Not Too Sexy for These Cats
"She's got a super, super body, broadness of chest, beautiful eyes, a gorgeous coat. Everything looks right on this girl." Stan Barnaby scans the crowd while his appraisal sinks in. A dramatic pause, and then he says, "This is my third best cat in show." Polite clapping.
Barnaby knows cats. He has been judging cat shows for twenty-seven years. "I see the insides of a lot of airports and hotel rooms," he says, "but by the end of the day I'm too tuckered out to hit the town." A trucking company safety inspector by profession, Barnaby spends weekends away from his Victorville, California home, traveling to San Diego or Akron or Portsmouth or Miami, where he examines two hundred, maybe three hundred cats in a day, searching for conformity to an ideal established by a board of seventeen of his colleagues, an ideal that may never be realized.
In a black, three-ring binder, Barnaby carries a list of standards published by the Cat Fanciers Association, but he rarely needs to refer to them. He has been around cats since his grandmother lost her dog to a Buick and bought a Tabby. Someone told him that he had a "good eye for cats."
Soon enough, he started to fulfill the requirements for judgeship. Get certification as a cat show master clerk. Pick up seven years of experience with one body type. Breed three Grand Champions. Know the standards for every breed. Then, the final test: serve at least five times as an assistant judge under a qualified master. Only a few survive the arduous weeding-out process. Barnaby made it.
Today he could just as well be in Chicago orBangor, but he is here, in Boston, at theFourteenth Annual All-Breed Cat Show at theMariott Copley Place. The ceiling seems too lowfor the 20,000 square feet of floor space, and thesquare columns at 30 foot intervals obscure theview--making the space seems smaller than it is.Carpeted in brown pile that doesn't show stains,the flourescent-lit hall holds some 200 cats withas many breeders, two dozen vendors, a handful oftelevision people, four judges, and more than1,000 spectators. The crowd is almost exclusivelywhite, with only one or two Black couples. Thereare few children: it is like a 4-H show forgrown-ups.
Each judge will scrutinize all of the cats,first ranking them separately by breed, and thenchoosing the top ten cats of the day. Barnaby isalmost done. He places his third-place cat, a RedSomali, back in her cage, and removes a BluePersian. Barnaby's moves are swift and sure. Heruns his hand down the back, thumb along thespine, evaluating the finish of the coat anddevelopment of the musculature. He focuses on thehead, measuring the placement of the ears and nosewith his forefinger and noting the color and shapeof the eyes. Helfing the cat in the air, one handunder the chest, he measures weight distributionand judges posture. It takes ten, perhaps 15seconds.
He delivers the verdict to 80 spectators seatedin his alcove. "She weight a bloody ton. I thinkshe drinks beer and watches soaps," he says, usingthe same joke he made 20 minutes ago. "She hasgood doming, correct eye size, shape, andplacement, roundness of nose, fullness of cheek,and when she holds her ears right, it's reallyquite nice." Again, the dramatic pause. Then,"This is my second best cat in [the] show."
No visible authority controls theseproceedings. Cat owners listen for announcementsover the speakers: "Will cats 156 through 162please report to ring three." The four judges worksimultaneously, with a fluid audience that swellsat crucial moments and dwindles between rounds.Spectators wander off to chat with the cat ownersand shop at the tables along the west wall.
Women lay down their gold cards at KittyKouture and snap up feline-embellished bangles,armlets, earrings, and lockets. A man asks Dorothythe Groomer for advice. His cat has ripped apartone end of his couch, and yes, he has provided ascratching post. The Groomer tells him to squirtthe cat in the face with a plant mister when itscratches, "and if that doesn't work, you can tieinflated balloons around the base of the couch;the pop will scare your kitty out of its badhabits." At the IAMS counter you can buy not justbrushes and toys but also tuna-flavored vitamins,cat shampoo, and pet cologne.
Friends of the Plymouth Pound display newspaperarticles on cat overpopulation. Only one out ofevery ten kittens born finds a home, they say. Therest are drowned or abandoned. This morning, thefour homeless cats they brought with them wereadopted in a matter of minutes.
The biggest draw by far is the Fancy Feastbooth, where trainer Scott Hart feeds a WhitePersian named S.H.3, a relative of the cat thateats out of a crystal bowl in televisioncommercials. S.H.3, paws the air, eats fromcrystal, curls up on a director's chair, eats froma spoon. Awed by this brush with celebrity, thecrowd is silent. Old ladies with Polaroids pushtheir way through to the front, determined to makea visual record of the encounter.
Along the north wall there are several rows ofcages, many with signs: "Don't touch me. Your kindaffection could spread infection," or moremenacingly, "Don't touch. The life you save may beyour own." Waiting for the call to the ring, theowners busy themselves with last minute primpingand perfuming of their cats, and the room breathesessence of violet, jasmine, bay rum and lavender.
Nancy Sullivan of Swampscott, Mass., breedsHimalayans professionally. She has shipped hercats to Italy, Japan, England, and she oncereceived an all-expenses paid trip to escort a catto Vienna. A "pet quality cat," one good enough tokeep around the house but not much else, goes forfive hundred dollars. A "show quality cat," whichhas a shot at champion status, can easily bring5,000. And a "breeding quality cat" fetches evenmore.
Today Sullivan has spent more than $300 inregistration fees to show five cats. She is"campaigning" one of them, trying to get itrecognized as one of the best in the country. Theother four are working their way toward champion.
A cat's career begins in the open class. Thecat receives one point for each cat it defeats ina show; 100 points make it a champion. Championscompete against each other and reach grandchampion status with 200 victories. The mostcoveted honor of all is the Distinguished Merit,bestowed upon that queen who bears five grandchampions and the stud who sires 15.
A good body and a pretty face alone won't placea cat at the top. The quality of opponents doesnot factor into the equation, only the number orvictories, so an ambitious owner must work thecircuit every weekend, builing up points.
Sullivan explains that her business is"basically about bloodlines." She researches theancestory of cats before breeding them. "You haveto understand pedigrees, what combinations work,what will produce top quality."
Almost all of the exhibitors are breeders. Theycome looking for customers as much as victories inthe ring, handling out business cards and explaingwhy their breed is the kindest, most loyal, mostfriendly, best behaves.
John Lacouture keeps 35 birds and 16 Manx inhis Woonsocket, R.I. house. He feeds his cats rawhambuger neat which he buys in bulk at a greyhoundrace track. "My cat friends and my vet arescandalized, they say there is too much bacteriaand I should cook the meat, but I figure, theyfeed it to the greyhounds which are worth 50grand."
Breeders are careful with their cats. They keeptheir cats indoors to avoid contamination withparasites and diseases and strays. The purebredsthus drifever further from the wild, losingimmunity to inbreeding, killing instinct toinactivity. Now they can at least experience theoutdoors the American way with the "VideoKatsette," a $24.89 videotape of birds, mice, andsquirrels that "brings the outdoors to your cat:an ideal catsitter."
Lacouture says that many breeders feel that"the cat is the best thing they have." Platonistsall, the breeders worship their creation, the bodythey have molded through skilled match-making.They know the ancestry of their cats better thantheir own family tree. Few make any money afterpaying registration fees, vet bills, food costs,transportation. They do it, says Lacouture, "forthe prestige, the ego-trip."
At a deeper level, power plays a more urgentrole than prestige. Cats turn the station-wagonmom into entrepreneur, make the insurance salesmanan absolute monarch with uncontested authorityover a feline ream. Human fascination with sex haslong spilled over to a vicarious interest in theromantic lives of domesticated animals. One couplesays, "Ever since we got our first Ocicat fiveyears ago, we've been really into breeding."
Once a year, the Cat Fanciers Association holdsa dinner to honor the top 20cat breeders in thecountry. "You feel like royalty at the banquet,"says Barnaby, the judge. Without regard toposition in the workaday world, the cat breederscan be aristocrats for the weekend.