Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Hypoallergenic Cats to the Rescue

In one of its most widely emailed articles, the New York Times reports that Allerca has developed a hypoallergenic cat, or what the compay calls “lifestyle pets.” Purchasers must go through a rigorous screening process, and the hypoallergenic cats are sold neutered (the lucrative trait is apparently readily transmitted in cross-breedings with ordinary cats.) As a cat lover myself, I am sympathetic to those heretofore doomed by biology to be forever deprived of feline companionship. However, when the same paper is full of reports about the horrors and deprivations of Darfur, I can't help wondering at the state of the world. Do we really want to be remembered as a society that cared more about making sure that all Americans had the opportunity to obtain a hypothetical future pet than as a society that stepped up to the plate as a humanitarian crisis unfolded? What does it say about us that the novelty kitty article is the one people pass along to their friends?

But, I digress. The reason that the article caught my eye (not suffering from allergies myself) is that I had been following Allerca for some time. The company made waves early on by proposing to genetically engineer cats to attain the holy grail of catdom--a kitty that produces little or no Fed d1, the most common human allergen. A funny thing happened on the way to the "frankencat" however. Allerca discovered a way to produced its $4000 hypoallergenic kitties through conventional breeding. Turns out good old selective breeding can get the job done.

This summer, the San-Diego Union Tribune published a less than savory story about the “Allerca Foundation” a purportedly non-profit foundation administered by Allerca. The Tribune reported that the Foundation may have illegally solicited donations. On its website, the Foundation had claimed to be working with the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans to clone the rare clouded leopard, and with the Feline Conservation Center in Rosamond to add genetic samples of endangered species to the foundation's DNA bank.

When the Tribune reported that neither the Audubon Zoo nor the Feline Conservation Center acknowledged any association with the Allerca Foundation, the company altered its website to omit the claims. Now the website merely provides information about the plight of the snow leopard.

Despite representations that donations were tax deductible, the Tribune could find no evidence that the Allerca Foundation actually was a 501(c)(3) organization. The Foundation no longer accepts donations from the public, claiming to be funded solely from Allerca. The Foundation has no projects pending.

Of course, the Audubon Zoo does use biotechnology in its attempts to preserve highly endangered species. For example, in August 2005, the Audubon Zoo announced that it had successfully bred two endangered African Wildcats that had been produced through cloning. The clones then used “traditional methods” to produce a healthy litter of 8 kittens. One hopes the kitties survived Katrina.

By confirming that clones can breed naturally, the Audubon Zoo took a big step forward in enabling researchers to preserve the shrinking gene pools of species on the verge of extinction. That said, I have very mixed feelings about using cloning to preserve species. For species on the verge of extinction it may well be their best (read only) hope. But, I am afraid that fascination with technology will divert attention from crucial habitat protection initiatives. After all, it is so much easier to believe that technology can fix the biodiversity crisis with just a little innovation. Changing our behaviors is so much harder.

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