic pets to color-changing radiation detectors

Shamil Zhumatov / Reuters

“Mr. Francis Galton is one of the most ingenious and yet useless scientific persons now living,” began a March 1, 1885, story in The New York Times.

Galton, at 37, had already compiled an extraordinary career: He’d introduced the phrase “nature versus nurture” in 1869’s Hereditary Genius; he coined, and was the first to observe, “regression to the mean”; in 1875, he prepared the first weather map, and, in 1883, he introduced “eugenics” into the English language.

But what had upset the Times was Galton’s attempt to engineer an “improved” breed of cat, which Galton felt should be, ideally, deaf. The paper saw this as a lost opportunity:

No one will deny that this is a field in which great good might be done. The cat has not been improved within historic times. The cat of today is the identical animal that Egyptians worshipped. She is just as objectionable as she was 6,000 years ago, and no one has hitherto made any attempt an improved style of cat on the market.

The Times went on to list the ways in which a cat could be usefully altered—making its screechy voice less annoying; rendering the paws “innocuous”; modifying its teeth so that its bites would be more tolerable—before pronouncing Galton “impractical and useless.”

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.

This strain of cat, developed by U.S. scientists, was blessed with “cells that resist infection from a virus that causes feline AIDS, a finding that may help prevent the disease in cats and advance AIDS research in people.” The scientists inserted monkey genes that would block the virus into feline eggs prior to fertilization. To get the green glow, they “also inserted jellyfish genes that make the modified cells glow an eerie green color—making the altered genes easy to spot.” (Reuters noted dryly, “The point is not to breed generations of disease-resistant, glowing cats.”)

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Frankly, I didn’t know what to make of all this, so I reached out to Mark Westhusin, a professor at Texas A & M University. In 2002, Westhusin and his colleagues were the first to clone a cat.

I asked if there were any present-day Galtonian initiatives. “I don’t think there’s been a lot of efforts to improve house cats,” he said. “I’m not aware of any trait that has necessarily been promoted to improve a cat, or a dog, from the standpoint of the individual itself.”

Okay, but is it possible that such work is being done under the aegis of privately funded companies, away from the eyes of academic institutions? “I’ll tell you what I can tell you,” said Westhusin. “There are some companies that are looking into it, and there’s probably some research that’s ongoing to explore that. That’s all I can tell you.”

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As for Francis Galton, while his fascination with cats was by no means a major part of his legacy, it crops up here and there.

In an 1896 letter to The Spectator, titled “Three Generations of Lunatic Cats,” he wrote that “domestic cats are subject to mental disorder which would tend to be combined, as they are in man, with vile temper and outbursts of rage.”

Galton even, occasionally, seemed to admire felines. “Of all creatures I have found none superior to cats in the power of hearing shrill sounds,” he wrote. “It is perfectly remarkable what a faculty they have in this way.”

As it happens, cats proved impervious to one of Galton’s more lasting contributions to mankind: a brass tube that emitted a high-pitched sound. This, observed io9, “is why it is not called ‘the cat whistle.’”