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I’z in ur magazine, being ur cover story

by Dave Roberts

‘No pictures until she has been prepped,” says Laurie Coughlan, the owner of Summer, a 5-month-old Blue Persian who’s clearly been using a high volume conditioner, as two-thirds of the physical space she takes up is pure fur – a placid, grey ovoid shape on the table in front of us. To prove it, she offers to let me hold her, provided I sanitize my hands first. Memories of my aunt’s attack cat Mao-Chao have left me respectfully apprehensive. But true enough, Summer could care less that she is being held by a complete stranger. In fact, from the look of things a pack of Rottweilers could charge into the room without changing her somnolent expression.

We’re standing in the benching area of the Central Carolina Cat Fanciers’ Annual CFA Allbreed Cat Show, a 40-by-60 foot room in the High Point Radisson filled with rows of tables on which sit elaborate cat carriers, some of them with miniature hammocks, others personalized with name tags detailing their breeds and breeders. Teresa Miller, show runner and our guide in this domesticated zoo, is escorting us up and down the aisles, pointing out the more noteworthy breeds. A pleasant, well-dressed matronly woman with blonde hair, Teresa, along with her husband Rob, has been breeding and showing cats for 16 years. Her particular breed of choice is the Russian Blue, a grey short-coated breed made, I believe, with vodka and Bombay Sapphire gin. Excited to have the coverage, she enthusiastically introduces us to the owners.

“The Egyptian Mau is one of our oldest natural breeds,” says Melanie Morgan, holding Nighthawk, a 1-year-old example. “If you look in the old hieroglyphs in Egypt in 1400 BC you’ll see spotted Egyptian-looking cats. They say these guys hearkened back to there.” Similar to an Abyssinian with a perpetually bewildered look, they are one of the few naturally spotted breeds of domestic cat. Highly intelligent, they can even learn a few tricks such as how to play tug or fetch and how to open doors and, in rarer cases, fold a fitted sheet, hotwire a car and claim themselves as dependents.

Next up in the parade is McDreamy, a Scottish Fold. Named for the folded shape their ears take which, along with big round eyes, gives them intentionally bred resemblance to an owl, they seem like the result of the tryst in the pea-green boat, had Edward Lear’s poem had a sequel.

Even without the logistical nightmare of interspecies copulation, Folds are fairly hard to make. Because a dominant gene is responsible for the ear shape, mating two of them results in a crippled animal, and mating two of those would presumably lead to some kind Plympton cartoon version of a cat with a head shaped like an hourglass. Since no one here is that cruel – or at least not willing to admit it to a man with a tape recorder – they instead breed them with British straighthairs, with a 50-percent rate of return. The other 50 percent are banished to toil underground in the kitty salt mines, occasionally coming to the surface to eat one of the Folds.

The judging rings are not nearly as imposing as one might think: There is a small ring of about 15 two-foot-cube cages surrounding a table with an examining area in the center that features scratching posts holding up the harsh fluorescents above, by which each specimen will be rigorously examined. A cat is judged by how close it resembles “the standard,” a picture of the perfect example of that breed that by its very nature does not and cannot exist in real life, but rather in the same realm apparently as Plato’s Forms, accessible only to great philosophers and old ladies in pantsuits.

“Even if you don’t work with that breed, a lot of this is really about aesthetics,” Milken explains as we watch judge Jan Stevens at work, prodding and examining each cat and waving a “tease,” a long feather on a stick, to distract it and keep it relaxed. “And let’s face it: when something is absolutely in balance, if you have an artistic eye you can see that; and a good cat is going to be a balanced cat and they’re going to have that… it’s just like a beautiful painting or a symphony or something like that. You’re going to just perk up and take notice of it.”

Later, after Stevens has completed her tallies for the round, she explains the judging process. “Well, you have to start with the premise that there is a standard for each one of those breeds that we judge,” she says, “a 100-point standard, and it is our job as judges to determine how close each of these examples comes to that perfect 100-point cat which we know hasn’t been born yet. So it’s how close they come. So each breed, the point standards are different, so you look for different ears, for instance, in a Persian than you do for an Abyssinian.” The standard, she explains, is established and maintained by the Breed Council, a group of breeders and exhibitors, who probably don’t sit around a candlelit table in cloaks with flashlights under their chins, but let’s pretend they do anyway. After chanting the Meow Mix theme in somber tones, they vote on the particularities of the breed, ever vigilant to its purity. They then sacrifice a virgin to the Egyptian cat goddess Bast and afterwards have tea and marzipans.

For all you Cat Fanciers reading this, that is of course a joke; they don’t like marzipans.

“Well, frankly, I was a die-hard exhibitor,” Stevens replies when asked how she became a judge. “I went to shows every weekend and I just thought so much of it was political and I thought, ‘Y’know, if I were behind that table I would judge the cats as they are on any given weekend. I wouldn’t play favorites because that was my friend who was showing the cat or what have you.’ I really want to better each of these breeds.”

There’s less politics in cat showing than dog showing, apparently, according to Allen, an elderly gentlemen whose demeanor and glasses are more than reminiscent of Truman Capote, and who, together with what could only be interpreted as his partner Douglas, is showing Oshio, a Japanese Bobtail. In dog shows the relationship between the handler and the judge can affect the outcome. Cats don’t need no stinking handlers. There’s also far less money involved: While Persians can fetch an average of $3,000 to $5,000 (which is the only thing they’ll fetch) and the record was $35,000, (a cat that must’ve been able to sing the entirety of La Traviata while doing a handstand) most show cats go for the mere pittance of $500 to $700.

Shortly after interviewing the judge we are privileged to have an audience with the aforementioned “gorgeous, gorgeous Calico Persian,” the lady, the legend, Miss Chantilylace Yada Yada Yada. A born champion of the highest degree, Tilly, as she so generously allows her womanservant to call her, is the odds-on favorite this weekend.

“She’s a princess,” says Liz Whittle, Tilly’s servitor, “and she knows it,” in explanation of the miniature gilded tiara perched atop what from my angle may well be a white and orange throw pillow. It is only when I bend over it to see a face of patrician contempt that it becomes recognizable as a cat.

Later, in the ring, Tilly pays no more heed to the judge than she did to me. Despite a variety of teases, up to and including a pair of sparkley jinglies that the judge rests upon her head, and the eventual conferment of the brown ribbon, meaning the top score in the round, Tilly maintains an air of stoic grace that rivals that of the Queen Mother or Barbara Bush.

Milo, a one year-old Champagne Point Tonkinese, is restless as his owner, Clinton Parker, readies him for the ring. He (Milo, not Parker) yowls his discontent and paces as best he can on the formica surface.

“He’s nervous,” says Parker, spritzing the protesting Milo with an anti-static spray, “and he’s letting me know it.” In reaction to the misting, something normally employed as the kitty equivalent of a spanking, Milo makes a game attempt to bolt from the small table, perhaps dreaming of a life where he isn’t carted from town to town in a small cage and placed in a strange looking, sounding and smelling room surrounded by unfamiliar, equally high-strung creatures and their cats, but to no avail. The loudspeaker announces his category and after a reassuring cuddle, Parker carries him to the judging ring.

Placed in a cage and separated from his owner, Milo’s cries become more frequent and audible. To make matters worse, he’s been inadvertently placed next to a female Sphynx who’s in season, her bulging nipples made all the more conspicuous by her extremely short coat, like a cat bikini wax. But it’s too late for Parker to move him, so Milo can only sit there and yowl, unnerving the other contestants as much as their owners. But if his anxiety had anything to do with the outcome, it turns out to be unfounded. As the judge makes her final turn, she awards him the coveted brown ribbon.

The tension backstage is just as palpable, erupting in a squabble between Flash and Nimitz, two Maine Coon kittens. Like his namesake, Nimitz proves the abler fighter, forcing Flash’s head into the litter box like some kind of kitty-cat swirlie. Flash cries uncle and peace is restored in their cage. It’s the first recognizably cat-like behavior we’ve seen. We’d briefly considered, in a fit of Hunter S. Thompson-esque anarchism, releasing a box of hamsters in the middle of the room just to see how well-behaved those kitties really were, but decided the logistical problems of smuggling them in, as well as the probable criminal charges, were insurmountable. Just as well, as the majority of the contestants seem more likely to jump up on a chair and shriek like a 1950s housewife than give chase.

On the other side of the benching area, Insta-Purr CC Rider, an Exotic Shorthair, or the lazy man’s Persian, as her owner Marianne Lawrence calls them, is being fed beef-flavored Gerber baby food from a spoon. The stress of showing usually leaves CC disinclined to eat, Marianne explains, so she’s taken to spoon-feeding her. CC doesn’t seem to have a problem eating in this manner, as she greedily laps up the chestnut-colored, pudding-like substance.

In the same aisle, Tiki Blue Moo-n, another Scottish Fold, is going through some last minute touch-up before going on stage. Renee Pearson, her owner, dabs a bit of white powder with a make-up brush that she takes from a red kit the size of a toaster oven. Tiki patiently, if begrudgingly, allows Pearson to blot out the microscopic blemishes in her white coat.

Back in the judging ring, another cat is clearly feeling some performance anxiety. Musician, a Brown Mackerel Tabby, won’t stop scratching at the plastic floor of the cage. To my layman’s eyes it seems like he’s trying to dig a tunnel to freedom, but his owner Kathy Chandler, standing next to me, recognizes the behavior right away and hopes he can hold it until the judge can examine him. He can’t. One of the ring clerks, a johnny-on-the-spot-with-a-paper-towel of a 12-year-old girl, removes the poo while Kathy removes Musician. She examines his posterior, blowing on it in an attempt to shake loose the remaining bits – the look of surprise on Musician’s face as she does this says that this is not a normal occurrence – but no luck. She quickly runs him back to the benching area for an encounter with a baby wipe and has him back in the ring before he can be disqualified. As she returns to the audience she mentions that he hadn’t gone in a few days. The release seems to have done him some good. As the judge removes him to the table he has the relaxed air that only a good BM can bring. And despite the faux pas, or perhaps because of it, he leaves the ring with, appropriately enough, the brown. On the way out Chandler is understandably mortified that the press was present for that, but she’s a good sport about it and allows a few slightly more dignified photos of Musician.

But one cat could not be more relaxed. Blade Runner, a Russian Blue belonging to the Millers, lounges on his back against one corner of his cage in the judging ring, his legs splayed open in a manner that causes the judge to blush. She scolds him for exposing himself. He glances up from casually licking his stomach with a look that says “What? I’ve got this sewn up. I’m sleeping with the show-runner.”

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