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Sport 37: Winter 2009

A Report on the New Zealand White

page 189

A Report on the New Zealand White

It's generally assumed the factors leading to the rise of the New Zealand White are well known.

But they're not. And until we know the full story of the current crisis we'll be powerless against it. Farming's downward slide, the collapse of rural towns, the undermining of the economy—all will continue and accelerate.

I leave it to the reader to judge why the account given here is only now, for the first time, appearing in full.

The New Zealand White, despite the name, is an American product. It was William S. Preshaw of Rippon, California, who bred the first litter. Preshaw dreamed of answering the needs of a time-and-motion century. Feral rabbits imported from New Zealand provided a genetic base that was modified by various additions. (Angora was part of the mix.) After many trials and some unpleasant errors Preshaw beheld the culmination of his labour on August 14, 1916.

'The New Zealand White,' he declared, 'is a new rabbit for a new age.'

Preshaw's dream bunny had fur soft and white as clouds and a body solid as earth. Because it rapidly achieved slaughter weight, the New Zealand White was soon the number one meat rabbit in America. However, its career in fashion was cut short by animal liberationists in the seventies. (Cruelly, the campaign against the bludgeoning of harp seal pups tarred all white fur with the same brush.)

But by then the New Zealand White had already occupied another niche. The big rabbits found their way into Americans' hearts as well as their bellies. Within decades they became the most popular pet breed. An affable disposition, a well-rounded body, full cheeks, a modest coat, upstanding ears: the New Zealand White was a totem animal for the bourgeoisie. Some fanciers called it the Alice in Wonderland page 190 rabbit, others the Easter Bunny. Breeders advertised the animal's 'rag doll appeal'—its willingness to be slung over a child's shoulder, to snuggle into necks and the crooks of arms.

Yet it was not in America's homes that the New Zealand White would attain its greatest success—or its ultimate infamy.

The clinical trials industry soon realised that William Preshaw's protégés were better guinea pigs than—well, than guinea pigs. They were too well-bred to kick out with their claws as other rabbits do. Their almost transparent fur allowed for easy observation of caustic reactions. And their sensitive eyes, pale pink or ruby red, were ideal for measuring toxicity. The big albino with the curious name became the Hero of Science.

The road to the true destiny of the New Zealand White, though, was first trodden by another species—the humble mouse. On April 12, 1988, the US Trademark Office made history when it issued the first patent on a living animal. Patent 4,736,866 was granted to Harvard College for 'Oncomouse®'. Philip Leder and Timothy A. Stewart had taken standard laboratory mice and introduced into their germ and somatic cells a recombinant activated oncogene sequence. The result was a mouse that reliably developed malignant tumours at an early age, guaranteeing Harvard a fortune in grants for cancer research.

Development of oncogenetically endowed rabbits began on April 13, 1988. The models, naturally, were New Zealand Whites. On August 22, 1992, Red River Laboratories announced the genesis of the new New Zealand White, Oryctolagus cuniculus oncogenensis, to be sold under the commercial name Onconey®. (Coney: a rabbit, from the Latin cuniculus; related to modern English cunning.)

Unfortunately, the new creatures were never to make the great leap forward to a cancer-free world. Their use in research was immediately prevented by a legal injunction taken out by Harvard, which claimed infringement of its Oncomouse® patent. Red River responded with its own injunction, alleging the Oncomouse® patent was unconstitutional. (In the years that followed, while neither animal could be used in the laboratory, research funding was diverted into epidemiological studies that made both species obsolete.)

It remains a mystery who released the first onconies into the pet page 191 industry and the wild. Each of the litigants blamed the other until an item on Fox News showed weeping children and angry parents, describing the metamorphosis of their Wonderland-White-Rabbit into a mass of suppurating sores. Next day, in a joint press release, Harvard and Red River blamed the leak on animal liberationists.

The onconey is designed to grow at a rapid pace—naturally, for its life is a race against hyperactive neoplasmosis. At four weeks the skin simmers with tumours that will push through the fur by the time the animal reaches maturity. The eyes ulcerate, lesions open on the ears and the cottonball tail breaks into a running sore.

All of which is consistent with its genetic blueprint. What the animal's designers did not anticipate was the accompanying cerebral modification that would make the onconey a social and ecological catastrophe. To see the difference we need only compare its warren (or conynger) with the paltry burrows dug by the common rabbit. Each conynger is a labyrinthine, multidimensional, subterranean metropolis with reticulated water, dry storage burrows, cooling vents for summer, sandy suntraps for winter. And of course onconies, like all lagomorphs, recycle their own waste.

Experts can't agree on how the animal's exceptional intelligence came about. Perhaps New Zealand Whites had been inadvertently selected for problem-solving intelligence by decades of maze-testing, operant conditioning trials and Skinner-box experiments. Yet this would not explain the most sinister aspect of the onconies' cunning: their capacity to plan and act co-operatively. A flock of birds or a school of fish turns like a single brainwave, but neither is capable of calculated malice. By contrast, when a farmhouse or research plant collapses into an undermine dug by onconies beneath those buildings and nowhere else—what should we conclude?

Some believe the oncogene sequence inserted into the rabbit DNA carried another, hidden code that activated previously unused neural pathways in the lagomorph brain. Others suggest that nature, to compensate for their genetic curse, granted the onconies the kind of evolutionary mutation that sometimes comes out of the blue and sends a species leapfrogging ahead.

Whatever the explanation, I have come to regard the onconey's page 192 brain as its most malignant growth of all. I am a scientist and dedicated to objectivity but by all that's holy, no one could encounter these things without a shudder.

To understand the arrival of the onconey in New Zealand we must follow the twists and turns of its ancestry, which is entwined with our own. History has many cunning passages.

We consider the rabbit an English legacy but Oryctolagus cuniculus is not native to the British Isles. It arrived as part of the Norman Conquest. It's less clear how the species came to Europe in the first place since it is virtually absent from Asia. Palaeontologists think cuniculus may have originated in North America and travelled to Europe across a now-vanished land bridge. Others, more fancifully, suggest the prehistoric rabbit island-hopped via the lost continent of Atlantis, and support this theory by citing the species' presence in Madeira and the Canary Islands. But history shows these populations were established by Portuguese mariners as meat-supply depots along the way to the African slave markets.

The European rabbit's landfall in New Zealand was also the result of enterprise. Sir George Grey bestowed six silver-grey rabbits on the Canterbury Acclimatisation Society in 1866. Their progeny was distributed far and wide. It was hoped the little creatures would prosper and provide many hours of hunting for homesick English settlers.

They did.

By 1876 Southland was alive with rabbits. Otago a few years later. The Canterbury plains were swarming by 1887. One farmer wrote that 'hills and gullies that used to present a scene of perfect sylvan beauty, with variegated pasture intermixed with sparkling streams and alpine snowcapped ranges, and literally covered with sheep, now look like a deserted waste'. After dark, anyone shining a light outside would ignite a mass of red stars, the reflections of innumerable eyes.

But colonists don't surrender easily. Stubbornness and cunning are in their DNA. Carrots were pasted with strychnine and millions of lives taken before the rabbits lost their taste for roots. Cyanide gas was pumped into warrens, but the inhabitants died in such numbers page 193 that their corpses blocked the burrows and the tunnels beyond were unaffected.

A desperate government turned to the animal underworld, calling in the rabbits' natural enemies, the mustelids. Stoats, ferrets and weasels were imported and husbanded. They prospered too. An observer in the Wairarapa noted that ferrets reached plague proportions in the district several years before the rabbits arrived to do the same.

Control by human agency was even less reliable. 2d per kill: what rabbiter would drive a steady income to extinction? In 1894 farmers reported a new breed, the tailless Mackenzie Rabbit. When the news reached London, T.H. Huxley wrote a paper explaining how the loss of the white tail would confer an evolutionary advantage—decreased visibility in the long southern twilights. Then a clerk in Twizel pointed out that the local Rabbit Board paid bounties per tail and did not ask for the whole corpse. Huxley's mortification saw him under the ground only four months later.

Myxomatosis was crushingly defeated in the 1950s: exposed to the disease in laboratories, New Zealand's rabbits disdained to contract it. In 1997 Rabbit Calicivirus Disease was illegally disseminated by farmers. They smuggled infected animals from Australia and mulched them into a contagious paste in their wives' kitchen blenders. The rabbit population dropped a bit, then bounced back higher than ever and a lot more resistant.

Shotguns, gin traps, rifles, leghold snares; strychnine, carbon bisulphide, Pindone, cyanide, 1080; Extermination Boards, bounties, Easter Day blitzkriegs; stockades, moats, razor wire, militarised zones. Aerial bombardment. Underground detonation. Flamethrowers. Electrification. Germ warfare. Every technology invented by the ingenious twentieth century for use on unwanted populations was turned on our lop-eared invaders.

They hardly looked up from their nibbling.

Then: New Zealand farmers heard about the onconey. Spreading its genes across North America like wildfire, ensuring that within a few generations every US rabbit would have a congenital predisposition to cancer.

You could have heard a pin drop.

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The rest is well known and need not be repeated here. Except to note that the pace of damage is accelerating.

Scarcely a week has passed since the disappearance of Te Kuiti, reported by a stock-truck driver who nearly pitched headlong into the canyon on State Highway 3. Last month several more coastal farms slid into the Bay of Plenty. Meanwhile city-dwellers go in fear of a new kind of terrorist cell. Instead of jets flown into buildings or suicide bombers in discos, a weapon that explodes our bodies from within: anonymous Gmo hackers claim to have introduced the oncogene to human Dna. Maybe it's a bluff but we'll only know for sure when the lumps appear in the delicate warrens of our lymphatic systems.

I doubt that I'm the only man who palpates his groin first thing each day.

I know what you're thinking: how does he know all this when it's never been made public?

Until recently I led a team at the Crown Agricultural Research Enterprise dedicated to pest control. A few years ago we were instructed to put all projects on hold and concentrate on combating the new New Zealand White—the offspring of onconies introduced into the local feral population. Our findings were published but the crucial details omitted. Those details I will now summarise.

We quickly ruled out infectious agents. To compensate for the onconey's congenital disadvantage its metabolism has an exaggerated resistance to infection. No disease kills onconies more quickly than their own genes.

Chemical and biological controls are ineffectual too. O. cuniculus ongogenensis shows an uncanny ability to learn from the experience of its conspecifics. One or two deaths from 1080 and the whole stock—including that in other laboratories—resolutely refuses the pellets. Two or three experiments with ferrets or stoats and onconies throughout the facility know how to organise a pre-emptive attack.

Yet these studies did teach us something crucial: to defeat these animals we must find the limits of their intelligence. So I starved them and watched them limp through mazes to food. I dehydrated them and noted how quickly they learnt to push levers that opened doors page 195 onto mazes leading to water. I kept them in isolation and observed the trials they'd endure to rejoin their own kind: crossing electrified floors, swimming icy water, navigating tunnels imbued with the scent of predators. I gave them a choice between going hungry or pushing a lever that yielded food but also subjected a cage-mate to electrocution. Ninety-one of a hundred starved to death, demonstrating empathy to a surprising degree.

Now, I felt, I was approaching their secret citadel: the relationship between their intelligence and their ferocious social cohesion.

Then something went awry. My data, which had been so lucid, turned opaque. Animals that had scored in the top decile for instrumental reasoning now chose eighty per cent wrong answers. Those that could navigate any maze, even with eyes and nostrils sewn shut, now lay down and slept after a single wrong turn. All at once, every specimen succumbed to gross stupidity.

One night, as I lay unsleeping, the explanation came to me like a fluorescent tube, flickering first then burning bright. My onconies were choosing the wrong answers deliberately. They'd decided in unison to frustrate my research by playing dumb.

It was four in the morning but I dressed hurriedly and drove to the institute. I removed my shoes and padded into the laboratory in the dark. Then I turned on the lights. It took a moment to for my eyes to adjust.

Every onconey in the laboratory was waiting at the front of its cage, upright on its haunches, gazing at me. A battery of red eyes unblinking. I stepped back through the door and closed it behind me, my heart thumping.

These days I have nothing to do with Oryctolagus cuniculus oncogenensis. But I still have insomnia. I suffer from a persistent auditory hallucination: just as sleep approaches, I hear a noise. A halting lollop beside the bed.

I am a scientist and rational to the core. I'm not a man for conspiracy theories. But I can't get it out of my head—it seems too much of a coincidence—rationally speaking, it stretches credulity too far—that immediately following this breakthrough my contract was cancelled.

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I was told my reports and funding applications had become overly speculative. I was criticised for anthropomorphising the subjects of my research.

Despite this humiliation, I can't remain silent any longer. My conscience demands that I bear witness to the facts. So I offer this report, hoping it will reach someone with the courage to believe and the power to act, before it's too late.