Monday, August 29th, 2011

Judging the Cats (and People) of the Santa Monica Cat Show

Cat shows are far more populist events than dog shows. Having a show dog can cost a fortune. Beyond paying large sums for the creature’s pure bloodline, there’s also training, kennel fees, handler salaries and all sorts of other costs. Less so with the kitties. You can get a purebred cat for well under a thousand dollars and because cats aren’t bred to do much more than live in total domesticity (lying about, sunning themselves, sprawling out inappropriately on piles of work papers, kneading air muffins) the rest comes rather cheaply. The owners of show cats mostly consider themselves to be hobbyists and regard an event like the Cat Fanciers' Association All Breed Cat Show, hosted by the Santa Monica Cat Club this past weekend, as a kind of exhibition of their animal husbandry talents. This year’s show, which drew thousands of feline contestants, was Tiki-themed. Many owners wore shorts.

The best cat of the day was naked. Tinkerbell is a Sphynx breed; she has no coat. She looked like a wrinkly eggplant with eyes. To the touch she felt like a microwaved peach. Or a hot water bottle wrapped in suede. This Sphynx breed has only now been in existence for about thirty years, however, the Cat Fancier’s Association stopped recognizing the pink-skinned kitties as a legitimate breed briefly in the 1980s because of rampant inbreeding. Cats like Tinkerbell are from some other bloodline that does not involve mating cousins. She was my favorite cat of the whole show.

There are seven rings where the cats are judged. Their owners bring the cats into one of the large vestibules off the side of the main floor and place their cats in separate cages. Then the cat is put on a small inspection table (lined with Hawaiian flowers, elephant grass and tiki masks) before a judge. Some judges will snuggle the cats and even kiss their paws. Some cats seem to know to butter up to a judge by pushing their faces into judges or closing their eyes blissfully while purring loudly. There was no such canoodling at Ring 3. The judge at Ring 3 would grab hold of each cat by their bellies and drop them with a thud on the table, to see how squarely each could land on his feet. This judge was a man in his 60s with a gray thinning crew cut, tweezed eyebrows and a small silver ring in his ear. During his silent inspection of the cats, he would run his hands down their spine, tug their ears and pluck their tails with his pinky in the air. His small mouth would purse, then he would squint and dismiss the cat. Needless to say, the tension at Ring 3 was immense. When it finally came time for him to announce his winners, he broke into a passionate eloquence for each cat. “He sparkles, he glistens, he glows,” he said about a champagne-colored Burmese cat. Thrusting a prize-winning American Wirehair into the air he said: “Look at her gentle profile and her scooped-out nose. Her bones are balanced and she is a winner.”

Spectators walked the floor of the grand exhibition hall with peacock feathers in their hands. The feather is used to draw the attention of the competing cats without petting them. Owners do not like it when you pet their cats because they have spent a lot of time grooming them to perfection. Persian and Himalayan cats have particularly leaky eyes that congeal into goo and so they require constant de-gooing throughout the day. Their faces are so flat and small that many essentially have their nose resting right between their eyes.

The most popular breed this year seemed to be the Japanese Bobtail. There were countless members of this breed in the competition. I do not care for this breed one bit. They lack personality and tails. They are prized for their angularity and high cheekbones, two features I neither possess nor actively covet. They have wedge-shaped heads, tubular bodies and lemon-shaped eyes. These are cats with light bones. All these Japanese Bobtails seemed haughty and their owners were ornery. I am biased towards cats with dense bones, snub noses, round faces and girth, like this astonishing British Short Hair.

Household pets are the most popular and beloved category among the cat fanciers. This is a category for rescued cats, shelter mutts, domesticated strays; the genetic riffraff of the feline world. (Of course no such category exists in the Westminster Dog Show.) The crowd gets rowdy for this lot and the owners take particular pride in being, pardon the phrase, the underdogs. The judge for the Households told the crowd that he picked his winners based on their health, their personality and if they seemed like the sort of cat who would "curl up on a Vermont night in a rocking chair and read a book with you.” He said of Lancelot, a mustachioed mutt who was rescued from a shelter this March, “This cat has a gentle personality even though he had no one to love him. He lived on the streets and now he is cared for, he is alert, and he wants to know all your names.” Before making his final selection, the judge would take a pen and run it along the bars of each cat’s cage. When someone from the crowd asked about the mysterious ritual, the judge said, "That’s when I let the cats tell me what place they should get.” Lancelot placed third in the Household category.

Natasha Vargas-Cooper likes cats but is far more interested in gibbons and marmosets and men.

56 Comments / Post A Comment

Diane47 (#2,911)

I think I've had a cat judged by the Ring 3 judge. Did you get his name?

@Diane47 I THINK his name was Larry! He was very intense but seemed fair. Very swooping with the cat handling, though. He loooooves siamese and used to breed them! POST PICTURES OF YOUR CAT!!

Diane47 (#2,911)

@Natasha Vargas-Cooper That sounds so familiar. There are a few very intense, dramatic judges running around. I showed, mostly in the Pacific NW, in the late 1980s, early 1990s — I bred Turkish Angoras. I don't think I have any pictures of them on my work computer, but the top picture at this link is one of my cat's relatives:

@Diane47 Asaksjfahfk!! Turkish angoras are gorgeous! There were a couple VERY dramatic judges. One judge would describe each cat to the crowd as he handled them. It was LITERARY. Like an old school Vegas dealer calling a craps game. He was enthralling. His narration of the household category had the crowd IN TEARS.

jolie (#16)


ribstbbq (#40,094)

@jolie I had one ride around on my back once, continually butting his head into my own. So weeeeeeeeeeird!

@jolie @ribstbbq I went RUNNING to the Sphynx row. They are not earthly creatures. They are something MORE!

ribstbbq (#40,094)

@Natasha Vargas-Cooper They kind of look like, um, urm, testicles.

laurel (#4,035)

@Natasha Vargas-Cooper: It'd be like having an elf living in your house.

Megh (#42,486)

@jolie I have a Sphynx! She is the cutest, sweetest, most dog-like, monkey-like cat ever and I'd be insane without her.

barnhouse (#1,326)

The cats are the ones who do all the judging around here. (This was great btw.)

Tulletilsynet (#333)

She touched the cat alien. Ew.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Tulletilsynet Oh no, you should touch one! NVC is spot on with the warm-peach analogy. Those little bald cats are sweet, IRL, if a bit weird-lookin'.

ribstbbq (#40,094)

I know I photographed the cat in the red-sequined cage with "do not touch" sign on it!

*blatant website plug while I look for the picture:*

@Dustin Fenstermacher He is a descendant of the CAN HAS CHEESEBURGER cat I believe. Very SERIOUS cat.

ribstbbq (#40,094)

@Natasha Vargas-Cooper By the tone of your writing, it sounds like you've been to cat shows before. They are…something.

Diane47 (#2,911)

@ribstbbq They are hours of boredom punctuated by moments of excitement, if you are an exhibitor. ;) But they can be really fun to visit, you can learn a bunch about the different breeds and if you're lucky, go home with a kitten!

ribstbbq (#40,094)

@Diane47 Oh, I've been to, say, two dozen of them. For a photo project. Not because I like cats or anything. No siree.

punkahontas (#14,609)

@ribstbbq Your cats are going to eat you in your sleep for saying that.

ribstbbq (#40,094)

@punkahontas Well, they try to eat everything else that comes into the apartment, so that wouldn't be anything new.

C_Webb (#855)

two features I neither posses nor actively covet

Brilliant. BTW, my mutt cat spent the hurricane building a fort out of a shoe box, colored pencils, and some kibble. Would that win her anything, do you think?

@C_Webb a senate seat!

The Households narration had me weeping! Thank you, this was beautiful!

Bittersweet (#765)

@Charismatic Megafauna: Yessss. I wish dog shows had Households categories, and then we'd all go out drinking afterwards while the dogs romped around outside.

forrealz (#1,530)

thank you, this was THE BEST THING. Poor eye goo cats!

Hiya everybody! I was NVC's wingman for the cat show. If you want a good look at Judge Three, Larry Adkinson, or more of the kittehs, I've posted up a small gallery here:

I shot way too many frames- just shy of a thousand- to get the full blast up on Flickr until later.

Diane47 (#2,911)

@Noah Nelson@facebook Oh, thanks for these! I have showed under both Larry and Wayne. I'll look forward to seeing the rest of the pics! Just one note: the one you have identified as an Abyssinian is, in fact, a Siamese.

Noah's pictures are incredible!!

@Diane47 Thanks! Was worried about that, actually. Am correcting now!

Diane47 (#2,911)

@Noah Nelson@facebook I'm pretty sure the "handsome devil" you didn't get the name of is an exotic shorthair — bred from Persians with the short nose, round face and boxy body but without the long hair.

Maevemealone (#968)

@Diane47 That cat is a cross between LULZ and OMGWTFBBQ!!11! He deserves his own meme.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Prizes for domesticated strays, that is the best ever. As a dog person I am shamed.

BadUncle (#153)

@Tulletilsynet As a dog person, I'm ashamed of dog shows, in general.

riotnrrd (#840)

I really love cats, but I find those flat-faced breeds to be truly ugly horrors. Egads.

Elmo Keep (#3,840)

@riotnrrd I second this!

And this piece generally!

ribstbbq (#40,094)

@Elmo Keep I like'em cause they look like lil' old men.

Diane47 (#2,911)

Yes, and you can enter your neutered purebred cats in a class that is as competitive as the champion class. This is the place for cats that are really show-quality but their new owners don't have any desire to breed. It just makes sense when you are trying to encourage responsible pet ownership!

Tully Mills (#6,486)

No boat cats.

@Diane47 I was thinking it might be an Exotic Shorthair, but didn't want to judgement call it. I was still stinging from when a very grumpy Sphinx breeder gave me 'tude for not knowing that all Calicos are female- a bit of info that had gotten rewritten by either my encyclopedic knowledge of the DC Comics universe or lines from The Wire… OMAR COMIN!

Where was I?

Oh, yes: I uploaded a bunch more to Flickr–

I will note that I "guessed" that the calico Sphinx was a female, which I hold was the knowledge leaking out as a hunch. She turned her back on me and went back to amusing the cat with a feather.

Diane47 (#2,911)

@Noah Nelson@facebook Yeah, cat breeders can be kind of bitchy sometimes. But there's some in every crowd (I suppose there could be a snobby comic book fan who would deride my inability to keep the universes straight?)
That silver tabby curl is adorable. You got some great action shots of him!

jetztinberlin (#392)

@Noah Nelson@facebook I want to marry this Flickr feed.

BadUncle (#153)

Though I barely tolerate cats (and would more likely be found at a skink fanciers convention than a cat show), I must take umbrage at the slur aimed at Japanese bobtails. Of the two cats I've suffered, my favorite was one of these fine animals. She had personality in abundance. She hated my SOs. Her only problem – aside from not being a dog – was perennial constipation. It was so bad she the vet had to give her enemas three or four times a year. Which wasn't cheap. Eventually, she just became unable to crap, and a very unhappy little animal.

So, yeah. No tails. And they can't crap very well. But they're awfully sweet.

Dave Bry (#422)

"To the touch she felt like a microwaved peach. Or a hot water bottle wrapped in suede."

That is great!

Don't these cats hate it and freak out being brought to an unfamiliar place around all these new people? Or do show cats get used to be carted about and shown?

Diane47 (#2,911)

@Dave Bry Some breeds are just naturally very docile and unexcitable. Persians are so laid back that when one of them takes a swipe at a feather on the judging bench it's a big event! Other breeds, you have to work with them from when they are young. You can start entering them in shows at 4 months and before that, you can take them out in carriers and to work and parties and let them get used to noises and people.

Diane47 (#2,911)

@Dave Bry You also stretch them out like the judges hold them and walk them around the house, and pet their paws so they get used to having their paws touched. And deaf cats (a lot of blue-eyed white cats are deaf) have an advantage because they are not distracted by all the noise!

Diane47 (#2,911)

@Dave Bry But the worst thing is when one of them is spooked while they are on the judges table and they jump down and run amok. It's very scary for the cats to be loose in the showhall. They announce "Cat Out! Shut the doors!" and everybody watches for the cat to run by so they can alert the owner/handler, but it's a slow chase and nobody ever tries to pick up somebody else's spooked cat. Judges do get bit/scratched and sometimes owners do as well, and after an experience like that you sometimes have to skip the rest of the rings because the cat is just too freaked out.

@Diane47 This article was amazing and I can't believe I missed it yesterday. Diane, your comments are a treat and thanks Natasha for writing this! Awesome pictures Noah!

El Matardillo (#586)

I like cats and cat-related news.

saythatscool (#101)

Lancelot looks like he was the victim of some sort of "cat centipede" scientist.

oneneatcat (#19,466)

I WANT TO PET ALL THOSE CATS. I don't care about the rules. I would be kicked out of the show, but it would be *worth* it.

My rescue cat would bite the judge and give him or her a look like "what you going to do about it, dick?" My cat's an asshole.

Diane47 (#2,911)

@oneneatcat It's not just the grooming that makes the exhibitors wary of letting people touch them (though that is a legitimate concern — I had a cousin visit me at a cat show when I was showing an all-white cat and she felt compelled to plant a big kiss on the top of her head between her ears, wearing bright red waxy lipstick). But cats also get viruses, kind of like colds, and they get passed around at shows if everybody doesn't take care. The judges disinfect the tables and their hands between every cat. Some exhibitors, especially if they are selling kittens, will let you hold them if you disinfect your hands first. But always ask!

oneneatcat (#19,466)

@Diane47 I jest, I jest :) You mean the groomers don't want me ruffling the cat's head saying "who's pretty, who's pretty?" with my caramel-covered hands while I have a cold?

Diane47 (#2,911)

@oneneatcat LOL — yes, keep the cats away from your caramel-covered hands! Or potato chips or chocolate! Though they don't care if YOU have a cold, it's whether the last cat you touched had one, since they don't pass between people and cats. :)

Clare (#516)

I am so excited to see British Shorthairs! Happycat! Cheezburger cat!

ginalouise (#42,030)

False. My cat is the best cat in all of the world.
Hairless cats are the stuff of which nightmares are made.

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