The parking lot attendant eyes our car. “You guys are here for–”
We don’t even let him finish: “The cat show!” we say in unison.
Does he maybe look a little scared?
I can understand why. With 269 cats and 10 full rings of judging, the Cat Fanciers’ Association All Breed Cat Show, presented by the Hidden Peak Cat Club at the Timonium Fairgrounds this past weekend, is one of the larger cat shows in North America; it draws in competitors, judges, vendors, and fans from as far away as California, and every person here — myself included — seems at least slightly insane.
Here’s how it works: cat people bring their Abyssinians and Ocicats and Ragdolls and Cornish Rexes and Tonkineses and Japanese Bobtails and Norwegian Forest Cats to be pulled and prodded and minutely examined by each of the show’s ten judges. (The line between judge and participant seems like a blurry one; at the best-in-show competition, many owners of winning cats were themselves judges at other shows.) The top cats get invited to a finals round, or sometimes multiple finals rounds. But mostly, the owner of a Havana Brown tells me, “It’s hurry up and wait.” In between judgings, owners hover by their exhibition cages — which have themes like strawberrys or leopard-print or (most common) princess — and watch their cats nap or eat or otherwise ignore the proceedings.
An important early lesson for cat show spectators: don’t touch the competitors. “You spend four hours bathing your cat, and then some guy with lotion on his hand pets him and ruins the whole thing,” says Shirley Peet, owner of official Iams Cat Ambassador Beauetchere HopeUDance of Perzot, aka Hope, a placid Exotic (yep, that’s a breed) being wheeled around the hall on a 6-foot custom cat tower complete with fake flowers. The Cat Ambassadors are non-competitors who are here just to make friends and be petted; the idea, I guess, is to distract eager, clueless fans (like me) so we don’t get too handsy with the real talent. Each of the Pet Ambassadors has a calling card listing its vital stats; this is how I learn that Hope’s favorite activities include “riding in her pink stroller, visiting PetSmart & watching birds & bunnies.”
But the ambassadors can’t distract me; I want to see the real stars of the show. And they’re here, the fluffy kittens and the odd-shaped cats; the ones with curled ears; another so long and thin she appears two-dimensional. The British Shorthair looks kind of like a hooligan; the Egyptian Mau wants to fetch. A stout woman stalks through the crowd, a kitten perched on the shelf of her formidable bosom. A cat has crawled under his fluffy bed and refuses to come out. A Persian defiantly naps in her own litter box. “Ring two, we are ready for the kittens,” the overhead speaker squeaks.
On my second pass around the arena, I find my new Best Cat Friend. His name is Possum, aka Simon the Possum, aka Dovon Simon the Possum of Lynzkatz. (His father, a grand champion, was named YaHung’s Hulk in Brown!!!, punctuation intentional.) Possum is sprawled in his crate, looking like an introvert who’s been on party duty all weekend; I feel an instant kinship. Jon Bartley, his co-owner, is here from Altoona, Pennsylvania, where he and his wife run a cattery specializing in American Shorthairs. Jon tells me that wife attended her first cat show on a lark — they’d never even owned a cat — and now, 26 years later, they’re showing at least 35 weekends a year. I refuse to interpret this as a cautionary tale.
Possum, Jon tells me, is basically an Olympic gold medalist, in cat world terms. I believe him, but it’s hard to know what that means; pretty much every cat carrier here is covered with ribbons, and after a few passes around the hall, I finally figure out that “champion” is the lowest designation; there’s also grand champion and grand premier; regional winner and national winner; best of color class and best in breed and Top Cat. Possum looks sleepy; he’s been in the ring 17 times this show already. “It’s like being an athlete,” Jon says. “By the end of the weekend, you’re exhausted.”
Some other cat names: Burmania’s Firenze of Eclypse, HylanderClan’s The Last Survivor, Charismatic’s Ice Crystal, NuDawnz The White Walker of Shelbie, Mewmaws Patriot of Catberytail.
I try to pry some cat fancy stereotypes out of a woman with a Russian Blue — like, say, whether the Persian people eat lots of bon bons, the Sphynx people are weirdos, or the Siamese people won’t shut up. “Oh no, you can’t really tell the difference,” she insists. She has on a blue jacket, blue earrings, blue eyeliner, blue shoes, a blue bracelet, and a white shirt bedazzled with blue jewels.
Things you can buy at the cat show: cupcakes, Glamour Shots-style photo shoots of your pet, Vegas-themed cat carriers, cat sweatshirts by the dozen. Much less anti-dog propaganda than expected.
“Do you have any idea how much room $900 worth of feathers takes up?” Albe Manton asks me. I don’t. “You wouldn’t even be able to fit them in your van,” he says. (Cat show people travel a lot, and with many accessories. Most of them have vans, and they tend to assume everyone else does, too.) Most weekends, Albe provides cages for the show circuit in the south. This show isn’t in his jurisdiction, so he’s just here as a vendor, selling the cat toys he and his wife make by hand: tiny socks filled with catnip, ping pong balls with feathers attached, and the exotic looking “peacock-eye butterfly tease.”
The woman with the Russian Blue shows us her grooming kit: leave-in volumizer, anti-static spray, a water mister, Wet Wipes, tweezers, four combs of various sizes, makeup brushes, and something called Integrity that helps with silkiness. The volumizer is meant for humans, she says, but she’s not above looking for products at Walgreens — “Or even,” she whispers, glancing back at her animals, “the dog aisle — but don’t tell them that.”
FYI: the Cat Fanciers’ Association Foundation, Inc. runs a Cat Museum and Library in New Jersey; they are looking to collect any back issues of the following magazines for their archive: Cat Fancy, I Love Cats, Cats & Kittens, Popular Cats, Cats, Cat World International, All Cats, Our Cats, and/or The Cat Review.
Proof that cats are superior to dogs: champion show canines are yippy, anxious, high-strung little beasties. In contrast, my old friend Possum falls asleep on the judging podium. Judge Gary Veach is sympathetic (“Looking that good all weekend is a lot of work”), but stretches and prods him anyway, all in the service of paying him compliments; Possum does a good job of ignoring him.
Some other amazing things that Veach says during finals judging:
“Look at this beautiful symmetry to his gloves and laces”
“He’s got a powerful jawline, a gorgeous Roman profile”
“Ideal, lemon-shaped eyes”
“This guy is just ripping with muscle”
“The roundness of his tophead”
“Beautiful ear placement”
(on judging a young cat against an older cat) “It’s like judging Justin Bieber against Sean Connery.”
“Look at the size of his jowls!”
The small crowd watching Veach make his final decision manages to be both cheery and anxious. “People who show dogs don’t talk to each other,” Jon says. “It’s much more cutthroat. But we’re like an extended family.” He’s waiting to see how Possum fares in the finals. Even being selected for the finals is a good thing: it means your cat is in the top ten overall of the show. But in the end, of course, there can be only one Top Cat.
“I’ve made him best cat almost every time I’ve seen him,” Veach says, squishing Possum’s face, presumably in order to better appreciate his tophead. The crowd goes quiet, ready for an upset. “And this year is no exception,” Veach crows, presenting Possum with a giant rosette. I might be wrong, but it looks like Jon tears up a little bit. And Possum resumes his nap.
(More photos here, for those with serious cat show fever.)