Science Feature: The NeoCat

Posted Monday, December 26th, 2011 10:00 am GMT -4 by

In the early hours I was awakened by paws, patting their silent way across my duvet. Claws slid across my cheek, encouraging my sleep-glued eyes to open. I awoke to behold the neocat as it sat, ghostly-green, on the pillow.

‘Caught-a-vole, caught-a-vole, caught-a-vole!’ it said in its high-pitched, breathless voice and patted me again with its claws extended.

I stumbled downstairs, half-asleep, while the cat swirled dangerously around my ankles, squeaking in self-satisfaction. In the kitchen, the puss was all high-energy, catching and recatching the hapless beast while evading me with practiced ease. For variety it would occasionally let it go then bat the catatonic creature from paw to paw.

‘Bip – bop, bip – bop, bip – bop,’ it sang eerily.

When Puss sat back and started to juggle the vole in the air, my patience finally snapped. I took the big kitchen brush and literally swept the poor rodent out of the back door – I think I saw it scuttling off into the night.

The cat was locked in the kitchen.

In the morning I have a tight schedule: up and shower; cereal and coffee; brush teeth and out the door. The moggy had other ideas: as I put the kettle on it rubbed against my ankle and said in a cheery tone: ‘food, food, want food. Food, food, want food. Food, food, food!’

I went to the fridge, pulled out some gourmet chicken from last night and put it on his plate. The cat sauntered across, took a sniff and then ignored it, starting to squeal with a harsh, buzz-saw undertone:

‘Want-a-scratch, want-a-scratch, here, here, here … .’

It offered me its head: I was forced to spend five minutes scratching between its ears and along its back before it would shut up. Then it went off to my bed for a long nap.

Naturally I was late for work.

Mid-morning, I got a call from my aunt, who wanted to know how her gift was shaping up. She’s a formidable woman, pretty senior in a Government BioWar Lab. The neocat project had ended and it had become surplus to requirements. When that happens, my aunt’s thoughts turn all too frequently to me.

I explained about the vole problem and she expressed surprise.

‘We grafted in the jellyfish gene and, as you mentioned, it glows in the dark like a Christmas tree,’ she said, ‘Any self-respecting vole should see your new cat a mile off.’

‘It’s hardly an advantage, auntie, if he still gets to catch the stupid ones,’ I retorted crossly, ‘Like there’s any shortage of dumb voles?’

‘Well, at least he talks to you. You’ll have some companionship in the evenings, for a change.’

I needed no reminders about my current relationship status.

‘And there’s always the third gene sequence we spliced in,’ she continued, ‘That might come in handy. Anyway, pleased to hear he’s settling in so well,’ and with that she was gone.

That evening, I had some work to do on my laptop. The cat, well rested after a day shedding hair and grit on my sheets, decided to walk across the keyboard as I was sending a crucial email.

‘Nice, nice,’ the cat purred as it ran its cheek across my face, stroking my fingers affectionately with its talons.

It completed its traversal of the keyboard by pressing the key sequence for ‘Reply-To-All’ on the chatty, indiscreet memo I had just finished. By the time I noticed, the cat had vanished.

By the end of the evening, the cat had nipped my ankles to show it was hungry, scratched my arms to show it was bored, and had told me how it was feeling for an uninterrupted hour and a half in phrases of toddler-like simplicity. My patience finally snapped.

‘Right puss,’ I said, as the animal transitioned to its night-time state of preternatural vigor, heightened alertness and excited hyperactivity, ‘it’s time for time-out.’

I picked the creature up, as you’re meant to, by the scruff of its neck and carried it into the kitchen. There, I opened the door to the freezer and pulled out an empty drawer. Unceremoniously, in went the cat. I could hear its piteous moans as I slid the freezer shelf back in:

‘Trapped; out – out, want-out, cold, cold, cold!’

I closed the freezer door, deaf to all its cries. I wouldn’t be opening that shelf again until my auntie visited – she usually managed no more than once a year.

I figured she’d be quite interested in how the hibernation gene worked out.

Afterword

The famous philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said ‘ If a lion could talk, we could not understand him .’ In humans, the FOXP2 gene codes for language – probably there are additional genes you would need to engineer into a cat’s genome (along with the jellyfish gene which makes a cat glow in the dark) to give the animal a conversational ability.

Contrary to Wittgenstein, I believe a talking cat would be easily understandable, approximately at the dialogue level of the worst sitcom you have ever seen. Make sure yours comes with an off-switch!