Lit Hub Article: Cuddly, Cute, Curious Cats: On the Beauty and Diversity of the Feline Species – Jonathan B. Losos Explores the World of Cat Shows

Mention a cat show and most people think of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show: smartly dressed trainers parading their beautifully coiffed and perfectly behaved charges around the ring; madcap agility trials in which speedy canines zip through challenging obstacle courses with nary a misstep. A feline equivalent is unthinkable.

And yet, cat shows do exist. I know, because I’ve attended many of them, both as a spectator and as a participant with Nelson. Cat shows are simpler than dog shows. There is no cat promenade and the competitors in the agility competitions (which are a relatively recent addition) generally lack the single-minded zeal of their canine counterparts.

Nevertheless, cat shows are still a spectacle. Imagine two hundred, or even eight hundred, yowling, purring, and snoozing cats packed into a show hall, showcasing the variety of the modern cat. The venues range from shabby high school gymnasia and bare-bones veterans’ halls to hotel banquet rooms and large show halls.

The rooms are filled with rows of long tables, jam-packed with colorful kitty condos; the competitors lounge inside their fabric walls, waiting to be called to the judging tables. Siamese cats yowl incessantly. Occasional shouts of “cat out” or “cat on the ground” lead to a few moments of excitement until the wayward puss is retrieved.

Cat shows reveal that Felis catus is not one cat, but many diverse brands of feline.

In the morning, the only people present are the cats’ minders (called “exhibitors”), getting their charges settled into their condos and primping them for what’s to come. As the day wears on, though, the hall fills with spectators, a diverse cross section of the cat-loving public who’ve plunked down three bucks to see the show cat spectacle.

If you remember the zany characters in the dog-show mockumentary Best in Show, you’ll be disappointed to discover that the exhibitors are just ordinary folk with a passion for cats and a willingness to let their lives revolve around driving—or sometimes flying—to events weekend after weekend throughout much of the year. Like any group that gets together frequently to compete and socialize, there are deep friendships, intense rivalries, gossip, complaints about the judging, and all sorts of hijinks.

Fascinating as the people at cat shows are, let’s focus on the main event: the cats! The contestants on display are mostly refined and elegant; it’s hard to beat a Siamese for savoir faire or a Norwegian for reserved dignity. Some will charm you with their looks or manner; you’ll be surprised at the unexpected features of others. But above all, what these events display is the amazing variety of catdom. The long, sinuous fluidity of the Oriental, the regal majesty of a Maine Coon, the pantherine sleekness of an Abyssinian. Fluffball Himalayans. Pixie-faced Devon Rexes.

Cat shows reveal that Felis catus is not one cat, but many diverse brands of feline. And the cat cornucopia is growing rapidly. Breeders have capitalized on naturally occurring mutations to develop new breeds unlike anything previously imagined, including the curly-haired Devon Rex and the Ragdoll, named for its penchant for going limp when picked up. Some enthusiasts are looking in a different direction for new sources of variation, mating domestic cats with other feline species to produce the gorgeous spotted Bengal, the long-legged Savannah, and others.

The International Cat Association now recognizes seventy-three breeds of cats, and the number is increasing rapidly. All these breeds share an essential catness, yet they are becoming increasingly different, in many respects more diverse than the forty-two wild species in the cat family. How far can cat breeders push the boundaries of modern felinity? Does cat evolution have no limits?

To find out, let’s go to Cleveland.

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Cuddly, Cute, Curious Cats: On the Beauty and Diversity of the Feline Species