Wild Things

What en­ter­ing my pet into a cat show taught me about the true na­ture of fe­lines

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Contents - OMAR MOUALLEM FROM HA­ZLITT

What en­ter­ing my pet into a cat show taught me about the true na­ture of fe­lines.

I un­clipped the ken­nel latches and waited for Or­well to exit.

After nine hours of pageantry—be­ing man­han­dled by judges and re­lent­lessly baby-talked by spec­ta­tors—this box was the only thing he trusted. Even­tu­ally my wife, Janae, en­ticed him with a trail of treats and he saun­tered out into our apart­ment, woozy after his cat­show de­but.

You are won­der­ing what kind of peo­ple put their house pet in a cat show. But it is the wrong ques­tion. The right one: why him and not our other cat?

The boy is a Si­amese-cross, and cross-eyed. His coat is like cash­mere and he is per­ilously cud­dly. As for his com­pan­ion, the girl, she’s a plump blue tor­toise­shell—plain-Jane. What she lacks in looks she makes up for in smarts, proven by her pun­ish­ment of pee­ing on our bed ev­ery time we go away on va­ca­tion.

Her vin­dic­tive­ness isn’t a trait ad­mired by the cat-fancy world, but it’s to be re­spected and, oc­ca­sion­ally, feared. When she hunches down and her ears fold back, when her tail lashes and the claws eject from her paws, you can see in her di­lated pupils 30 mil­lion years of nat­u­ral se­lec­tion.

We couldn’t have known this when we adopted her as a kit­ten, but per­haps we man­i­fested it when we chris­tened her Dar­win. We named the boy cat Or­well be­cause I liked the theme of brave his­tor­i­cal fig­ures, but he never lived up to his ti­tle. It’s clear which of the two would sur­vive in the wild and which would do bet­ter in a beauty pageant.

AT THE ED­MON­TON Cat Show, plump Bri­tish short­hairs smiled in their sleep and re­gal sph­ynxes owned their ugly. Janae and I car­ried Or­well in his ken­nel, along with treats, a lit­ter pan and a big blue rib­bon onto which to ad­here the gold par­tic­i­pa­tion stick­ers he was guar­an­teed to win. We ven­tured past a few dozen fancy pedi­grees to the ghet­toes of the show hall, where cal­i­cos, tabbies, tor­ties and the other non­pure­breds were sta­tioned.

Spec­ta­tor at­ten­dance in the cat­fancy world is strong, thanks to the In­ter­net’s fas­ci­na­tion with fe­lines, but ex­hibitor num­bers are his­tor­i­cally low in North Amer­ica. It’s an ag­ing and ex­pen­sive hobby, and show­ing is sur­pris­ingly phys­i­cal for the el­derly ex­hibitors, re­quir­ing al­most non-stop schlep­ping of pets from one side of the show hall to an­other for two long days. But at $60 to $100 per cat to ex­hibit, com­pared to just $10 for spec­ta­tor

ad­mis­sion, the house­hold pet cat­e­gory is a de­cent rev­enue driver.

The vast ma­jor­ity of the con­tenders in this cat­e­gory are res­cues, en­tered with­out charge by lo­cal char­i­ties in the hopes that some­one will adopt “Nor­man” or “Hamish” after see­ing what these scruffy or­phans are re­ally made of. Know­ing my semi-ex­otic cat would be up against these spec­i­mens gave me con­fi­dence—but not Or­well. Our boy was cow­er­ing in the cor­ner of his ken­nel.

Janae was hes­i­tant about my idea of putting him in the show from the start and thought I’d trau­ma­tized him enough the night be­fore when I’d sur­prised him with a bath and man­goscented sham­poo.

Groom­ing and hy­giene are es­pe­cially vi­tal in the house­hold pet cat­e­gory. Con­tes­tants are pri­mar­ily scored on groom­ing, con­di­tion, health and also per­son­al­ity—a cri­te­rion sub­jected to judges’ per­sonal tastes and worth 30 points. It’s the only cat­e­gory re­quir­ing a win­ning per­son­al­ity, mean­ing a prop­erly pedi­greed but blasé Ori­en­tal could still take gold, but a half-breed like Or­well would have to put on a smile.

Our de­ci­sion to en­ter Or­well over Dar­win was val­i­dated after learn­ing about the rules on ag­gres­sion set out by the In­ter­na­tional Cat As­so­ci­a­tion (TICA). While al­lowances are made for timid­ity in res­cues, ag­gres­sive­ness won’t be re­warded, and bit­ing re­sults in dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion.

Or­well’s cop­ing mech­a­nism, luck­ily, was pet­ri­fi­ca­tion. “We have a Si­amese meat­loaf,” the first judge told the crowd, us­ing the term ap­plied to over­weight cats. The spec­ta­tors in the ring awwed as Or­well shiv­ered on the show bench. She lifted his tail, in­spected the in­sides of his ears and rubbed un­der his chin. “A true ap­ple-cheeked Si­amese,” she ex­claimed. “You don’t see it any­more!” For decades, Ori­en­tal cats have been bred for pointed faces, but the judge was smit­ten by his nos­tal­gic fa­cial traits.


After she showed all 14 com­pet­ing house­hold pets, she be­gan pin­ning rib­bons to each ken­nel from 10th place to first, with a brief dec­la­ra­tion of worth for each one.

“For the kitty who lost her ear to frost­bite…10th place!”

“Lily is very el­e­gant, the sweet­est look­ing cat…sixth place!”

As we neared the top three, Janae looked at me with wide eyes. “This lit­tle guy,” said the judge, turn­ing to Or­well. “Old-style tra­di­tional Si­amese.

Nice dark fea­tures. And he’s not one of those skinny mini cats. Full-body seal point… third place!”

He had seven more rounds to go, then an­other eight the next day, but surely if he could snatch bronze in his first at­tempt, he would be go­ing home with a few gold fin­ishes.

OUR HOME IN ED­MON­TON can be split into two eras: pre-Or­well and post-Or­well.

From the mo­ment we found her at the Hu­mane So­ci­ety in 2009, Dar­win wanted to be held like a baby, and that is how we have al­ways treated her. At night, she’d crawl into bed and rig­or­ously lick my beard stub­ble. Some nights we kept her out, un­til her cry­ing be­came so re­lent­less that it was more tol­er­a­ble to lose sleep while her sand­pa­per-like tongue scraped off lay­ers of my face.

Or­well moved in a year later, and Dar­win im­me­di­ately be­gan show­ing slight preda­tory be­hav­iour, stalk­ing him and swat­ting him when he got too close. But our new guy was a love­bug, dumbly fol­low­ing his fren­emy, no mat­ter how loudly she hissed.

By the time she was in her ter­ri­ble twos, which is to say her teens, Dar­win be­came more with­drawn, but mid­dle age has mel­lowed her out. In re­cent years we’ve caught the two cats reg­u­larly snug­gling. Al­ways, Dar­win was the one groom­ing Or­well. It ap­pears af­fec­tion­ate, but ac­cord­ing to Cat Sense: How the New Fe­line Sci­ence Can Make You a Bet­ter Friend to Your Pet, this is a sign of dom­i­nance. All along she was say­ing “I own you” to me as she lapped up my fa­cial hair, and to him as he napped like a toy in her grip.

OR­WELL PEAKED EARLY and gar­nered a fourth, sev­enth and 10th place in sub­se­quent rounds. The last judge was ex­plicit about her pref­er­ences. “In my ring,” she said, twirling a teaser feather around Or­well’s non-com­pli­ant head, “I want cats who are hav­ing a good time.” His place stand­ings kept de­clin­ing, even after the em­cee an­nounced that Hamish, a res­cue who was gob­bling up golds, was go­ing home with his new adop­tive par­ents.

Or­well did fine for a rookie, but he lacked some­thing pos­sessed by the Hamishes of the cat world—what Pamela Bar­rett calls “star qual­ity.”

Bar­rett, an older woman with a smart blond bob, who coura­geously wore a black turtle­neck to the cat ring in Ed­mon­ton, was later awarded TICA’s Judge of the Year prize. It’s es­sen­tially the Best in Show of judges; any­one who’s sat in her ring knows why. A for­mer fraud in­ves­ti­ga­tor, Bar­rett is ex­cep­tional at pat­tern recog­ni­tion and spot­ting de­vi­a­tions. But the fancier is also a stel­lar per­former. Bar­rett speaks di­rectly to the au­di­ence, ex­plain­ing ev­ery phys­i­cal facet of each cat, with hands so calm­ing that the an­i­mal will let her lift its forelegs to force it into do­ing a lit­eral cat­walk.

She told me that it’s nor­mal for own­ers of the house­hold pet con­tenders to take losses very per­son­ally. Pro­fes­sional breed­ers look at their spec­i­men and see qual­ity ears, eyes, coats and paws, but what about peo­ple like me? “All they see is love. It hurts them—it hurts me, even as a jaded pro­fes­sional. But it is a com­pe­ti­tion. You have to rise up, fig­ure out what’s wrong and do it bet­ter next time.”

Or­well’s coat and icy blue eyes im­pressed judges, but his per­son­al­ity was lack­ing, and there would be no chance at im­prove­ment. Half­way through the first day, Janae, cradling his quiv­er­ing body, de­clared a fatwa on putting any of our fu­ture pets in a pageant.

A MEN­TAL-HEALTH NURSE, Janae’s cat in­tu­ition is un­canny. About a year after the cat show, Janae sat me down and very se­ri­ously asked, “Do you think Dar­win is de­pressed?”

I laughed heartily at the ab­sur­dity of pro­ject­ing hu­man con­di­tions onto our an­i­mals—be­fore rub­bing Dar­win’s belly and talk­ing baby to her. “Who’s a belly girl? Yes, you are…”

Then, one day, Janae called me in hys­ter­ics. “Some­thing is wrong with Dar­win,” she cried. “She’s gone bal­lis­tic! She’s try­ing to kill Or­well!”

A stray had en­tered the park­ing lot be­low while Janae and our two cats were on the bal­cony. In­ter­lop­ers had be­come more com­mon lately, and Dar­win al­ways watched with in­ter­est, never ag­gres­sion. For some rea­son this one stray set her off.

She growled and yowled, then turned to Or­well and saw not her long-time com­pan­ion but the devil. When Janae tried to pro­tect him, Dar­win lunged at her, leav­ing her with deep cuts to her arms and legs.

We cut Dar­win off from the bal­cony, but after two months with­out out­bursts and the cats snug­gling again, I thought she’d re-earned her priv­i­leges. Within min­utes of slid­ing open the door, Dar­win had Or­well cor­nered. When I picked him up, she at­tacked us both. In that mo­ment, I re­al­ized I hadn’t brought a fur baby into my home, but a wild an­i­mal.

The vet­eri­nary world calls it “redi­rected ag­gres­sion,” a sort of kitty men­tal ill­ness that trig­gers sud­den spurts

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.