2017-01-18 / Columnists
Pets, Pets, Pets
Although certain types of cats have exotic names like “Bombay” or “Bengal,” these two plus about 28 additional cat breeds originated in the United States. Some are crossbreeds, some hybrids of domestic and wild cats while others resulted from spontaneous mutations. Brief histories of six “Made-in-America” cat breeds are profiled below:
Maine Coons: Probably the most well-known American cat breed is the Maine Coon. They are the largest and oldest natural, domestic feline breed in North America. The Maine Coon is considered native to Maine and is the state’s official cat. They were recognized as a specific breed in 1861 with a 22-pound cat called “Captain Jenks of the Horse Marines.”
However, the origin of the Maine Coon does not have a clear history. One myth is based on the bushy tails and common color pattern. Some believe cats bred with raccoons. This is not possible. Another idea is domestic cats mated with wild bobcats which may explain the ear tufts. This theory is more plausible but not proven.
Several legends exist too. One centers on Marie Antoinette trying to escape France before her execution in 1793. Supposedly, she loaded her prized possessions, including six Turkish Angora cats, onto a ship sailing to America. She didn’t make it, but her cats landed in Maine and bred with short-haired cats developing the breed.
Another tale says Captain Charles Coon, an Englishman, kept long-haired cats aboard his ship. When he anchored in New England, his cats would mate with local ferals. Soon the long-haired kittens were known as “Coon’s cats.” Folk tales aside, the most likely scenario is an intermingling of New World cats with English seafarers’ or even Viking ship cats, because of the Maine Coon’s resemblance to Norwegian Forest cats.
Munchkins: Think feline Basset Hound. Munchkins were developed from several cats with a stubby leg mutation. Short-legged cats surfaced as early as 1944 in Britain, and then several other places but a breeding line was never established. In 1983, Sandra Hochenedel found a pregnant short-legged cat under her trailer in Louisiana. “Blackberry” produced a litter where several of the kittens had short legs like Mom.
Hochenedel gave a male dwarf kitten (“Toulouse”) to her friend Kay La France. Toulouse was an outside Tom cat who fathered a colony of short-legged offspring. With the help of The International Cat Association (TICA) and a veterinarian at Kansas State the dwarf gene was determined to be a dominant trait, but free of spinal issues seen in dogs such as Dachshunds or Corgis. The Munchkin was introduced to the public in 1991 during a TICA cat show at Madison Square Garden. Critics continued to protest. They believed breeding for this abnormality was unethical because it would lead to orthopedic problems.
Bengals: This breed began as a hybrid cross of a domestic cat with a wild felid known as the Asian leopard cat. In the 1970s Dr. Willard Centerwall, a Yale Medical School graduate with degrees in public health and human genetics, bred several of these hybrid crosses because he was interested in cats, and also studying leukemia in people and cats. Asian leopard cats did not develop feline leukemia so he was trying to see if his hybrid would be more resistant to the disease. (It turns out Bengals aren’t.)
At the same time Bill Engler was a zookeeper, movie animal trainer and a member of the Long Island Ocelot Club. He was trying to preserve the Asian leopard cat and at the same time produce a small exotic cat that would have the disposition of a house pet. He may have chosen the name Bengal for two reasons. It sounds exotic and it’s the same as “B.Engle.”
Ragdolls: This breed goes back to the 1960s with Ann Baker, a California Persian breeder, and her neighbor’s non-pedigree longhaired, blue-eyed white cat named “Josephine.” She had a testy temperament and had produced several litters of kittens much like Mom. Around 1963 Josephine was hit by a car, and lay in the street several days. Finally she was taken to the local veterinary university and recovered.
Josephine continued to have kittens but their demeanor had supposedly changed. They were extremely sweet, had mat-free coats and would go limp like ragdolls in your arms. Thus, Baker trademarked the name and sold kittens on a franchise basis as she proceeded to fine-tune these beautiful and extremely docile cats.
American Bobtails: Feline urban legend says the American Bobtail is the result of breeding a domestic tabby with a wild bobcat. Actually, the unusual stub tail, at least half the length of a normal tail, comes from a random, spontaneous mutation within the domestic cat population which may be related to the Manx gene.
This breed got its start about 1964 when John and Brenda Saunders were on vacation at an Indian reservation in Arizona and found a wild-looking tabby with an abbreviated tail. They took him home to Iowa and named him “Yodi.” They liked his looks and personality so they bred him to their Siamese cat. Some of Yodi’s kittens were bobtails. The kittens were the original bloodlines.
Bombay cats: The Bombay was developed in the US with Burmese founding stock imported from Asia. In 1953, Nikki Horner, a Kentucky cat breeder, began attempting to create a copper-eyed, black cat resembling a mini-panther. She used black American Shorthairs and sable Burmese. She wasn’t successful until 1965. The breed was recognized by the Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) in 1970.
For Adoption at Babylon Shelter (631-643-9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon: Over the years there have been several Bengals and Ragdolls at the shelter, plus the latest Maine Coon entered (and was adopted quickly) last week. “Luigi” 6-572 is not a purebred, yet he’s an exceptional kitten, about six months. He’s marked with fancy, gray swirls. His whole litter is friendly with a capital F. Meanwhile, “Joy” 17-8, found by Stop & Shop in Amityville, is a love. She’s a year-old Dobie mix with a curled tail, Greyhound figure and exquisite temperament. Two treasures!