Wednesday, February 29, 2012

"Most Perfect Animal"

Tiny tiger, little emperor without an orb: the well-pampered house cat.

"[The cat] is a visible part of our household, and is both useful, quiet, affectionate, and ornamental."

Harrison Weir

Weir explained in the beginning of his book, Our Cats and All About Them, that his desire in creating cat shows was to elevate the status and treatment of all cats.

"I conceived the idea that it would be well to hold "Cat Shows," so that the different breeds, colours, markings, etc., might be more carefully attended to, and the domestic cat, sitting in front of the fire, would then possess a beauty and an attractiveness to its owner unobserved and unknown because uncultivated heretofore."

Weir's goal was realized in England, in America, in Europe, and gradually wherever the industrialization and modern life has touched the globe. He realized his dream in England hardly more than a generation after the cat was still being declared to be nothing but an unfriendly though necessary barn animal.

In Animals, Their Nature and Their Uses, Charles Baker writes in 1857, "The Cat must be considered as a faithless friend, brought to oppose a still more insidious enemy. The domestic cat is the only animal of the tribe to which it belongs, whose services can more than recompense the trouble of its education, and whose strength is not sufficient to make its anger formidable. Supple, insinuating, and artful, it has the art of concealing its intentions till it can put them into execution. Whatever animal is much weaker than itself is an indiscriminate object of slaughter, - birds, bats, moles, young rabbits, rats, and mice, - the last named being its favourite game." To Baker, the cat's value is that it preys on agricultural pests, while being small enough not to be a threat to humans.

The Reverend J.G. Wood complained in the same decade that the cat was unjustly maligned. "In the eyes of any one who has really examined, and can support the character of the Domestic Cat, she must appear to be a sadly calumniated creature. She is generally contrasted with the dog, much to her disfavour...The Cat is held up to reprobation as a selfish animal, seeking her own comfort and disregardful of others; attached only to localities, and bearing no real affection for her owners. She is said to be sly and treacherous, hiding her talons in her velvety paws as long as she is in a good temper, but ready to use them upon her best friends if she is crossed in her humours" (Illustrated Natural History).

Charles Darwin opined that the cat's "nocturnal rambling habits" (Origin of the Species, 1859) made long-term cat breeding impossible. He said that only women and children valued cats--insulting cats, women, and children all in the same sentence! 

The Rocky Road to Royalty

"Still it is better, under certain circumstances, to be a cat than a duchess." (Helen Winslet)

But the road to a higher status was not a smooth one, even for more special cats.  Helen M. Winslet, an American pioneer in cat breeding in the 19th century, wrote about her Pretty Lady, a long-haired cat "of Angora or coon descent." Pretty Lady was a pampered cat, but when the family vacationed in the country,  she was put outside to run freely, despite the fact that Mrs. Winslet noted the cat acted afraid. The cat fared well enough until Mrs. Winslet left her on the farm while she visited elsewhere for several weeks. Pretty Lady got lost, and was found only five weeks later, starving. It seems inconceivable today that a valuable cat used for breeding would be treated with such lack of care.

And, in the days of total ignorance about genetics, the hit-and-miss means of establishing the desired characteristics of a breed meant that a prized mother cat produced scores of litters, only to have most of her offspring drowned as "plebians," unattractive rejects. Mrs. Winslet told the story of her Lady Betty, who produced four Angora kittens (i.e., long-haired) in one litter. The royal Lady Betty was given a "wet nurse." Jane, whose own two "plebian" kittens disappeared (drowned), was put to nursing the Angoras. Adding insult to injury, Jane was Lady Betty's offspring, too, a plain cat kept only to nurse her mother's more special babies!

My cats enjoyed the luxury of being inside-outside cats
for many years, having an acre and a half of suburban land
to play in. But the yard is no longer safe. Ezra fell victim to
coyotes in the back yard.

My cat Ezra would certainly be considered "plebian" by Mrs. Winslet--a ginger cat like several I've owned over the years. My son Chris adopted him from the animal shelter. Yellow tigers are among the most friendly, easy-going cats, and usually fairly intelligent. Chris taught him to turn a somersault, with a little help.

He became mine when Chris moved away from home.  I then discovered few other tricks Ezra had learned. His nightly game was to turn over the kitchen trash container and look for food bits in it. In the winter, when we let the cats stay in the garage, I would leave the garbage cans outside. When my husband expressed concern about animals getting into the garbage, I told him I was far more worried about the varmint inside the garage. 

Ezra also climbed up the screen door, making holes in it. That was what an inside cat did for fun, indulged by his lenient young human. I solved most of these problems by letting him go outside, which he loved.

I was awakened one morning to a cat howling outside my bedroom window. And the bedroom was on the second story! Ezra was on the ledge, having climbed up the timbers of our English Tudor house. I let him in the window, which was a mistake. He was there the next morning. After that, I went downstairs and let him in the door. It took several more days to break him of climbing up to the window.


Monday, February 20, 2012

Curious Long-Haired Cats

Angoras, Persians, and Russians

The first cats shows at the Crystal Palace had one category for all long-haired cats. Harrison Weir, who initiated the first cat show at the Crystal Palace, acknowledged that most long-haired cats he saw were mixes of the original imports of Persian, Angora, and what he called Russian (see Weir's drawing, right).

The Russian cat was a dark tabby, resembling the British wild cat:  the local subspecies of felis sylvestris, which is now well-established as the domesticated cat's ancestor. A domesticated long-haired relative came to America and became known as the Maine Coon Cat, which is still bred today. I read an amusing story about the supposed origin of the name, that it came from a sea captain named Coon.  I have my own amusing story that reveals exactly where the name really came from.

Hershey the coon cat?
Our back yard in Jackson, Missouri used to be a haven for all kinds of wild mammals, including raccoons. One spring afternoon, I looked out my kitchen window to see a raccoon running past. That was strange, because raccoons weren't afraid of anything--the coyotes hadn't moved in yet. Then, just behind it, ran my Persian mix Hershey, then Midnight, then Silver. These three cats sometimes hunted together, but they had never gone after a raccoon. I concluded that the raccoon had caught a glimpse of Hershey from behind, and with his big bushy tail, still full of its winter fur, and had mistaken him for another raccoon. Whether the coon considered him a buddy or a rival, I can't say, but as soon as the mistake was realized, a fight was inevitable. Hershey's feline friends came to his rescue. Take another look at the Russian cat with its striped tail. The coon cat.

Weir preferred short-haired cats to long-haired ones. Despite the exotic. upper-class aura associated with Angoras and Persians, the extra effort involved in having a long-haired cat must have been off-putting. Nobody brushed cats back then (or gave them vaccines, or took them to an animal doctor). I wonder what the long-haired cats looked like in those early cat shows.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Persians in Paris

After the first modern cat show at London's Crystal Palace in 1871, initiated by Harrison Weir, “catteries” began to spring up over Britain, and almost simultaneously in America. Middle-class women found cat breeding a lucrative cottage industry—breeding cats that had the illusion of aristocracy. The best cats, they told interested buyers, came from France. So I began looking for the beginning of the  “cat fancy” business in France, and to my surprise, it was hard to find. True, it was well documented that Angora and Persian cats were brought to France in the 1600s. But except for one account by Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), a French biologist (see previous post), I could find little about the business of breeding these exotic cats in France during the 18th and 19th centuries. Not that they didn't buy and sell prize cats at cat shows; they just didn't like to advertise the crass commercial side of it. Aristocratic people owned beautiful cats and wrote emotionally about them.

One aristocratic cat lover of that time was the French writer Colette. Her quote, "There are no ordinary cats" is well known to most ailurophiles. In her little novella, The Cat, she writes of a husband buying a four-month-old Chartreuse (gray Persian) kitten at a cat show, which he names Saha. "But why didn't you buy an Angora?" the wife asked. (White Angoras were, on the whole, more valued and more rare). "It wasn't just a little cat I was carrying at that moment," Alain mused. "It was the incarnate nobility of the whole cat race, her limitless indifference, her tact, her bond of union with the human aristocrat." Colette uses little Saha as a metaphor of a crumbling marriage in her story. But she also shows the reader a great deal about how the French aristocrats viewed their cats. They were a pet suitable for "the human aristocrat." 
Lower class people had lower class cats that were sometimes loved, but more often mistreated. That was true in all of  Europe, but in England, Harrison Weir became the patron saint of the ordinary cat.

The first cat show in Paris was in 1896 at le Jardin d'aclimatation, a year after the first American cat show in Madison Square Garden. But where the English and American shows encouraged middle-class people to bring their cats, only the aristocrats themselves brought their cats to le Jardin. Well-known men, such as Emile Zola and Catulle Mendes, displayed their cats.

Balzac's Minette
French writers such as Theophile Gautier, Charles Pierre Baudelaire, Colette, and Emile Zola wrote often and quite effusively about their cats. The cat was also a metaphor of love, imbued with feminine characteristics. Honore de Balzac wrote a satire on the differences between French and English lovemaking, as told by the cat Minette, in The Love Affairs of an English Cat. White and beauteous, Minette is married off to an older, boring, black Angora. She eventually meets a young, penniless French tom named Brisquet who woos her with his flowery language. He is shot when the two cats attempt to elope.

Even after the French Revolution, class divisions and political turmoil prevailed, and it affected cats and other animals as well as humans. Wrote an American breeder: “It is well known that the Persians and Angoras are much esteemed in Paris and are, to some extent, bred for sale. In the provinces, French cats are usually low-bred animals, with plebeian heads and tails, the stringlike appearance of the latter not being improved by cropping” (a common practice of farmers).

And many Frenchmen were not averse to eating cats, she wrote. “Although not generally esteemed as an article of food in France, there are still many people scattered throughout the country who maintain that a civet de chat is as good, or better, than a civet de lièvre.” Even today, it is probably served in more than a few French restaurants, although none would publicly acknowledge it. And in Italy, too: not long ago, an Italian chef caught heat for posting online a recipe for cat.
How a society decides to eat one animal and humanize another defies logic and resists moral judgment. I'm not a vegetarian--all that meat in my own freezer comes from living animals with a face. But the cat has occupied a unique place in human society, serving as a symbol of man's progress into urban living. It came out of the wild to live with humans as we changed from hunter-gatherers to farmers, and evolved from being totally wild to becoming a semi-independent farm animal kept for rodent control. Finally,  it was transformed into a dependent pet, bred mainly for its looks. Genetically, there is little difference between the stray cat you feed outside the door and the purebred Persian you paid several hundred dollars for. But on a social level, there is a great deal of difference. The French seem to be  much more keenly aware of such differences than the English and Americans. 

The Great Cat Massacre
The Great Cat Massacre is a story of the French class war, where aristocratic cats lived on a level of luxury with their aristocratic owners, while lower class people and animals suffered together. It reads like a parable, but is supposedly true. American historian Robert Darnton related how, in Paris during the late 1730s, apprentice printers living and working on Rue Saint-Séverin were forced to sleep in cold, dirty attics and eat rotten scraps. The cats of the household were fed much better than these young men. The apprentices contrived a plan of revenge on the cats. Several men crawled onto the roof at night, and howled like cats in heat, keeping their master and mistress awake. Finally, the exasperated master told his apprentices to get rid of the cats. The apprentices rounded up every cat they could find, including the few prized cats of the household, tortured them and “tried” them for their crimes before hanging them. The mistress had begged the apprentices not to harm “la grise,” her prized Persian female cat. But la grise was one of the first to die.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Yoda, the Lao kitten

Sadly, I must report that little Yoda has suffered an accident in the street and died.
He will be missed by his owners. 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Persian Cats Part 2

"For the English cats are the best in Europe." (Christopher Smart)
Weir’s Persians, from his 1889 book, appear to be much like the Persians today, except that the characteristic flat face and large round eyes were still a work in progress. The Persian cat is the most popular breed today in the Cat Fanciers’ Association, the largest registry of pedigreed cats in the United States and in the world. In the Governing Council of the Cat Fancy, the largest registry in the United Kingdom, the most popular breed is the British shorthair, which looks surprisingly like a short-haired Persian! Siamese is second, and Persian is third.
The hazy past of the Persian is made even more ambiguous by the fact that Europeans indiscriminately interbred all the long-haired cats they had. It appears that color was a big issue for the English. They sought to have long-haired cats in every color of the short-haired cat. But the Persian cat brought back from Khorasan was gray, and the Angora from Turkey was white. White was a sought-after color, but the Angora may have been disappointing after it came to Europe. One source I found suggests the Angora may actually have been a temperature-sensitive albino (i.e. a long-haired Siamese, more or less) which would get darker in the colder European weather.

Angora, by Weir

The Angora
Using the same trade routes that bypassed the Siamese cat in Southeast Asia, merchants brought long-haired cats to Europe in the Middle Ages. The cats apparently came from mainland Asia and eastern Europe (Turkey and Russia), and were called, with some lack of specificity, Angoras, Persians, and Russians.
Tradition says that Pietro Della Valle (1586-1652) brought the cats from Khorasan, Persia, back to his home in Italy in 1620. At about the same time, Nicholas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1623) brought cats from Angora, now Ankera, to France.  Khorasan cats were gray, while those from Angora were white.
I translated an excerpt of L'Historie Naturelle, generale et particuliere (volume VI, pages 11-13), written by Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788). He was a French naturalist, mathematic, biologist, author, and apparently an exotic cat breeder, in the French hayday of that craze. He writes as if he is quoting Della Valle, and seems to mix the story of the Persians and the Angoras. In a practical sense, it doesn't matter because by that time, the cats almost assuredly had been interbred. Most interesting is his description of what we now know is temperature-sensitive albinism, which must have intrigued him as a biologist. Even as he was being a scientist, though, he was not above making a very commercial plug for the cats.
“There is in Persia a breed of cats which are originally from the province of Chorazan; their size and form is like an ordinary cat; their beauty consists in their color and in their fur, which is gray without any blotching or pattern, of the same color on their whole body, only a little darker on the back and the head, and lighter on the chest and belly, which sometimes gets nearly white. The contrast makes for a wonderful effect, say the artists.”
I’ll include the French here because I believe he is using a technical art term:  “avec ce tempérament agréable de clair-obscur, comme parlent les Peintres qui, mêlés l’un dans l’autre, font un merveilleux effet.”
And then I have to stop here: The cat is prized as a work of art! Leonardo Da Vinci said it: “The smallest feline is a masterpiece.”
Leclerc continues: “What’s more, their fur is delicate, fine, lustrous, soft, silky, and long; it does not bristle out, but lays flat. The hair forms curls in several places, particularly around the neck. These cats are among other cats what the spaniels are to dogs.” (In other words, these are pedigreed cats among mongrels.) “Even more beautiful is the tail. It is very long and covered with fur measuring five or six fingers. The cats swish their tails over their backs as if they were squirrels…” (And here it becomes  obviously a merchant’s advertisement.) “The cats are very tame. Della Valle brought back four pairs from Italy. He called the color 'chartreuse,' and said they appeared to be of the same breed of silky-haired cats found in Spain, the Angoras, which were found there in reds, whites, and blacks, with the color difference due to the climate of Syria. The climate seemed to cause the colors to become muted, he said.” (This is temperature-sensitive alibinism.) “As these cats have more or less white on their bellies and sides, one can easily conceive of creating a totally white cat with long hair, which we could properly call Angora cats. We only need to breed together the whitest cats we can find to create a totally white cat.”
Of course, that never happened. The temperature-sensitive albino just got darker in Europe, and although it is possible to create a true albino cat, it is too unhealthy to breed.
Even so, the exotic cats were popular with the aristocracy in France in the 1600s and 1700s. Louis XV, and Marie Anoinette reportedly owned the cats. Cardinal Richelieu had 14 cats, whose names came down through history. One of them was a black Angora he called Lucifer.
And then there was the French Revolution.
the Great Cat Massacre
Persians in Paris

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Persian Cats

My "Persian":  Hershey

Hershey in the garden
Hershey was the most beautiful cat I’ve ever owned. I can’t say he was my favorite, because I like lap cats, and he never sat on my lap. Hershey had the sweet but cool personality that is typical of Persians. He would sleep on my feet when I sat at my desk, and he followed me around outside in the garden.
Hershey's mother was a pedigreed calico Persian, and his father was a neighborhood Siamese. The owner had brought in a Persian stud for her cat, but the mating was unsuccessful. Still in heat, the female went out and had an illicit affair, producing a litter of gorgeous but financially worthless kittens. Hershey was a real prize. I could have almost passed him off as a purebred Birman—a Siamese-Persian breed with perfectly matched white feet.
I was on a roll with color names for my cats. We already had “Silver" and “Midnight,” but what do you call a cat whose colors are white, cream, and chocolate? I named him after a candy bar. My son Chris said the name was stupid and called him “Foo.” Intelligent cat that Hershey/Foo was, he answered to both.
Hershey had Siamese intelligence, but not the Siamese voice. He spoke only when necessary, and then (usually) in a soft, high voice. But on rides to the vet, he screamed with the best of the Siamese. Once, when I was in the car with my daughter, we heard a sound so human that we looked at each other, and asked, “Did you say something?” No, it was Hershey.

Harrison Weir
All by way of introduction to the Persian breed. Despite its exotic name and looks, the Persian is essentially a European cat, a fact proven scientifically by Lyons, in a study which mapped out the phylogeographical structure of domestic cats. (See previous posts for what has been discovered about the uniqueness of the Siamese cat.) The story of the Persian cat is far hazier than that of the Siamese.  At the time that cat fancy began in Britain, Harrison Weir identified three breeds of long-haired cats: the Angora cat,  a slender blue-eyed cat with silky white fur, originating in Turkey; the Persian cat, a stockier cat with gray fur, of far more ambiguous ancestry; and the Russian cat, of even more ambiguous origin, but asserted to have wild ancestry. Weir, father of the cat fancy, wrote in 1889 that he believed there were very few true Angoras left in England. He had seen beautiful cats of a variety of colors, but thought most all of them to be mixed with European stock. There was just as much cross-breeding among the so-called Persians and Russians, Weir said, so that "even at our largest cat shows, for the best long-haired cat, there exists in the eye of the judge no distinction as regards breed." 

Angora or Persian? At the turn of the
 last century, it was hard to tell the difference.

Thus, the Persian is a European creation. In fact, the British Shorthair of today looks like a short-haired Persian, and has a similar temperament.


The Persian is the most recognizable breed, because of their flat baby face with large eyes and very short nose. They have a short and broad body, a massive short neck, short legs. It is the most popular breed in the Cat Fanciers' Association, the largest registry of pedigreed cats in the world. The Persian is slipping in popularity elsewhere, including in the main registry of Britain, where the British Shorthair dominates.

Persians come in many colors, including the Himalayan, also known as Colorpoint Longhair. At one time, the Himalayan was recognized as a separate breed, but it was learned that the Persian bred out of the cat after a few generations, reverting back to a Siamese cat. This is because the long hair gene is recessive. Every few generations, a white Persian must be bred back into the line for the cats to remain Persian.


The Persian requires extensive daily grooming. Although cats in general are lower-maintenance animals than dogs, Persians are high maintenance. Their long hair needs at least 15-minute daily brushing. The books also recommend regular baths. (I never tried baths with Hershey, but I did brush him. frequently. In the summer, he shed tons of thick fur that had grown in over the winter.) His eyes needed to be cleaned frequently.

Jubilee has Persian eyes, which must be cleaned.