In October 2008, Mike Sela, a lifelong sufferer of cat allergies, discovered a company called Allerca Lifestyle Pets.
According to its website, Allerca sells “the world’s first scientifically proven hypoallergenic cats,” specially bred to exclude Fel-D-1, a gene that produces the protein that causes allergic reactions in humans. The site boasts a bevy of media links, including a Time magazine cover bearing the headline “GOD vs. SCIENCE,” which leads to a blurb listing the cats among Time’s picks for “Best Inventions of 2006.”
“Demand is high,” the blurb says. “There’s already a 15-month waiting period for the sniffle-proof kittens.”
Sela was excited by the laudatory coverage of Allerca’s claims. He and his wife had some extra money, and they thought a hypoallergenic cat would be the perfect Christmas gift for them and their young daughter, who also is allergic. “It seemed like a reputable, reasonable thing,” he said. “You Googled the thing, you got a bunch of articles about it.”
At the time, Allerca’s cats were selling for a steep $8,000, but Sela negotiated a half-price discount for a cat that had been returned (the company’s site currently lists them at $6,950). “I don’t think any cat is worth $4,000,” he said, “but this seemed like a magical opportunity, especially with parents trying to get something for kids. You never thought you could get a cat and this is your chance.”
Allerca’s sales rep—who identified himself as “Simon”— told Sela that the company was having problems processing credit card orders and that Sela would have to wire the money. It would be kept in a Swiss account, he said, where no one would have access to it until the cat had arrived and the refund period was over. The request was suspicious, Sela admits, but he had grown to trust Simon, so he wired the money. The cat did not arrive in time for Christmas. It hadn’t arrived a month later, either. Simon was kind and cordial whenever Sela called to complain, and always had an excuse for the delay. But Sela soon realized that “something might not be on the up and up.”
“So, I Googled [Allerca] again, this time appending ‘scam’ to my search,” he said. “Lo and behold, I found all these people.”
It turned out that a number of allergy-afflicted cat lovers had taken Allerca up on its claims and sent in a deposit on their cats. Their stories were all different, but they shared a common thread. Some were told they were too allergic for the cats (a baffling claim, given that the cats were marketed to customers with the most severe allergies). Some never got a cat at all, and if they got a refund, it took a long time. Some cats were the wrong color or weren’t fixed, as the company promised they would be. More importantly, some cats continued to induce allergic reactions in their owners.
Sela had never questioned Allerca’s central promise. Why should he? All of the articles that he’d seen had uncritically echoed the company’s claims. The blurb in Time, for instance, failed to mention that there was, and still is, no peer-reviewed study backing up the existence of hypoallergenic cats. “A San Diego company is breeding felines that are naturally hypoallergenic,” was all it said. Not “claims to be” “is.”
Time didn’t respond to an e-mail asking for comment, but Rachel Pepling, who wrote a longer, freelance article about Allerca for National Geographic in June 2006, says that even after talking to a number of experts, it wasn’t obvious that the site was a scam. Nonetheless, her piece was almost as uncritical as the blurb in Time. “Allerca officials are closely guarding their scientific data and independent parties have yet to publicly verify the cats’ hypoallergenic status,” she reported.
“I was skeptical, because they said they had a cat, but they didn’t have a study,” Pepling said in a recent interview. “I talked to other genetic experts to try to see if this was even a plausible method. When nobody had figured out the role the protein actually played, I was like, ‘All right, this is suspicious,’” she said.
But no one said Allerca’s approach was impossible. An Allerca spokeswoman told Pepling that a peer-reviewed study was imminent. And Leslie Lyons, a feline geneticist at UC-Davis, said, essentially, “Why not?” The story was simply too good to pass up, so Pepling’s article was published with only minimal skepticism. What it failed to mention could fill a book.