One of the lucky winners.
Spur of the moment decisions are always the best ones, and when someone on my Instagram was giving away a ticket to The Melbourne Cat Lovers Conference, my interest was piqued.
After the cultural sensation that was Tiger Kingfollowed by the controversy about Justin Bieber’s two $35,000 Savannah cats, the world of exotic breeders has drawn the spotlight.
Free tickets to see the strange world of exotic cat breeders up close and personal? Maybe meet the down under version of Carole Baskin? Why not.
To get there, I had to navigate the strange ghostlike development at Docklands and spent a while congratulating myself on venturing outside of my relatively small comfort zone (which consists of about three bars in inner Fitzroy).
Arriving, truthfully, was bizarre – people pushing each other out of the way in some kind of subdued mosh pit, kids under your legs with tiger facepaint and cat ears on. It took a while to discover what the throngs of people were actually looking at, but after pushing forward I saw some of the most stunning cats I have ever seen. Slightly subdued and wide-eyed from all the fondling from strangers was a stunning Ragdoll lying next to a series of ribbons that it had won. “Best in Entire Kittens” and “Reserve Supreme Exhibitor”… whatever that means.
I have always been intrigued and bewildered by animal obsessives. The fact that this particular Ragdoll had won ribbons made me wonder what in the world the process of judging a cat would be.
I spoke to a couple of breeders, who told me the importance of everything from the quality of their coat in color and markings to the shape of their chin. Yes, the shape of their chins helped them win ribbons.
Moving through the sea of people, past stalls advertising freeze dried wagyu steak treats, pink tofu kitty litter and automated litter disposable trays that looked like UFOs, I saw price tags in the thousands. There were even deluxe pet cremation services – where you can choose a personalized mahogany box or silver pendant for your cat’s ashes. You can have a digital paw print made and loaded onto a custom metallic USB stick.
Is this as strange as I think it is, or have I just not been exposed to it?
I think when you take into account the fact that the stallholders and breeders were, for a large part, decked out in full leopard print, wearing cat ears and fully face-painted while discussing genetic likelihood of coat markings being transferred from parents to their litters , it’s just plain weird (no offense to the feline fanatics out there).
But things did get stranger. I got into a fairly impassioned discussion with a breeder wearing tiger print leggings and stroking a stunning Bengal. She had just done a showcase on her cat and was keen to answer any questions that I had.
Bengals, she said, were first bred by Jean Mill in 1986 by crossing an Asian Leopard cat with a domestic short hair, and the breed has been further developed by people to become widely available at a reasonable price. Of course, that depends on your budget – the breeders I spoke to quoted a price of around $2,500 depending on the cat’s features. That price includes pedigree papers, too, something similar to an authenticity certificate for a rare pair of shoes.
Why worry about the habitats of Bengal Tigers when we can breed their domesticated counterparts to replace them, in the comfort of our own homes?
Selective breeding of animals is in no way new, and there has always been different aesthetics in mind as the goal. It’s the “wild” aesthetic that seems to be all the rage at the moment, but it doesn’t always work out. Justin and Hailey Bieber had to re-home their (extremely expensive) Savannah cats, which are half wild African Serval cats and half domestic shorthairs. They were re-homed because, according to Hailey: “They are psycho…they act half wild”.
The exotic breeders all aimed for a specific ideal which they were determined to reach: the most “wild looking” domestic cat possible. As one breeder told me, she was fairly happy with the neck of her Bengal but was disappointed with both the shape of its chin (which needed “deeper angle”) and the spots around its head. She assured me that it would be fixed over the next several generations, as there was a very expensive Bengal being imported from Russia in the coming months. Apparently, this is “highly confidential” information since “it’s a jungle out there”, but not to worry, I will keep her anonymous (so her secret is safe with me).
This same breeder also commented on the trends in Bengal breeding to strive for a “less masculine” look (“more new-age”). She was “sick of pretty cats with pretty coats”. I guess I learned that gender stereotypes are applied to cats too.
The impulse to create the most wild-looking domestic animal sounds nice and certainly looks nice. But wild animals are wild animals, as Justin and Hailey can attest to. Even though Bengals have a much more tame disposition than Savannahs, the obsession with the wild look is everywhere. People love a little taste of the wild at home (but just a taste – nothing too “psycho”). Why worry about the habitats of Bengal Tigers when we can breed their domesticated counterparts to replace them, in the comfort of our own homes? A miniature Tiger you could sleep next to! Who needs sci-fi when you can go to a cat conference?
But cat lovers are a vibrant, diverse and passionate community. There are niche events like this occurring all the time in Melbourne, and I for one am going to spend more time going to them.
Everyone that I spoke to had the best interests of their animals in mind and held great respect for Australian breeding regulations (as opposed to “the wild west” of America and the likes of Carole Baskin).
Here, there were no Carole Baskins. The same clothing, sure, but a real lack of murder plots.
I do hope it stays that way – there would be hell to pay if anyone got wind of that mythical Russian Bengal.
Oliver Morton is a writer based in Melbourne.