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Herding Cats

Enter the exciting, adorable world of professional cat shows.

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SARAH ARNOFF
  • Sarah Arnoff

At Ring 2 in the Hotel RL Ballroom, Adriana Kajon wrangles somewhere in the neighborhood of 12 pounds of feline from a cage onto a waist-high table that looks a lot like a stage. On either side, a vertical scratching post rises another three feet, with a wooden bar connecting them, creating the effect of a proscenium.

The cat—an adult female Maine coon—responds agreeably to being handled by this stranger who is checking bone structure, grooming, coloring and multiple other factors against the standards of the breed established by The International Cat Association (TICA).

As she judges, Kajon carries on a one-way conversation with spectators about what she's looking for, serving as something like her own color commentator for the process and helping educate the laypeople attendees, who are scattered among the breeders watching the evaluation of their own cats. "She's muscular, she's happy," Kajon says of the Maine coon. "This is the body language of happiness." Kajon flicks a "teaser toy" feather on a stick up the length of one of the scratching posts, attempting to observe the cat at its full length. She places the cat back in its cage, and tucks slips of paper between the bars identifying her as "best of color" and "best of division"—nominal recognitions, since the female is unopposed in those areas. Then, Kajon sprays her hands and her table with disinfectant, wipes everything down, and moves on to the next cat.

At Kajon's ring and at four other tables throughout the hall, judges evaluate nearly 100 cats during the two days of the second annual Rocky Mountain Roundup, an official TICA event held in June and sponsored by the Salt Lake City-based Wild West Cat Fanciers (WWCF). Both purebred cats and household pets will be shuttled from one judge to another more than a dozen times each, accruing points in a complex system that breeders will tell you can take weeks to figure out. The judges do their work while keeping up a patter to inform spectators, dropping tidbits like this about the long-eared Devon rex breed: "You want it to look as much like Yoda as possible," Kajon says.

Judge and TICA President Vickie Fisher - SARAH ARNOFF
  • Sarah Arnoff
  • Judge and TICA President Vickie Fisher

Every few minutes, Wild West Cat Fanciers president and treasurer Tristan Anderson—who serves as the event's de facto ringmaster—calls out assignments over the PA system directing cats in specific categories to individual judges' rings. In the center of the room are tables covered with dozens of pet carriers, filled with kitties alternately sleeping and mewling adorably as they wait for their chance to impress the judges.

Not all of the cats are always happy to be there. At one point, Kajon gathers up a female who begins hissing and yowling; "a very opinionated young lady," the judge says.

"Mostly, they get used to the process of getting handled by strangers," Anderson says. "By the time they're adults, they're used to it. That's not to say that there isn't going to be a cat out there who's just tired of it. You bring them out, and they hiss. They're cats; that's how this works. It's not like in the dog world where you tell them sit, stay, roll over."

The technicalities of the show only become evident with a little time and a lot of question-asking. During a Saturday morning session, the five participating judges will see all of the cats on a rotating basis in a variety of categories. Kittens (4-9 months old) are separated from adults; long-hair are separated from short-hair; "altered" (spayed/neutered) are separated from "championship" (still fertile). Four additional judges will see the same cats in the afternoon, and the process is more or less repeated the following day. At various times during the day, a judge will oversee a "final," combining long-hair and short-hair winners in a given category, providing point values that go toward a cat's overall score for the show, and which accumulate over a feline's lifetime for TICA rankings from "champion" to "supreme."

The result is a floor that's a buzz of activity, as owners transfer their cats from home table to judging ring and back to home table for a brief rest—and perhaps a quick grooming—before it's time to move on to the next judging ring. Every once in a while, a cat might get loose, and there's a strict protocol in place: Anderson announces "cat loose" over the microphone, the ballroom doors are closed, and nobody leaves the room until the call of "cat caught." Everyone here loves these animals, and their safety and security is the primary goal.

SARAH ARNOFF
  • Sarah Arnoff

Toybob Story
Anderson runs the operation with calm efficiency, even when the sound system gets uncooperative and he needs to find a back-up mic. It's been a quick turnaround from co-founding the WWCF in 2016—the previous local TICA chapter had folded a decade earlier, after the organizers retired—and getting the Rocky Mountain Roundup running. But Anderson has been a breeder himself for 10 years, after being introduced to the Maine coon by a friend.

"I'd never seen one up close before," Anderson says. "I started going to shows and rubbing elbows with other people who raised and showed Maine coon cats, and started seeing other breeds that are out there. I got myself involved in becoming a breeder, and it snowballed from there."

While he's partial to his own breed, Anderson says that's only natural among breeders. "Every single exhibitor will tell you their breed is the best one out there. Some will see a Maine coon and take three steps back, because they look like this huge beast."

Over at Ring 1, Anderson calls for "household pet kittens." It's one of the distinctive elements of a TICA show that not only purebred cats are represented; anyone who wants to become a member of the organization and pony up the registration fee can enter a rescue cat, a stray, a feline mutt. In this particular group, however, the cages are mostly filled with small, white kittens that look virtually identical to one another. That's because the household pet category also becomes a catch-all place for a breeder to show a breed that officially—at least according to TICA—isn't yet a breed.

The white kittens are toybobs, a breed developed in the 1980s in Russia yet still working its way through the complicated process of being recognized by TICA. Julie Ollis, a breeder from Leavenworth, Wash., is showing several toybob kittens at the Rocky Mountain Roundup, part of an effort to get the breed regularly in front of judges to help educate them about the prospective new entry. "It's a long process," Ollis says. "A lot of genetics, DNA testing, then you have to have enough breeders in enough regions who are consistently producing the cat. It's a long, drawn-out process. It doesn't happen overnight—it's years."

Ollis had already spent 15 years as a breeder of an entirely different breed—the exotic-looking, spotted bengals—when she made the transition to toybobs two years ago. "I was going to retire, not be so active," she says, "which these guys are perfect for. They're a perfect apartment cat. Small, don't take up a lot of space."

They do, however, take up a fair amount of time. Ollis estimates that she'll travel to between 10 and 15 shows a year, including every weekend in June. "You can probably go to a TICA show two or three times a month, depending on how far you want to travel," she says. "Our judges go to China, Australia, all over the world to judge, so we could do the same. It's just the bankroll that's short."

Ollis also is limited in terms of showing toybobs as kittens, due to the restrictions placed on a breed that is not yet recognized for championship status. All adult cats in the non-purebred household pet category—meaning 9 months of age and older—must be spayed or neutered in order to show. That means that if you have a cat that you intend to breed, like Ollis's toybobs, their showing life ends once they age out of the kitten category. "There's no getting a championship on your adult cat to show in your breeding program," Ollis points out. "In the meantime, we're going to spend our time breeding our cats, showing in household pet and educating the judges as we go. The more we can show them, the better."

Judge Adriana Kajon - SARAH ARNOFF
  • Sarah Arnoff
  • Judge Adriana Kajon

Here Comes the Judge
Every judge at the Rocky Mountain Roundup has a role to play, but Vickie Fisher has an additional one. She's also the president of TICA.

The 40-year-old Harlingen, Texas-based International Cat Association oversees official events around the globe. While it's not the only organization of its kind—there's also the Cat Fanciers Association, the primary alternative to TICA—TICA is the first and largest organization to expand its mission to also allow non-pedigreed cats in its shows. The TICA website's event calendar lists between a dozen and 20 shows all around the world every month, and Fisher gets a chance to visit all of them.

"I try to limit it, because I don't want to be gone every weekend," Fisher says. "I probably do 15 a year or so. Earlier this year, I started out in Kobe, Japan, went home for a few days, then went to Shanghai, then came back and went to Portland, came home and went to Milan."

Like Anderson, Fisher began as a breeder herself before getting into the administrative side of cat fancy. But as she describes it, there's an almost accidental story behind how she got started. "My husband had an interest in tropical fish, so we spent a lot of time in pet stores," she says. "I was looking at the newest greatest saltwater fish, and he went to look at pet books. He found a book on cat breeds, and found a picture of the Maine coon. When I came out from the dark saltwater area, he said, 'Look, there's a cat we need to have, this giant cat, it looks so cool.'"

Fisher eventually mentioned the Maine coon to her sister, and they developed what she calls a "grand idea that I would buy a cat, and she would buy a cat, and we'd do the breeding. Which we never actually did. But I did get the cat."

For three years, Fisher and her husband showed their Maine coons steadily, accumulating recognitions including the TICA equivalent of a bronze medal Maine coon cat one year. "Then, from there I thought, what's my next step," she says, "and my next step was to be a judge."

Cats await judging in ring cages - SARAH ARNOFF
  • Sarah Arnoff
  • Cats await judging in ring cages

The training process, not surprisingly, is a complicated one. Prospective judges need to be members of TICA; they also need to have spent time getting to know the mechanics of shows by serving as a show manager like Anderson, or being one of the clerks who tabulates points. And it's important for a judge to be a breeder; "you need to earn some respect from the people whose cats you're going to judge," Fisher says. After meeting those requirements, you can apply for the program, which involves an initial test before an apprentice phase of working up to 40 rings with all-breed judges. "At the same time," Fisher adds, "you're doing some critiques of different breeds with the breeders. You learn about the different breeds from the breeders themselves. Once you do all that, you hope you've mastered it."

Even then, there are levels for a judge to move up within the organization. "A 'baby judge' comes in at a probationary level," Fisher says, "a specialty level, then as they do more shows, they can apply to go up in the ranks. There are some things some judges can do that others can't, based on their experience. It takes a while."

Fisher acknowledges that while there are very specific standards established for all breeds, a process as inherently subjective as judging cats is going to result in judges with different ideas of what a perfect cat looks like—which is one of the reasons multiple judges evaluate each cat at a show. "A lot of times, what happens is it centers around what your breed was when you started," she says. "So, in my mind, I have the perfect Maine coon. Then it can be, 'What the heck was that judge thinking?' We have written standards, but a picture is worth 1,000 words. The trick is to take those written words and make that picture. ... But then, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I tend to go toward long hair, some judges will go more toward short hair. It's like art. People see art differently."

That "picture," according to Fisher, is entirely physical; there are no "Miss Congeniality" awards in this particular beauty pageant. Yet while a cat's personality has nothing to do with the breed standards a judge is tasked with evaluating—aside from the fact that biting a judge results in an instant disqualification—there are ways in which that personality can have an impact on the competition. "The more comfortable the cat is, the better it's going to show itself off," she says. "In the end, the cat who's confident and shows herself off well, is well groomed and also happens to meet the standards, that's going to be a winner."

"Basically, what judges should be looking for," Fisher says, "is a healthy, well-balanced animal. You don't want extremes. So if the standard says a cat's supposed to have big ears, then if they're too big, it's not balanced any more. It's taking those words and fitting them into an image of a healthy, well-balanced animal.

"A lot of judges will say that the worst thing is when you turn around and look in a cage, and don't know what breed it is. Fortunately, the 'what's that?' doesn't happen very often."

SARAH ARNOFF
  • Sarah Arnoff

Breeding for Fun and (No) Profit
Terri Toulze brushes a female Maine coon before handing it off to her husband, Mike, to do the job of transporting the cat to her next judging ring. Like all of the breeders, the San Lorenzo, Calif., couple will repeat this process multiple times before the end of the weekend, and repeat weekends like this multiple times throughout the year.

As was true of Vickie Fisher, the Toulzes started with another animal—in their case, dogs—before moving into cat breeding. "I love dogs and [Terri] did, too," Mike says, "but we also enjoyed cats. Terri kept researching cats, and we started out doing bengals. We thought they were cute, but we didn't care for their temperaments. They're a little high-strung. A few times, I'd have people come over, and one of them would lunge on their back and stuff."

Eventually, the Toulzes made the transition to Maine coons, and it was only then that they began looking into showing their cats. When they started the process five years ago, they were as oblivious to the way the judging process worked as I was at the beginning of this weekend. "When you're first starting, you're clueless," Mike says. "They're putting, like, 'First place in division and color' and you're like, 'They won! First place!' Well, that doesn't mean anything. It took us a few shows to understand; we had to have a few people kind of mentor us with how the shows worked."

The Toulzes attend an average of one TICA show per month, which in part is a function of being among the younger owners represented at the Rocky Mountain Roundup. "The hobby, breeding and showing, is a lot more retirees," Terri says. "As far as Maine coons go, I'm the baby of the bunch. I have five kids. It's hard to do more showings out of state because I still have young ones at home."

Yet there's also the simple economics of being a breeder, which can limit the ability to attend additional events. Terri estimates that coming out to Salt Lake City for this show cost them around $2,500. She also notes that the basic expenses of breeding purebred cats are substantial, from the required genetic testing to a wide range of medical tests—for Maine coons, that can include feline AIDS/leukemia, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (heart disease), SMA (spinal muscular atrophy/curvature of the spine) and anemia—on top of feeding and other maintenance costs. "Some years, you're lucky to break even," Terri says. "If someone thinks they're going to get into breeding to make a quick buck, they're in the wrong business."

Indeed, there's no cash-in-hand financial reward for breeders for attending these shows, since no prize money is awarded; there are some raffle prizes provided by sponsors, like a grooming dryer from FlyingPig grooming, a free sitting from Helmi Flick Cat Photography and a Southwest Airlines gift certificate. There's not even all that much benefit to a breeder of being able to say your cat is a champion, according to Terri, except perhaps on a breeder-to-breeder basis. "This is strictly out of the love and passion for the breed," Terri says. "What I like most about the shows is when I see spectators coming up and down the rows, and to see little kids' faces light up. That's what the showing is about to me. Not so much the title, not so much the win, but to see the spectators and get more kids involved in the hobby ... to educate the outside world about cat shows. They know about [American Kennel Club dog] shows, everyone's heard of that. But cat shows? When I talk to people about it, they're like, 'OK, it's just a cat.' For me, it's getting more people educated."

SARAH ARNOFF
  • Sarah Arnoff

Why Breed?
A lot of that education involves answering an obvious question: In a world where there are so many stray cats in need of homes, why breed cats?

"Obviously, there are those who are the 'adopt, don't shop' people, and I total understand that," Anderson says. "There's the argument out there that we're adding to the pet population problem. ... [But it's] no different from a zoo trying to keep the white Siberian tiger line alive. I raise Maine coons to ensure that this breed remains intact, raising to breed standards just like with dogs, a Jack Russell terrier or Dalmatian."

And Wild West Cat Fanciers puts its money where its mouth is. Along one wall of the ballroom, more than a dozen cats in search of adoptive homes rest in cages throughout the weekend, overseen by the Community Animal Welfare Society (CAWS). Spectator ticket proceeds were set to be split with CAWS, which Anderson estimates will amount to around $1,000 for this event.

Fisher adds that TICA's democratic approach to showing cats, including the household pet categories, is a way of encouraging every possible kind of responsible pet ownership. "When we were formed, some of our founders were very interested in the welfare of cats in general, and a lot of members are into rescue," she says. "So, it was one of those things where, by dang, we're going to found this organization, and whether it's pedigreed or off the street, it's a cat, and we're out for the welfare of cats and people enjoying them as companion animals."

The breeders at the show generally acknowledge that there are "kitten mills" out there, and the reality that some breeders don't have the best interest of their animals at heart. For them, however, maintaining the integrity of a beautiful breed has its own value. "How many of these breeds would be extinct, how many would be cross-bred, or inbred, without people who have the knowledge?" Terri Toulze says. "So when you ask about the cats and preserving them, it's important that the breeder knows what they're doing. I'm all for rescue as well, but it's up to the breeder to do everything they can to not be a mill."

SARAH ARNOFF
  • Sarah Arnoff

Best in Show
There's no grand finale to the Rocky Mountain Roundup equivalent to what you might expect from watching televised dog shows, where owners anxiously await the one final judging before one animal is dramatically named Best in Show. A few of the Saturday winners might not even stick around for Sunday, using it as a travel day instead. There is a Best in Show at the end of this weekend—a Peterbald cat named Beatrice, owned by Las Vegas residents Susanna and Steven Shon—but there's no additional point value that accompanies the title. A small "alternative format" show of this kind isn't for glory, but for the pleasure of getting together with others who have devoted themselves to "the fancy."

Anderson says there are no immediate plans to grow beyond the 125-cat limit for "alternative format" shows, which would require a larger venue. Many breeders, like Terri Toulze, prefer these smaller shows. "Bigger shows, yes it means more competition," she says. "I have done the big [shows], but small/medium, this is really cozy. Not a lot of stress factors, easier to get to the rings. The cats aren't as tense, because it's less stressful."

There's also the sense of camaraderie that emerges between those who share this love of cats, and are willing to travel all over the country for it,

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with no guarantee of a financial payoff at the end. "A community develops," Toulze says. "And it's all different breeds, it doesn't have to be within your same breed. We're all family here, no matter what we breed."

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