Clone the perfect cat, Mr Morgan

JUDE GILLIES
Last updated 15:17 01/02/2013
Cat
PURRFECTLY RELAXED: Possum the un-interactive cat.

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Have I got an idea for Gareth Morgan and his Cats To Go campaign. Much as I love cats, especially our own sweet little moggy, I totally agree that most cats make a real meal out of birds, and do not discriminate between natives and exotics. A friendly fantail tastes as good as a cunning blackbird, and is probably easier to catch.

Clearly, lots of cat lovers are outraged at Mr Morgan's campaign to rid the country of moggies. But there is a solution.

It came to me while looking at the exotic tiger lilies flowering around the district. Just like cats, these weird, spotty flowers can easily become a pest. Not because they catch birds, but because they reproduce rapidly by cloning themselves.

In fact, all bulbs reproduce vegetatively, which we call cloning, by producing small bulb "pups" off the parent bulb. Garlic and shallots are good examples of this.

Tiger lilies have gone a step further to speed up the process. In addition to their underground pups, they form little bulbils in their leaf axils after flowering. The tiny bulbils then drop to the ground and grow - and before long, the one bulb you planted multiplies into a mass of untamed tiger lilies filling up your border.

Plant one and you have them for life, still popping up years after you've made the effort to dig out the parent bulbs. Tiger lilies also thrive in warm, wet climates, and most often you'll see them flowering at this time of year along the roadsides and margins of native bush in Golden Bay and down the West Coast.

How they got there is anyone's guess, but chances are it was from a bulbil that escaped from someone's garden, or was in garden rubbish that, for reasons I find unfathomable, people deem is OK to dump on the side of the road.

Although they are already listed as pest plants in some areas, I happen to rather like their wayward, serendipitous roadside habits and, unusually for me, their orange colour. However, I agree that, just like a cat that hunts native birds, tiger lilies can be a problem in the wrong place.

And then it occurred to me - as many have said of Morgan's campaign, it's not the cat (or the tiger lily) that's the problem. It's what they do. Cats hunt and kill native birds, and tiger lilies invade native bush.

But then I thought of our sweet little mild-mannered cat Possum. Hers is a sedentary life. She's what my beau calls "un-interactive", preferring mostly her own company to ours or anyone else's.

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Rather than stooping to typical obsequious mincing and ingratiating leg-rubbing behaviour when she wants dinner, Possum prefers the direct and hugely effective "feed me now" meow, which usually ensures she gets what she wants, immediately.

Also bordering on agoraphobic, given a choice, she prefers to stay inside adorning a chair or the sofa, like something akin to a furnishing accessory, aka the "occasional cat".

Her main activity of the day is to timidly tiptoe outside for breakfast, followed by a quick trip to do her "business", then back to the sofa - or if it's especially hot, like this week, when fur coats are not the ideal attire, she retreats to the shade of the outdoor table, where she can enjoy the cooling updraught through the deck.

It's a similar routine at dinner time, and then it's off to bed. Night time is for sleeping, not hunting, in her life.

A bit like royalty, she's not amused when birds or even rodents make an appearance, but always leaves someone else to deal with them.

When the birds sneak up on her bowl of leftover breakfast pellets, as has become their custom (proving that birds, in fact, do not have small brains), Possum doesn't even make an effort to feign interest in the hunt. Instead, she sits inside behind the protection of glass and disdainfully watches them gobble up the last of the expensive "mature adult" vet clinic biscuits.

Ours are the best-fed birds in the neighbourhood and, unlike those perhaps in Mr Morgan's neighbourhood, include a thriving population of tui, bellbirds, waxeyes and all manner of exotic birds, as well as an occasional visit from a karearea, the native falcon.

All this has made me realise that Possum is the perfect cat - the answer to the problem of protecting our native (and exotic) birds. Although she looks convincingly like a cat, we've often speculated that she's actually had a behavioural bypass, making her the cat you have when you don't have a cat.

And that's where cloning comes in. Remember Dolly, the world's first cloned sheep, which made headlines a few years ago? Just like tiger lilies that mass-produce by cloning, I figure we could instantly cure the cat problem by mass-producing more Possums to replace all those nasty bird-hunting cats. It would be a win-win situation overnight. People could get to keep their cat and their birds.

There are, inevitably, a few minor issues to sort out, not the least of which is what to do with all the existing cats. Without wanting to suggest they might end up as cat, or worse, dog food, they would have to be "dealt with".

May I remind everyone that in some countries, they are regarded as perfectly good cuisine. Closer to home, the karearea loves to eat them, but only on the hoof. Karearea prefer to catch live prey rather than eating carrion or dead animals, like the imported harrier.

Then there's the issue of interaction and companionship. The positive benefits of pets for old people, the ill and those on their own are well recognised, but you can't say that Possum is exactly smoochy.

She's definitely not the kind of lovey-dovey, "I totally-adore-you-and-the-fridge-no-matter-what" type of cat, or even the fun, skittery, coquettish, kittenish type others may prefer, so there's a bit of work to do to on her personality.

That's where a tiny bit of genetic engineering comes in. All it needs is to find a particularly loving, smoochy-woochy cat and identify the "I love you" gene in its DNA, and slot it into the cloning mix.

No doubt there would need to be a few other options. such as long or short hair and a choice of different colours to go with your decor. People could simply tick the boxes from a cats-to-order online supplier. Possum loves sleeping in boxes, so she'd be a cinch to send out to buyers around the country.

I'm not quite sure about all the messy GE details. Cloning I understand, but GE is a bit more scary to me, so I'd have to trust those who know more to do their best.

And of course, I wouldn't want any animals - especially Possum, for all her un-interactive shortcomings - harmed in any of these procedures.

Everyone could have a perfect cat of choice, and no birds would be harmed either.

Check out the facts about cats at Gareth Morgan's website garethsworld.com/catstogo/, and also read the cats factsheet at Forest and Bird at forestandbird.org.nz/saving-our-environment/threats-and-impacts-/cat-pet-or-pest.

Bird-friendly tips:

Get your cat de-sexed.

Put a bell on your cat.

Consider not replacing your cat when it dies.

TIGER LILIES

Here's a little-known fact about tiger lilies, Lilium tigrinum. All parts of the plant are poisonous to cats. So it may well be that the two don't make a good mix in your garden – another good reason not have a cat if you like tiger lilies.

The exact origins of the plant are not known, as it has not been found in the wild since bulbs were first shipped to Europe from Asia in the 1870s. It is considered a hybrid, and does not set fertile seed but instead reproduces from bulbils that set in the leaf axils after flowering.

It's a vigorous, pest-resistant plant, awarded the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit in 2002, but can carry and pass on virus diseases to other lilies. For that reason, if you grow especially prized and vulnerable lilies in your garden and want to grow tiger lilies, it's probably best to grow them separately. Grow them in well-drained but moist soil, where the flowers will get plenty of sun.

To get rid of unwanted tiger lilies without spraying, cut off the flower heads before they produce their bulbils, then dig and carefully sieve the soil where the bulbs are growing. You may have to dig the area for several years to get rid of them completely.

- Nelson

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