BOOKS: World Without Cats

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  November/December 2012:

World Without Cats by Bonham Richards iUniverse (order c/o,  2012. 315 pages,  paperback.  $19.95.
According to World Without Cats publicity materials,  author Bonham Richards “has a doctorate in medical microbiology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research at the University of Washington.”  He taught biology for 24 years at California State University,  San Bernardino and the Univeristy of Southern California,  and “now resides in Camarillo.” ANIMAL PEOPLE found no trace of a Bonham Richards with a matching biography,  but the World Without Cats web site and Facebook page appear to belong to a James Underwood,  who may fit the description. .
The apparent pseudonymous authorship parallels the weakness of World Without Cats:  an awkward novel stumbles all around a timely premise which might have become gripping nonfiction.  A much better science teacher than fictionist,  the author explains much about retroviruses,  recombinant DNA research,  immunology,  and lab procedures,  but substitutes clumsy character development for the peripheral research which might have brought the book into focus. .
The premise is that a retrovirus related to Ebola virus mutates into a highly contagious form which soon kills most cats, worldwide.  The source at first appears to be a southern California university laboratory,  but eventually the disease is traced to a zoo instead. .
Topics opened for exploration include the ecological roles of domestic cats,  lab security,  and the often polarized relationship between animal advocates and animal disease researchers.  Yet,  after each topic is raised, World Without Cats rushes on without delving deeply into it.
. World Without Cats unfortunately trips often over non-laboratory science,  beginning on page 10,  when an animal rights advocate expresses fear of coyotes and pumas,  saying they don’t live in Illinois,  where she comes from.  A research scientist replies that there are wolves and bears in Illinois.  Coyotes are actually common even in the Chicago greenbelt,  and pumas make an occasional appearance,  but Illinois has not had either wolves or wild bears since the 19th century.
. On page 15 a cat fights a rabid squirrel.  Squirrels are vulnerable to rabies,  like any mammal,  but die so quickly that there is no case on record of a squirrel passing rabies.
. World Without Cats postulates that the Ebola-like retrovirus wipes out pet cats worldwide,  yet misses enough feral cats to permit rebuilding the population.  This occurs because humans are immune carriers.  This is not impossible,  but feline epizootics have historically moved the opposite way,  from free-roaming cats to pet cats–and humans rarely carry any disease in a form that infects cats.
. Even less plausibly,  World Without Cats depicts the pet supply industry and veterinary pharmaceutical industries refusing to invest in developing vaccines and genetic therapies to counter the deadly cat disease,  even as it destroys businesses currently worth $15 billion per year.                      –Merritt Clifton

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