A snowflake kitten, like no other...

News on or around the New Year tends to go into a black hole: the mere fact that the calendar is going to, is now going, or has gone from paper-thin to paperback is so momentous that it takes a tsunami (or its equivalent) to get our collective attention. It was of some moment, then, that 2006 New Years' week datafreaks and news junkies everywhere found themselves staring at a picture of a pinkish monkeylike animal with only one (visible) eye, lying on a pale blue blanket.

It was a kitten.

Her gentle presence, with us for one short day...
You could tell she was a tough little guy.

On December 28, 2005, in Redmond, Oregon, Traci Allen's Ragdoll mix queen was in labor. One oversized kitten, named Tubby, had already been born, but the second was, "...something you just don't expect." noted Allen. Apparently a female, she was strong and active, but had only one, open, garnet-colored eye centered in the face, small ears and no nose. Although there was a pad of whiskers, there was no split in her upper lip. Since the kitten, nicknamed Cy, for Cyclopes, had trouble nursing, Allen wrapped the kitten in a blanket and stayed up all night feeding Cy kitten formula from a syringe. Her mother, visiting for the blessed event, sensed Something Big was afoot and contacted the Associated Press, who pointed out that since their Portland office was at least four hours driving time away, she should take as many pictures as possible, from a multitude of angles.

Later the next day Cy's health began to fail, and her muzzle became greyish. Allen considered heroic measures to save the cat's life, but decided to let nature take its course while keeping the kitten as comfortable as possible. Early in the evening, Cy died. Allen lovingly improvised a shroud of flannel, and carefully froze the corpse for possible medical examination.

Holopros....what? Sonic Hedgehog??

Cy's condition, called holoprosencephlopathy, was caused by a mutation in a gene called the "Sonic Hedgehog", since its opposite number in fruit flies causes hedgehog-like spines. (The video game reference was chosen since it was the third such gene of its kind to be found and, apparently, there are only two varieties of hedgehogs. Personally, I would have preferered it to have been called Tiggywinkle, but then...) This gene in mammals is responsible for the organization of organs in the body: variations on it cause everything from a gap in the front teeth, only one front tooth, lack of differentiation of the cerebral hemispheres, and cyclopia. When completely disabled, the fetus is born as a headless, limbless mass. In cases as extreme as Cy's, there are often severe internal problems, as well as more visible ones (her eye, for instance, had no iris, and was most certainly blind). Such offspring are often stillborn, and have a poor prognosis if born alive.

She lived her whole life, knowing only that she had been loved.

The public response was enormous, and the Allens found themselves riding high a wave of email, most of it sympathetic. Although some questioned the Allens' treatment of the situation, and there were the usual gang of cruel pranksters, most found the photograph strangely affecting, and tendered poems and memorial images (in both American Primitive and Modern styles). At least a few avowed that Cy was now their mascot, and were using her image as an avatar, including a charity for the families of similar (human) infants.

It's not hard to see why: there are few images extant of cyclopic animals or people, and most of these look, well, deformed. (One black kitten's photograph looks particularly alarming.) In comparison, Cy looks like a dainty baby...well, something, albeit with a tiny trace of toothiness, in no apparent pain...overall the effect is strangely numinous.

Is that a trace of a smile?

The worst letters intimated a hoax, or that the animal had been somehow Photoshopped. AP examination of the images and camera indicated that the photo had not been doctored digitally, and a veteranarian, examining the corpse, confirmed that it was, indeed, a cyclopic kitten.

A little white kitten named Cy
was unfortunately born with one eye
though missing some parts
She won all our hearts
look at the cute little guy!

The outcome to this story is still unclear: although Ms. Allen has avowed that her pet will not be placed on eBay, and had considered sending it to the local elementary school's Nature Corner, offers have been pouring in from institutions as diverse as Ripley's Believe It or Not! and Harvard Medical School, intent on displaying this unique specimen. Only time will tell the final fate of this strange and lovely cat.

A snowflake kitten, like no other...as lovely as she was fleeting.

Bye, Cy.


Update: Cy's remains have been bought by The Lost World, a creationist-oriented museum intending to show that mutations are at best neutral and at worst catastrophic to the organism. The preserved Cy, though recognizably the same cat, bears little resemblance to the engaging picture shown on the Internet in January. Cy is shriveled, her one eye gone, and her little mouth open to display a reddish mass. A better outcome would have been to have CAT-scanned the kitten, noting her doubtlessly interesting interior, and then having her stuffed by a competent taxidermist, preferably in the pose made famous in the photograph. She deserves better. FREE CY!

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