|From left are Georgie Fary with GC Catalpa’s Lyla Belle, Leslie Herman with Catalpa’s Tinker Bel and Cheryl Matteo-Kerney with GP CherMa’Ki’s Prince-of-Persia.
I recently learned about this surprisingly complicated enterprise during a discussion with cat fanciers Cheryl Matteo-Kerney, president of the Chamberlin by the Bay Cat Fanciers Association and Pawprints in the Sand cat clubs and show manager; Leslie Herman, vice president and club historian of both clubs; and Georgie Fary, owner of a Grand Premier cat from last year.
We sat upstairs at Heads Up Hair Works in Kilmarnock. Georgie works there and was squeezing us in between clients. All three brought cats, and as we talked the cats wandered the room and occasionally over us. I asked the ladies why they got involved in breeding and showing cats.
“This is the only show, annual championship cat show sponsored by the CFA, in the Hampton Roads region,” Cheryl said. “The closest show is Richmond, and they will never see this diversity of potentially 40 different breeds in one place at the same time.”
“I’d always had rescue kitties, and someone, who I to this day do not know, sent me a gift for a subscription to Cat Fancy Magazine,” Georgie recalled. “I never found out who it was.
“So I started getting these magazines, and I started looking, and I thought, ‘Well, you know...’ I’d had a Siamese before who was rescued, and I grew up with a Siamese, so I said ‘you know, I think I want a pedigree kitty.’ So I started going to cat shows and checking out all the breeds. And so one kitty kind of led to another kitty, and we met Leslie, and (Georgie’s husband) Stuart said ‘You know, why don’t you think about showing?’”
Georgie said she met Leslie at the first show she attended, a “huge” show in Maryland.
“A year or two later I went to another show, quote, ‘just to buy supplies,’ and I sort of came home with one of Leslie’s American Shorthairs named Pico,” said Georgie.
Cheryl said she been interested in breeding cats since college, but didn’t start until much later.
“I just adore them as pets, and ever since I was at college, I wanted to breed Siamese,” said Cheryl. “I didn’t know anything at that point about show standards, the breed standards, and I was living in an apartment in the residence halls, and Haji Baba (her Siamese at the time) came into heat. Well, I soon realized that cats in heat are loud, but Siamese in heat are insane. So to make a long story short, we spayed Haji Baba and I had to wait another 15 years until I was able to actually figure out the registered Siamese breeds.”
Similarly, Leslie has been interested in breeding cats since college, but in her case the interest covers the entire animal kingdom.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” she said. “I was in college at the time too, and it was 1970. My degree’s in zoology, so I’m an animal fanatic. And I’ve got goats and chickens.”
Growing up, her father wasn’t a big cat fan, so the family had dogs. When she was 20 she found out that a person could show cats.
Now, all three breed cats. They tell me very earnestly that despite the misconceptions, it is a hobby with heavy responsibilities and expense. In Georgie’s words, lot of “dedication and hearbreak” go into breeding cats.
“We do care about every individual that is produced,” Leslie said. “We are very picky if we have to place any and the types of homes that they go into, and we try to make good choices with who mom is and who dad is. And again, in referring to the standard, we have evaluated our female, per standard, and then evaluated the male, and we try to make sure that they compliment each other.”
“Even though you’re striving to get beautiful cats, responsible breeders are striving for extremely healthy, robust cats,” added Cheryl. “Because many of our cats go to pet owners. We’re not keeping all of the cats. We’re keeping a few of the cats to show and breed, but the majority of them are going to be neutered and spayed.”
“One of the myths of this, of people who breed, is that we’re making a lot of money doing this, and it’s a money pit,” Leslie said.
Cat breeds, like any other domesticated animal breed, are created and maintained by humans. The Cat Fanciers’ Association recognizes 42 breeds.
How is a breed created and who decides what a particular breed should be?
“Most of us through time have discovered a breed that we are particularly fascinated by,” said Leslie. “And breeds exist per humans, just like in the world of dogs, or horses, or ferrets, it’s because we have seen a certain set of attributes that we like together, and we have set up programs for breeding to perpetuate that group of attributes, and that is called a breed.”
As an example, she tells me about the origin of one of her favorite breeds, the American shorthair:
“In American shorthairs, those cats were brought over by early settlers, European cats, and they were brought over to work on farms,” Leslie explained. “They were your barn cats, they were your predators, your mousers. And the people that had those cats, together, in discussions, decided to decide on the attributes that made them the working cat. In fact, the American shorthair is the only standard that actually has a purpose as a working cat, and the structure is for a cat that could be a very good mouser.”
New breeds can be created, and breed standards can be changed. The people who decide what a breed should be are that breed’s council. A sufficiently qualified and experienced breeder can join a council and have a say in what makes an ideal specimen of that breed. Leslie, for example, is on the American Shorthair Breed Council, and Cheryl is on the Siamese Breed Council and Balinese-Javanese Breed Council.
Showing cats, I learned, involves some very complicated scoring and strategy. Each cat competes against others of its own breed at first. At the Newport News show, there will be four categories in which the cats compete: kitten, for pedigreed kittens between four and eight months old; championship, for unaltered (not neutered or spayed) pedigreed cats over eight months old; premiership, for altered pedigreed cats over eight months old; and household pets, which does not require that pets be pedigreed.
“Household pet is really for people who love their pets,” said Cheryl. “They don’t have to be pedigreed, they don’t have to be registered, they can bring their pet, it’s just that they can’t be declawed and they have to be amenable to being handled by the judges. And that’s become a popular class. People love to show their pets.” In this category, the winners are largely at the judge’s discretion, and personality plays a big part.
In the other categories, the cats aren’t actually measured against each other, but against the ideal breed standard. And they go through this first step of judging six times.
“Our show has six judges, and they are called ‘all-breed judges,’” Leslie explained. “Each ring and each judge is totally autonomous. It’s almost like we’re going to have six shows in one. Each judge will make awards within each category, including best cat, best kitten, it may not be the same one that another judge uses. Every ring can be different.”
After the judges make their decisions among categories and breeds, each picks his or her top 10 from every cat present. These selections are then used to choose the Grand Champion, Grand Premier, and so on. Cats then accumulate points towards nationwide awards across the entire country and show season.
Although Georgie describes the actual show process as “you put the cat in the cage, you step aside, sit down, keep your mouth shut,” serious cat showing is not without strategy. Many breeders begin showing cats when they are kittens, not because they expect the cat to win any awards in the category, but to get them adapted to the show environment.
“For kittens, many of us do it because we want to get them used to the noise, the confusion, and being handled by strangers,” Leslie said. “They have to be put on a table and that all can be very scary for them.”
Others “campaign” with their cats, traveling to cat shows around the country to accumulate points for their cats.
“A lot of people travel to shows that are closer to them, but when they’re campaigning, they’re following their judges,” Cheryl explained. “They’re going to go where they have had a history of a set of judges choosing their cat often, so their cat can do well in that show, because they’re striving for national points.”
A show like the one in Newport News will attract cat owners from all over the country, and even international visitors.
The judges, too, possess a formidable knowledge of cat breeds.
“Every judge has had to go through a lot of requirements to reach the level of judge. There is quite a protocol for accomplishing this,” Leslie said. “They are supposed to be very familiar with all the breeds’ standards, and all the rules governing showing, of which there are a lot.”
Which brings us back to the star of these shows: the cats, such as the one who made himself at home in my lap for much of the interview, JJ. JJ won nationally best Balinese-Javanese (his breed) in Premiership last year. In fact, JJ is properly addressed as “GP CherMa’Ki’s Prince-of-Persia,” since even naming cats is complicated in the world of cat showing.
The first part, GP, stands for “Grand Premier,” representing JJ’s victory last year. The second part, “CherMa’Ki’s,” is called the “cattery name” and identifies the breeder who bred this cat. Each breeder has a unique cattery name. Cheryl bred JJ, and her cattery name is CherMa’Ki. The last part is the cat’s show name, although some cats, like JJ, also have a casual name. Leslie, whose cattery name is Catalpa, bred a Grand Champion named Lyla Belle, so Lyla Belle’s full name and title is GC Catalpa’s Lyla Belle.
After spending nearly an hour talking with Georgie, Leslie, and Cheryl (and several cats), I’ve mostly learned how much I don’t know about cat showing.
Breeding and showing cats is a very complicated and sometimes competitive hobby, and the people who do it sink a lot of time, effort, and love into it. Georgie, Leslie, and Cheryl laughed and smiled as they tried to marshal their cats (yes, herding cats) for a picture before I left.