“Everything you need to know about genetics you can learn from your cat”
(Associate professor Leslie Lyons PhD of the UC Davis Genetics Laboratory at the University of California)
Cat Fancy Club. A Somewhere project by Nina Pope & Karen Guthrie. Photography: Marc Henrie. Image compositor: Theo Cook
Over the last two years Karen Guthrie & Nina Pope of the London art collective Somewhere have been working on a research and documentary project focusing on pedigree cat breeding. They followed pedigree cat owners at cat shows, worked with breeders, and interviewed Dr Leslie Lyons, an internationally-respected authority on feline genetics who ratified the world’s first cloned kitten (“Cc”) and the first GFP (“glow-in-the-dark”) transgenic kitten.
Demonstrating a fascinating mix of scientific knowledge and creative experimentation, breeders have an acute alertness to the aesthetic requirements of their chosen breed, underpinned by the genetic knowledge to safely breed towards the refinement of particular characteristics. Some breeders already utilise genetic testing and collaborate with scientists, bridging the traditional gap between amateur and professional science and providing a flow of information between these two worlds.
‘Cat Fancy Club’ production still by Nina Pope. All rights reserved
Artists/directors Pope & Guthrie have a track record of working with hobby or ‘pro-am’ groups and are particularly interested in ways that knowledge can be generated by actual ‘making and doing’ combined with close observation. Pedigree cat breeders show a fascinating mix of scientific knowledge and creativity, their acute sense of the correct look for the cats, underpinned by the genetic knowledge required to breed for ‘refining a look’.
The working title of the documentary is Cat Fancy Club. I don’t often write about videos, especially those i’ve never seen. However, the extracts from the documentary i saw at the Euston Road window of the Wellcome Collection a few weeks ago made me want to ask a few questions to the directors of the documentary.
In your documentary, you interview both scientists and amateur breeders. How much genetics manipulation can one really do outside of a university lab?
NP: Well I’m not sure we would describe it as genetic manipulation (!) but one of the aims of the film is to show that you can at least understand a lot about genetics just by observing your cats. The level of genetic knowledge in breeders obviously varies but we are very interested in working with people who find it particularly interesting and have developed a deep understanding of how basic genetics work which they then utilise to plan their breeding programmes. This can affect simple things like trying to breed for particular coat colours, but can also help them to keep the breeds really healthy.
LL: The average person, especially early farmers, have been genetic manipulators for thousands of years. Regular people are responsible for 99% of our animal breeds and varieties of flowers and crops. Most genetic manipulation in the lab is still done the same way, just by breeding animals and selecting for the natural variation. But, now we can move genes from one organism to another – called transgenics. This is a very particular speciality and cannot be done outside of the lab. But the interaction of most breeders and scientists do not pertain to transgenics anyhow – just natural breeding and selection.
British blue. ‘Cat Fancy Club’ production still by Nina Pope. All rights reserved
I couldn’t help but be a bit judgmental when is saw the trailer of the upcoming film and read about genetic research on cats, i had the feeling that there is a huge chasm between my love of cats and the one felt by people participating to cat shows with their hairless cats and LaPerm. I don’t quite understand that search for a particular aesthetics. But are amateur breeders only driven by aesthetics? What motivates their quest for the perfect breed? The desire to produce a unique luxury item?
NP: You won’t find more cat lovers together anywhere outside of a cat show that’s for sure! I guess whether you’re into ‘moggies’ or LaPerms is more about personal taste that anything else. Both of us own rescue cats but that doesn’t mean we’re not tempted by the amazing range of pedigree cats out there.
KG: For some breeders the thrill of the genetic chase for a particularly rare colour (for example) is very motivating – the tougher and more recessive a gene, the more some breeders work towards bringing it forward – somewhat like bringing a rare orchid to flower from seed! Establishing a new breed of cat and the networks with other breeders and owners is obviously something that particular people also enjoy.
AN: Nine out of ten cats bred by pedigree breeders are for pet homes where they will never be involved in breeding or showing so for the average breeder good health and good temperament are far more important. No one expects to breed the aesthetic ideal but it’s a guideline to aim towards. It is ultimately more satisfying for a breeder to be involved with a new DNA screening programme and to eliminate a genetic disease. But showing is designed to promote good health and confirmation, as well as good grooming and care. Cat show judges check for signs of health and penalise ‘defects’ that impact on a cat’s health/welfare.
‘Cat Fancy Club’ production still by Nina Pope. All rights reserved
Did you have any preconception about the world of professional and amateur cat breeding before starting to work on this movie? Did getting in close contact and discussing with them changed you assumptions in any way? For example, do you now desire to own a cat similar to the grey ones featured on that pink image you made?
KG: Some preconceptions – such as that many cat enthusiasts are women of a certain age – are true! One hears of ‘kitten farms’ where unscrupulous breeders are churning out pedigree kittens just for money, but of course if they are out there mixing with people at Cat Shows and in the Cat Fancy you don’t meet them. We were struck often with the very high level of genetic understanding amongst domestic breeders with little or no science education – some breeders are more instinctive, describing their breeding animals’ charisma and ‘star quality’ as what directs them, whilst others really are breeding with genetics so much at the forefront that a litter will rarely contain any ‘surprises’ – instead the breeder will know exactly what colour kittens to expect and may even have a fellow breeder in another country waiting to acquire and breed forward with a certain kitten.
Like any kind of learned connoisseurship, learning more about how an unusual colour, coat texture or eye colour actually happens, definitely enhances your appreciation of it in a cat. BTW one never owns a cat, it’s the other way around! We do have our personal aesthetic tastes – Nina already has a longhaired grey cat, and Karen had until a recent death, two ginger tomcats.
Sphynx. Production still ‘Cat Fancy Club’ by Nina Pope. All rights reserved
Apart from aesthetics, what else motivates genetic research on cats?
KG: The domestic breeders we’ve met that are at the forefront of certain breeds (e.g Birman, LaPerm) are as interested in breeding for robust health as aesthetic ‘brilliance’. There are instances recently of certain breeders instigating successful breed databases that aim to prevent inbreeding or accidental close crosses by ‘mapping’ all births of a certain cat breed that occur. This is very ambitious, and it shows how technology is helping make this possible – as an aside, many of the breeders we met involved in creating databases and networking internationally via the web, are quite elderly but really tech-savvy.
A considerable amount of feline genetic research (in the US at least) is supported because of close analogies with human genetics and health: how viruses spread, and kidney problems for example. The cause/s of blindness is one of many research interests of the world’s leading feline geneticist Dr Leslie Lyons (UC Davis) who we filmed, and there is strong evidence that tracking genetic blindness and trailing treatments in cats will progress understanding of and ultimately prevention of blindness in humans.
Dr Lyons invites DNA samples from all over the world for her work because she needs to access the widest possible gene pool. She concentrates her work on pedigree breeds because there is then certain known parameters that her material relates to, but in the UK at Bristol University, research is more focused on ‘moggies’ at large, in one exercise they are collating life-spanning information on a sample of ordinary cats to try and establish what the biggest risk factors are for the cat – I guess it could be anything from proximity to heavy traffic, coat colour, diet…
NP: One of the things that has been most interesting to hear about is that Leslie often finds new leads or clues to genetics through the observations of breeders. Obviously pet owners spend a LOT of time closely watching their cats and this can be invaluable as a way to uncover unusual features and traits. Often breeders will know from observing for generations what to expect from certain pairings, when the actual genetic ‘facts’ behind these intuitions may actually come out at a later date.
Jen with one of her Korats. Production still ‘Cat Fancy Club’ by Nina Pope. All rights reserved
How about the impact of pedigree cat breeding on the personality or physical well-being of the cat? i recently saw a report on tv about how intense forms of dog breeding are creating dogs suffering from brain damages or illness.
KG: In the UK there was quite a furore after a TV doc screened highlighting the link between poor canine health and excessive inbreeding and a certain worry in the cat community that the media would attempt the same with cats, but there really isn’t an equivalent argument with felines. Cat breeds never served human purposes (hunting, primarily) as dogs did, so there is much less diversity in size and build across breeds. In the past, there was certainly often a lack of knowledge or disregard of health risks associated with certain breeds – e.g the Persian’s congested nose / eyes – but there’s a general consensus now that some of those problematic breeds (e.g. Persians) are really falling out of favour now amongst breeders and cat-lovers alike.
NP: One interesting breed is the Korat (a small blue cat), in the UK all Korats have been screened for Gangliosidosis – a genetic disease, which has been diagnosed in Korats – meaning that here through using a genetic screening programme and collaboration with the GCCF (Governing Council of the Cat Fancy) breeders have been able to entirely eliminate the problem and carry on enjoying what is in fact a very old breed of cat originating in Thailand. Breeders had already gained an understanding of how recessive genes work by observing that occasionally they would get unexpected lilac kittens in a litter from two blue parents, observing this helped them to understand that the Gangliosidosis problem could also be ‘carried’ but not observed in the parent and so testing provided a way around this, meaning no cats were being used that would inadvertently pass on the problem.
AN: Cat breeds have never had the range of problems that dog breeds have had and cat breeders are lucky in some ways that the tradition of cat breeding is not as old as dog breeding because they have been able to learn from the mistakes of the dog breeders and avoid repeating them, and scientific advances mean that cat breeders have all sorts of new tools to avoid the same problems. The GCCF is very keen to make sure that cat breeding never goes down the same road as certain dog breeds. The GCCF is very strict about avoiding any breed related health problems and refuses to recognise several breeds from other countries where there are potential issues and works closely with animal welfare organisations, like the RSPCA and the FAB through the Cat Group consortium. The GCCF genetics committee has produced a general breeding policy for all cats and is currently overhauling all the individual breeding policies for the different breeds to ensure that any genetic health issues are addressed.
Production still ‘Cat Fancy Club’ by Nina Pope. All rights reserved
Is there already a release date for the documentary?
KG: Unfortunately no as it’s still in production!
NP: To date we have been filming at shows and building up contacts with breeders and scientists alike. The image we made for the Wellcome Trust exhibition shows just how visually different pedigree cats can be. All the cats in the picture have one strong genetic link in common – the gene for a Blue (or in moggie-terms grey!) coat, the image shows in how many wildly different ways this can be expressed.
Like much of our other work the film will be about how knowledge can be approached or acquired in many different ways, one of which can be described as an amateur or hands-on practice. We see this as a really valuable way of learning about the world and are interesting in when it can either compliment or even change more accepted academic or scientific approaches. For our last film we lived with a community of historic re-enactors (Living with the Tudors) and on the face of it this may seem to have very little to connect it to the world of cat breeding! However, we were interested then in how being a re-enactor and physically trying to experience the past might change your relationship to history and bring it alive. In the same way breeding from your cat and observing this process can bring the,at times alienating, world of genetic science right into your home.
Thanks Nina, Karen, Leslie and Anthony!
‘Cat Fancy Club’ production still by Nina Pope. All rights reserved
Nina Pope will present Cat Fancy Club as part of Alter Nature: The Unnatural Animal at Z33 in Hasselt on 17.02.2011 at 19h00.
Pope & Guthrie have collaborated as artists and film-makers for over a decade and founded their company Somewhere in 2001. Their early career innovated the use of new media in contemporary art practice. ‘A Hypertext Journal’ (1996) prefigured the blog and ‘TV swansong’ (2002) utilised early webcasting technology. Their work has consistently innovated in both form and subject, focusing on the motivations and social contexts of ordinary people, and the communication of these stories.
Professor Leslie A. Lyons, PhD is a Professor at University of California-Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine, located in the Center for Companion Animal Health (CCAH). Research focuses on the genetics of the domestic cat and the development of genetic tools and resources that assist gene mapping in the cat and other companion animals. Feline research is focused on the discovery of mutations that cause inherited diseases and phenotypic traits and in the population dynamics of breed development and domestic cat evolution.
Anthony & the LaPerms. ‘Cat Fancy Club’ production still by Nina Pope. All rights reserved
Anthony Nichols is the chair of the UK LaPerm Cat Club and a long-standing LaPerm breeder who helped to establish the breed in the UK. He has a particular interest in feline genetics and is a member of the Governing Council of the Cat Fancy‘s Genetics Committee.