Will genetically modified pets soon be reality or do they already live among us?

The Breeder blurs the line between the real and an imagined future. Is this a genetically designed dog or a true case of Short Spine Syndrome?
The Breeder blurs the line between the real and an imagined future. Is this a genetically designed dog or a true case of Short Spine Syndrome?

My short film The Breeder is the result of (what I thought was) my own weird attraction to watching YouTube clips of pets in wheelchairs and animals with various deformities or oddities: a dog unable to keep its tongue in its mouth, three-legged cats, dogs running on hind legs, rabbits with balancing issues, a grumpy cat… Fortunately for me, but perhaps not so much for the animals, it turns out I am one of many millions of people who are drawn to animals with health issues. If you have a pug dog and you think it looks cute, you are part of us. You like Munchkin cats? Do you melt at the sight of Rhea the featherless mini-parrot who receives knitted sweaters from fans? You are with us too. Biology gives the answer: it has everything to do with cuteness aesthetics.

App for gm pets

A demonstration of the new app. Whether it's the amount and length of legs, size of eyes, or furriness – almost everything is adjustable.

Pugs belong to a breed known as brachycephalic, as do Chow Chows, English Bulldogs and French Bull dogs. One of the expert voices in my film, Clare Fisher (La Trobe University, Australia), calls them "squishy faced dogs". These dogs suffer from respiratory issues and are – usually very audibly – gasping for air. Pugs don’t walk; they hobble around. As a result they tend to be overweight, because their physique (short legs, round body) makes running a difficult activity. Dr Joyce Goggin (University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands) points out that we tend to think of these dogs as having “always been around”, that the appearance of these animals is somehow “naturally occurring”. But in fact humans have created these animals via selective breeding. In doing so, we humans have also, in a way, actively contributed to the creation of animals with health issues. This is one of the ‘ingredients’ of the film. The other is a mechanism that works subconsciously. Dr Joyce Goggin explains how zoologist Konrad Lorenz identified characteristics in baby animals that trigger a care response in adults: a big/round face, a chubby physique, clumsiness, large eyes, soft skin or fur – to name a few. These ‘cute characteristics’ are present in human babies as well as other young animals. Looking cute is a good survival mechanism especially when you are not yet able to look after yourself. As you may have noticed, these are also the traits of pugs and other animals with health issues.

GM pets

When the app starts to glitch and species blend.

My film envisions what may happen if we mix past animal breeding practices with an attraction to these cuteness aesthetics and the new possibilities of genetic modification. The result is a rather morbid narrative presented in a light-hearted manner. The film is a hybrid of fiction, animation, and documentary, telling the story of a scientist turned breeder (played by Charlotte Hunter) who creates an app with the help of a developer (played by Trevor Murphy) that allows customers to design their own pet. Whether you want a rabbit with excessive amounts of fur or an animal from her renowned legless ‘desk-animal’ range – it will soon be possible.

The Breeder (2017, UK/USA) is a short film that was commissioned by Imagine Science Films and Labocine New York as a chapter of the anthology feature film Mosaic.

You are very welcome to watch the film as part of a 90-minute programme with other films exploring ‘genetic futures’ in Newcastle, 4 to 8 February 2019, Black Box Pop-up Cinema at 10am, 11.30am, 1pm, 2.30pm, 4pm, West Wing Foyer, Institute of Genetic Medicine, Central Parkway, Times Square, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 3BZ.


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