One evening, Crash went missing. I went out on the front porch to
retrieve her, something we usually did an hour before sundown. We were
in southern California at the time, and evening brought the owls, the
dogs, and the coyotes. Crash, at six pounds, was small enough that a
red-tail hawk might be able to carry her off.
This particular evening, no Crash. We looked around carefully in the
apartment complex. It was unusual for her to venture more than about 50
feet from the front door. Usually she was content to go out on the hot
asphalt driveway and bake her brains out.
I called the pound. It was closed to the public, but they had a night
guy there. “Do you have a tiny black and white cat, missing a foot and
half her brains?” I asked.
“Yup, and she's sleeping right now. And we're closed. You can come bail
her out after 9am.” One advantage to Crash was that she was pretty easy
to describe accurately.
I was there at 9 sharp. A vet was there, and she explained that someone
had spotted Crash running in a circle on the center median of US 101.
This was near an interchange about a mile and a half from our apartment.
The motorist, thinking Crash had been hit and was injured, risked his
life and pulled over, retrieved Crash and took her to the pound. They,
too, assumed Crash was injured, and were surprised to find that aside
from the fact that she had clearly had a terrible accident several years
before, she was in excellent health.
The vet walked with me back to the cage where Crash was. I realized
later that she wanted to observe the interaction between us. Pet
abandonment is a big problem in southern California, and she wanted to
get an idea if whether I was the sort who would leave a little crippled
cat to die on one of California's busiest freeways. Unlike the vet, I
didn't have the faintest idea how Crash got to where she was found. I
believed (and still believe) that she did it under her own power, since
it's hard to imagine someone picking up a cat from in front of its house
and then abandoning it on the freeway. If someone had tried to steal
Crash and Crash objected, they would have found wreckage and possibly
remains of the kidnapper nearby. Crash had her own unique ways of
defending herself that made her extraordinarily dangerous to mishandle.
But then again, Crash usually couldn't walk 100 feet in a specific
direction, and wasn't what you would call goal-oriented. She seemed a
low risk to wander (and in fact, never did so, before or after).
We reached her cage, and I looked in and felt a gust of relief. I was
pretty sure they had the right cat, but I wasn't completely ready to
accept it until I actually saw her. I leaned in toward the grating.
“Hello, Crash” I crooned.
She promptly lifted her head, focused on me, and gave me a meow of greeting.
“She vocalized!” the vet exclaimed.
“Huh? Oh, yeah. She's quite a talker.”
The vet explained that every night, two or three stray cats were brought
in, and without exception, they fell into one of two sets of responses.
Some were scared to death of the strangers around them and the scent and
sounds of the other animals and crouched at the back of their enclosures
and made no sound, other than to hiss. The other type were assertive,
pissed off, and wanted everyone to know it, and yelled their heads off.
They had actually started treating Crash for shock because when she was
brought in, she clearly wasn't frightened, but she was also utterly
silent. Cats in shock or pain WILL purr, however, and Crash wasn't doing
that, either. She was curious about her surroundings, and quite relaxed
about strangers touching her. If a shelter worker put a finger in front
of her face, she would lean forward and sniff it, and she clearly liked
being stroked and petted, but she didn't make any of the little noises
cats make when you pet them. The vet had concluded that she was mute.
Crash did like to talk, but she had a much smaller vocabulary than most
house cats. She had a single noise, a flat unaffected meow about an
octave low. She sounded like her batteries were running low.
The Vet knew standard cat behavior. Cats who are frightened or in shock
are silent. Cats who meow are trying to convey a state of mind, whether
it be anger, pleasure, hunger, or annoyance.
I read lately that cats only meow for humans, and not each other. That's
not completely true—our cats will meow at our dogs as well as us. But
unless they are fighting or in heat, cats usually are silent when
dealing with one another. Crass vocalizations are for dealing with the
lumbering lummoxes of inferior species, such as great apes and dogs.
Most cats have enough inflection that alert humans learn that there are
meows that mean “feed me,” “pet me,” “let me out,” “let me in,” and
“I've changed my mind, let me out after all.” Dog barkings are even more
versatile: ours has a specific bark that means “It's getting dark and
the cats are still outside.”
It's a two way street, by the way. Humans speaking to cats or dogs don't
make the same noises they make talking to other humans, and usually just
overhearing a person from around a corner will tell you which species
that person is speaking to.
Mice don't have this ability. Mice just squeak, either at us or at one
another. Usually, by all appearances, it's pretty random.
But recently, some scientists took a gene, FOX2P, which plays a critical
role in the mechanics of human speaking, and inserted it in mice. How
did they do this? It was really quite simple. They took growth of a
yeast fox2sps19Delta mutant in which Fox2p was exchanged with rat
peroxisomal multifunctional enzyme type 1 on trans-9,trans-12
linolelaidic acid medium gave credence to this theory. Then the gene
encoding the multifunctional protein (MFP) of peroxisomal beta-oxidation
in Saccharomyces cerevisiae was isolated from a genomic library via
functional complementation of a fox2 mutant strain. At which point,
substitutions within the carboxyl-terminal tripeptide (Ala----Gly and
Lys----Gln) supported targeting of HDE to peroxisomes of C. albicans but
not of S. cerevisiae. The scientists then investigated the regulation of
expression of the gene (HDE), encoding the peroxisomal trifunctional
enzyme hydratase-dehydrogenase-epimerase (HDE), of the diploid yeast
Candida tropicalis. The gene (HDE) encoding the peroxisomal
trifunctional enzyme, hydratase-dehydrogenase-epimerase, of the yeast
Candida tropicalis, was cloned and its nucleotide sequence is reported.
Nothing to it, really. Your five year old kid could have done it. And
yes, I cribbed that from Wikigene, and I don't know what the hell any of
it means, either. But they put a human speech gene in mice.
It didn't make the mice gifted orators. There wasn't a William Jennings
Byran in the whole lot of them. In fact, there wasn't even a George W.
Bush. These were no exceptionally gifted mice.
But the nature of the squeaks among mice born with the FOX2P gene
changed. There was a wider variety of squeaks, with a greater range of
inflection and modulation.
They didn't end up with talking mice, not that anyone expected that. But
they did end up with mice that seemed to be showing increased ability to
vocalize. If you accept the premise that cats meow in order to
communicate (if on a rather basic level) then you have to entertain the
possibility that the genetically altered “frankenmice” now have that
Humans that lack the FOX2P gene have problems with voice articulation
and usually have problems with vocabulary and grammar skills. It was
this lack in an entire English family that caused researchers to notice
the lack of that particular gene in the first place. Prior to that,
everyone had just assumed they were Americans, the poor things.
So if inserting this gene in mice can bring about a measurable change in
their vocalization habits, what happens if the gene is inserted in
animals that have better communication skills. Would cats, so treated,
be able to express a preference of one brand of cat food over another?
Would Lassie be able to indicate there was a knock at the back door, as
opposed to the front door?
I'm sensitive to the moral and ethical issues involved, not the least of
which is that we're messing around with our two closest friends in the
animal kingdom – not that we haven't been doing that right along.
Nor am I going to go all Doctor Doolittle here and start rhapsodizing
about how we “could talk with the animals, walk with the animals.” But
we are slow and simple, and don't have the gifted sense of smell and
keen awareness of body language that dogs and cats use for communication
among themselves, and changes that might make it a bit easier to
understand the needs and wants of our favorite critters are no bad thing.
It would have been nice to ask Crash just what the hell she was doing
out on the center divider of 101 over a mile away.
June 4, 2009