The German Case for Banning the Polydactyl ~ Have they got it wrong?
By Lucinda King B.A (Hons)
The 1987 treaty the EU Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals provided a set of guidelines for the revision of breeding policies across Europe. This Convention was drawn up under the auspices of the Council of Europe (CoE) The CoE is an intergovernmental organisation separate from the EU with it’s primary aim to ensure human rights and fundamental freedoms.
To date Spain, Ireland and the UK have not signed the Convention and France, Italy, and the Netherlands have signed but as yet failed to ratify it. All other European countries have signed and ratified the Convention and have put many aspects of its proposals into action. It is this Convention that forms the basis for the German breeding laws, which have seen the MCPoly banned in this country.
German Animal Protection Law is applied differently in the 16 Lander.
Some of the Lander have several regional authorities and each may apply the law differently, therefore, there is no consensus within and across the 16 Lander. One of the Federal Governments future targets is to work towards a general prohibition of “Qual Zuchten” across Europe. The word “qualzucht” has no direct translation into English but roughly translated means “agony breed” or “pain breed”.
Many writers have suggested that “problem breed” be used as a translation.
So what is the rationale for banning the MCPoly?
Article 5 of the Convention refers directly to breeding and states:
“Any person who selects a pet animal for breeding shall be responsible for having regard to the anatomical, physiological and behavioural characteristics which are likely to put at risk the health and welfare of either offspring or the female parent.”
However, in 1995 there was a Multilateral Consultation relating to the Convention in Strasbourg and all Member States were represented. In the Appendix of the official report of that meeting under the heading Guidelines for the revision of breeding policies, polydactyly is not directly mentioned.However, it was agreed to encourage breeding associations to reconsider breeding standards, Where persuasive measures were insufficient governments should consider the phasing out of the exhibition, sale, and breeding of certain characteristics that corresponded to those deemed as harmful defects.
The guidelines specifically refer to animals carrying semi-lethal factors. An example given is the Entlebucher Cattledog.
In their infinite wisdom the German Federal Government ascertained that polydactyly was a semi-lethal defect and therefore placed a breeding ban on them. A paper by S and H Willer provided the main evidence in the Expertise for the TierScg. They quote that polydactyly is an “autosomal dominant semi-lethal error with modificator effect.”This quote is referenced by a piece of work by C. Danforth, 1947, “Heredity of Polydactyly in the cat.”However, nowhere in Danforth’s research does he suggest that the Pd gene (the gene responsible for polydactyly) is a defect or harmful in any way.
To the contrary Danforth actually sums up his research paper “The trait is not related to sex, and no evidence is found that its gene is lethal…” Furthermore, responsible polydactyl breeders will only ever work with the Pd gene and will only ever do a poly x non-poly mating, yet Danforth’s research actually found no problems with homozygous polydactyly and therefore, poly x poly matings.
Yet responsible breeders are extremely careful not to breed for homozygoty, even though Danforth’s research states, “ these data lend no support to the assumption that polydactyly in the cat is lethal when homozygous” The term semi-lethal is clearly problematic, how can something be semi-lethal. If we refer to the Oxford English Dictionary (1985) it is a statement with no grounding in semantics.Semi meaning“ half partly” and Lethal meaning “causing or able to cause death” If we take a direct translation from the above definitions in the OED a semi-lethal defect is a defect that causes or may cause half a death!This makes no philosophical or semantic sense, death means the end of life, a living thing cannot partly die, we either exist or we cease to exist?
However, further investigation by the author shows that according to the study of genetics there are three classic states of lethal:
“A gene that is lethal causes the death of the embryo. Sub-lethal (semi-lethal) genes cause the animal to die soon after birth. The terms semi-lethal and sub-lethal have largely been replaced by «deferred lethal» to indicate that the deadly effect is deferred until after birth. Current categorisation gives three types of lethal: classical lethal (stillborn offspring), deferred lethal (born live, but die soon after) and teratological lethal (monstrous deformity).” (Hartwell, Messybeast.com)
Therefore, when Willer and Willer refer to a semi-lethal gene this refers to a gene that causes death soon after birth and is now termed as a sub-lethal gene. Furthermore, small litter sizes can be an indicator of a genes sub-lethality.Since when did Maine Coon Polydactyls have small litters suggesting sub-lethality or how many die soon after birth? It can be argued that polydactyls live to the same age as any other breed of cat, and rates of post-partum death are normal, therefore again suggesting this gene is not sub-lethal. It would appear that the German authorities appear to have skewed and misquoted the Danforth research and wrongly defined the term semi-lethal and used it as an excuse to ban the polydactyl in Germany.
There is much evidence to advocate that polydactyly is indeed entirely harmless and scientists classify it as an anomaly and not a defect. This is not a semantic choice; there is a real yet subtle difference between the two meanings.Once again referring to the OED we find that the definition of anomaly is “something that deviates from the usual rule or usual type ,” whilst the definition of defect is “a deficiency, an imperfection .” Therefore, an anomaly is just a variation of the norm (or we could suggest a variation of the breed standard, in the same way as a shorter mane, coat length and so on would be), whilst a defect implies an imperfection and thereby something flawed and potentially harmful.
Indeed polydactyly is common in Simmental and Holstein cattle but no attempt has been made to ban the breeding of them, and neither do farmers see it as a problem.
Solveig Pflueger expert geneticist and Chair of the Genetics Committee for TICA, states in her paper that polydactyly is not known to be associated with other anomalies or to adversely affect the cat. Furthermore, she argues that “these extra digits do not appear to hamper movement or function and there is no evidence of adverse effects in the homozygote.” She further states that in the Pixie-Bob polydactyly contributes much to the unique look of the breed.
With so much evidence to advocate that polydactyly does not fit into the remit of a dangerous or harmful gene it is little wonder that no legal cases have yet been bought by any of the Germany Lander against those choosing to breed with the polydactyl.It would be interesting to see what legal precedent would be ascertained should such legal action occur in the future. For the moment the polydactyl is legally safe in most European countries, however how long this will last is unsure. Furthermore, the USA may well decide to sign up to a similar arrangement as that provided by the Council of Europe .An educational programme is a must if we are to save this gene from extinction and safeguard it from the hands of ‘nanny’ governments and agencies all over the world.
- Willer S and Willer H, Gene Sites and Alleles of Domestic Cat with Pathological Effects or Side Effects (Review Paper)
- Expertise for the “torment breeding paragraph” (S 11b of the German Animal Protection Law)
- Council of Europe STE No 125, Multilateral Consultation of Parties to the EU Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals (ETS 125).
- Report of the Meeting, Strasbourg 7-10 th March 1995
- Solveig Pfueger, Polydactly and Related Traits
- European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals STE 125, Strasbourg 13.XI.1987
- Danforth C.H (1947) Heredity of polydactly in the cat. Journal of Heredity 38, 107
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