from John WS Bradshaw
from John WS Bradshaw

So I am three days into the reading of Module 1.

I am freaked out by the mention of the Drosophila fly in a paper on Behavioural Genetics. I had hoped to go to my grave never seeing that word in print once more. I am taken right back to those Genetics lectures given by Professor Bradley. You know; the steep lecture theatre beside Bush Court, where half closing your eyes and navigating the steps gives you vertigo. Where swivelling desks are the bane of the left-handed. He, like a swollen bumble bee, buzzing behind the lectern, us, up the back behind our hands, giggling, not paying attention, as usual. Mesmerised and dulled by the tone of his voice, we drift off. What is it about lecture theatres that makes sleep so inevitable? We are studying vet science. We are in third year, trying our best to scrape by. Third year – where study becomes mud that must be waded through. We are eager to get our hands on scalpels. Search out ovaries through a cow’s rectal wall. What do we want to know about fruit flies?

There are words here that are vaguely familiar.

Alleles, genotype, heterozygous, homozygous, hybridisation, phenotype, pleiotropy… Who are you kidding? Did you ever know their definitions? Not knowing their precise meaning gives them even more power to alarm. If it were poetry perhaps they could be beautiful. Instead they vibrate with science. I need to look them up and add them to the glossary. To the dictionary then. The maroon-covered Merck Veterinary Dictionary. These words are now taking up space inside my brain. They jostle for position. I ache for more diagrams, more visuals, even the words could be prettier. The stories. Where are the stories? Surely genetics is the best narrative of all. And then comes the story of the cat. During medieval times she is considered cursed and the companion of witches. Seen in the street at night it was best to kill her or maim her, knowing she was likely to be a witch in disguise.

What I learn; the cat is genetically more resistant than the dog to large variations in shape and size. Its manipulation has been less malleable. They have been domesticated for a shorter period, but even with more time, they seem unlikely to become as varied a species as Canis familiaris. It is as if they have kept a bit of themselves secret from us. Always a little bit wild. When the pupil of a cat is fully open she has nocturnal vision equal to that of a bat or a badger. To think that Chinese peasants used the size of a cat’s pupil to tell the time. I look at a diagram of the cat’s superior collicus in its mid brain – an area that processes and integrates sensory information. It is all about its face and fore paws. The fact that you’ve known since childhood that a cat uses her whiskers like eyes and that her paws are stealth weapons. Some things are easy to learn. You see them.

Some things; like the fact that sled dogs always keep one foot on the ground and that that foot happens to be a sweat-free foot, selected for through breeding the best sled dogs, since it is less likely to collect ice as the dog runs, just stay with me. And that dogs who have single or double flights in their gaits, like greyhounds, would be unable to pull a sled, and instead would be struck off-balance, as all four feet leave the ground when they run. And to be a good sled dog you need to be able to poop and pee and run all at the same time. These things stick in my brain.

Some things; like the fact that in domesticating the dog we have designed a creature that needs us and depends on us and wants our company. Like a plasticine model we have pushed it into whatever shape we have desired. We have selected it for tameness (a reduction in flight distance) and in doing so we have reduced its brain size, changed the shape of its face and ears and tail, increased its vocalisation, made its sexual cycles shorter and kept it in a permanent juvenile state. Even the skulls of the largest dogs are no bigger than that of a four-month-old wolf. When we have issues with our dogs it is often a misinterpretation of the qualities we have designed them for. For instance the Border Collie who chases cars, the Blue Heeler who bites the ankles of children, the terrier who digs up the rose beds and the dog who pines for his master while he is away from home. We have asked Lassie for loyalty and boy have we got it.