Cuddly, Cute, Curious Cats: On the Beauty and Diversity of the Feline Species
Jonathan B. Losos Explores the World of Cat Shows
Mention a cat show and most people think of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show: smartly dressed trainers parading their beautifully coiffed and perfectly behaved charges around the ring; madcap agility trials in which speedy canines zip through challenging obstacle courses with nary a misstep. A feline equivalent is unthinkable.
And yet, cat shows do exist. I know, because I’ve attended many of them, both as a spectator and as a participant with Nelson. Cat shows are simpler than dog shows. There is no cat promenade and the competitors in the agility competitions (which are a relatively recent addition) generally lack the single-minded zeal of their canine counterparts.
Nevertheless, cat shows are still a spectacle. Imagine two hundred, or even eight hundred, yowling, purring, and snoozing cats packed into a show hall, showcasing the variety of the modern cat. The venues range from shabby high school gymnasia and bare-bones veterans’ halls to hotel banquet rooms and large show halls.
The rooms are filled with rows of long tables, jam-packed with colorful kitty condos; the competitors lounge inside their fabric walls, waiting to be called to the judging tables. Siamese cats yowl incessantly. Occasional shouts of “cat out” or “cat on the ground” lead to a few moments of excitement until the wayward puss is retrieved.Cat shows reveal that Felis catus is not one cat, but many diverse brands of feline.
In the morning, the only people present are the cats’ minders (called “exhibitors”), getting their charges settled into their condos and primping them for what’s to come. As the day wears on, though, the hall fills with spectators, a diverse cross section of the cat-loving public who’ve plunked down three bucks to see the show cat spectacle.
If you remember the zany characters in the dog-show mockumentary Best in Show, you’ll be disappointed to discover that the exhibitors are just ordinary folk with a passion for cats and a willingness to let their lives revolve around driving—or sometimes flying—to events weekend after weekend throughout much of the year. Like any group that gets together frequently to compete and socialize, there are deep friendships, intense rivalries, gossip, complaints about the judging, and all sorts of hijinks.
Fascinating as the people at cat shows are, let’s focus on the main event: the cats! The contestants on display are mostly refined and elegant; it’s hard to beat a Siamese for savoir faire or a Norwegian for reserved dignity. Some will charm you with their looks or manner; you’ll be surprised at the unexpected features of others. But above all, what these events display is the amazing variety of catdom. The long, sinuous fluidity of the Oriental, the regal majesty of a Maine Coon, the pantherine sleekness of an Abyssinian. Fluffball Himalayans. Pixie-faced Devon Rexes.
Cat shows reveal that Felis catus is not one cat, but many diverse brands of feline. And the cat cornucopia is growing rapidly. Breeders have capitalized on naturally occurring mutations to develop new breeds unlike anything previously imagined, including the curly-haired Devon Rex and the Ragdoll, named for its penchant for going limp when picked up. Some enthusiasts are looking in a different direction for new sources of variation, mating domestic cats with other feline species to produce the gorgeous spotted Bengal, the long-legged Savannah, and others.
The International Cat Association now recognizes seventy-three breeds of cats, and the number is increasing rapidly. All these breeds share an essential catness, yet they are becoming increasingly different, in many respects more diverse than the forty-two wild species in the cat family. How far can cat breeders push the boundaries of modern felinity? Does cat evolution have no limits?
To find out, let’s go to Cleveland.
With more than a million square feet of floor space—enough to hold a squadron of airplanes with plenty of room to spare—the International Exposition Center is one of the largest exhibition venues in the United States. At one time a tank factory, the building has hosted boat, auto, and RV shows, presidential rallies, NFL Fan Fests, and trade shows and conventions. For many years, an amusement park featured the world’s largest indoor Ferris wheel.How far can cat breeders push the boundaries of modern felinity?
But I’m not at the I-X Center (as Clevelanders call it) for any of that—I’m here to see cats! Once a year, the Cat Fanciers’ Association hosts its International Cat Show, the largest gathering of its kind in the United States. And in 2018 and 2019, that show was held in Cleveland. I’ve been to my share of cat shows, but this one is like no other. Size, of course—most shows are held in spaces a fraction of the size of the I-X. And number of competitors—eight hundred cats is about five times the typical enrollment.
The International is much more than an enormous congregation of cats in a cavernous space. This is the Big Show, the World Series of Cats. Enormous banners hang horizontally from the rafters, each with a winsome photo of a different breed. “Siamese, Siberian, Somali, Sphynx, Tonkinese, Turkish Angora,” the flags proclaim, and many more.
I’d never seen a Khao Manee, the beautiful white cat of Thailand, but a quick scan of the banners directs me to the back of the hall on the left, where several reside in their kitty condos, waiting to be called to a judging station. Want to see a Singapura? These tiny, big-eyed cats are on the right, toward the front.
Cat celebrities are plentiful. Sunglass Cat, with spectacles worthy of Elton John (worn because she was born without eyelids), meets any of the eleven thousand spectators willing to stand in a long line at the meet and greet. Sauerkraut Kitty models her latest outfits. Sphynx-wrinkly Sarah Pawcett looks surprisingly good in a Marie Antoinette costume, hairless no more thanks to a powdered wig. Friendly Ambassador Cats, such as Socrates, a bow-tie-bedecked Abyssinian, walk around on leashes, accepting pats and nuzzling the visitors.
Entertainment abounds. A stage at the front left packs in hundreds of spectators for performances by the Savitsky Cats, showing off the amazing tricks that wowed Simon Cowell on America’s Got Talent. In the agility ring, cats sometimes zip quickly into and over a variety of obstacles, though just as often they dawdle, to the tenders’ frustration and the viewers’ amusement, getting a good sniff of every item on the course. Lectures on cat origins and behavior are presented regularly, and an “adopt-a-thon” finds homes for more than a hundred cats during the two-day event.
But the show cats, all eight hundred of them, are the main event. The CFA recognizes forty-five breeds, and all but three are represented at the show. The variety of these breeds is astonishing.
Excerpted from The Cat’s Meow: How Cats Evolved from the Savanna to Your Sofa by Jonathan B. Losos. Copyright © 2023. Published by Viking Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.