What entering my pet into a cat show taught me about the true nature of felines
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.
CRADLING ORWELL’S QUIVERING BODY, MY WIFE DECLARED A FATWA ON PUTTING ANY OF OUR FUTURE PETS IN A PAGEANT.
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