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Cats' Cradle 

Members of Vermont Fancy Felines are a breed apart

Published April 17, 2007 at 8:41 p.m.

It's new-mom central in a bedroom of Mary Phinney's Milton home. Three-year-old Harriet gave birth to two daughters six days ago. Eyes still closed, they cheep plaintively from their bed in a multilevel cage designed to protect them from drafts. Cissy is due in just two or three days. Her grandfather reclines next door in the living room, and Nonie, her mom, perches in the kitchen where she can greet visitors with a friendly head butt. As for the dad-to-be, he's MIA.

No need to get the courts involved - Cissy is a blue-cream point purebred Himalayan cat. Her mother, Nonie, carries the weightier full name of Grand Premier Animotion's Symphony - the "Grand Premier" a reference to the ribbons she's garnered as a show cat all over northern New York and New England. Though you'd never know it from her sociable, non-diva-esque demeanor, in 2003, the Atlantic Himalayan Club named Nonie the Third Best Himalayan in Premiership. In professional show photos she looks stern, with the flat, flower-like face, big blue eyes and long, silky hair of her breed.

Nonie and her relatives are a far cry from the "classic" Vermont cat - a hardy and functional mouser who lives in the barn. Phinney's cats have pedigrees registered with the Cat Fanciers' Association, which claims more than 500 member clubs worldwide. One of them is Vermont Fancy Felines, founded in 1997. The 15-member group sponsors Burlington's annual cat show and charity auction, with proceeds going to a local animal shelter. Members of clubs such as VFF raise cats as a hobby, not as a source of income, despite the hefty prices some purebreds can command. But they worry that their efforts to preserve the distinctive features of feline bloodlines will be compromised by less scrupulous breeders with dollar signs in their eyes.

Phinney, who currently serves as treasurer of VFF, owns Animotion Cattery and has been raising Himalayans for 22 years. She's soft-spoken and 60, with close-cropped hair, double-pierced ears and an ample store of knowledge about her breed of choice. "I've just always liked the look of Himmies for some reason," she says. She likes their typical personality, too: "They like people a lot. They're playful, but they're still relatively low-key, so you don't have to worry about them peeling the wallpaper off or destroying the couch."

Nobody's doing that in the living room, which is the domain of Phinney's retired cats. The "old man of the joint" is Arnold, a 15-year-old red cat that sprawls on the couch. Despite his name, 10-year-old Junior is "father and grandfather to a lot of the cats here," Phinney says.

If the longhaired cats look like Persians, it's because they are - Himalayans are a class of Persians with pale coats and "color points" accenting their ears, paws and tail, Phinney explains. Breed standards for cats are defined by CFA, which describes them on its website in language that wouldn't be out of place in an art history classroom. [seebreed standards for Persians/Himalayans.] Each standard is "an abstract aesthetic ideal" that embodies "artistic unity," the page says. Additional sections for each breed offer exhaustive lists of the criteria judges look for when they examine actual cats in the ring.

Breeders know the standards, too. By the time kittens are 6 to 8 weeks old, Phinney can suss out their show prospects, she says. Even now, lifting Harriet's teacup-sized kittens one in each hand, she points out that one has a higher, more crooked nose. "She'll probably go as a pet," Phinney predicts. The other has show potential.

In the small house Phinney shares with her husband, older cats, expectant moms and kittens live upstairs. Down in the basement is the "cattery" proper, where nubile females and studs reside. Animotion is a "closed cattery," which means it doesn't accept visitor felines that come for stud service. "Too much hassle," Phinney says. To vary her bloodlines, she often swaps cats with Grace Renaud, a breeder in Glen Falls, New York.

Right now, Samuel Poppy, the father of Cissy's litter, is across the lake. Monkey, a 4-year-old seal-point male on loan from Renaud, glares from behind the wire of his tall, cabinet-like cage. Bright, satiny show ribbons line the walls. Facing the cage is a huge reef tank Phinney calls "my husband's baby." The clown-fish inside don't seem perturbed by the half-dozen female Himalayans that prowl the concrete floor, chase balls, loose occasional yowls and gaze from perches atop sisal scratching posts. There are also three younger females in a partitioned area near the window.

At home, these cats have names like Jazzy, Fuzz, Madison and Lulu, though their registered names run longer; in the show ring Jazzy is CH Animotion's Classical Jazz. None are in heat now, but Phinney says when they are, she'll know. Late winter and early spring are when intact cats start getting amorous: "It tends to be daylight-regulated," Phinney adds.

Spayed and neutered cats can compete in CFA shows, though they have their own category; winners are called "Premiers" rather than "Champions." Phinney attends six to eight shows a year, she says, noting that she could show every weekend if she chose to - there's no shortage of opportunities in the area. Besides showing her cats, she's a vendor, selling show curtains to other breeders for $100 to $125. These bright-patterned cage drapes, which often feature fringe and bead trim, aren't just for looks: They keep cats from getting spooked by the multitude of other animals in the exhibition hall, Phinney says.

Showing isn't cheap, with an entry fee of $48 per cat and weekend expenses of approximately $200. Then there are the costs of setting up a breeding program in the first place - one or two grand per animal, Phinney says. When she first started showing cats, Phinney recalls, she "did it on a shoestring" as a single mom with a teenage daughter. What kept her going? "People do this from the heart and out of passion," she explains. "When you have something nice, you want people to see it."

Joyce Woodruff of Richmond, who owns the Meadowlark Cattery with her husband Fred, isn't so fond of competition. "I don't really like the politics of showing," Woodruff says. In the ring, she's seen "competitiveness, stepping on other people's toes. After moving to Vermont, there's no way I could spend even one weekend a month with those people."

The Woodruffs are veterans of Vermont "cat fancy": They helped Phinney get started as a breeder. The couple met Phinney when she was working for the lawyer of someone with whom they had a land dispute, Joyce Woodruff says. But mutual ailurophilia overcame other allegiances.

For Woodruff, the feline fixation began a lot longer ago, in 1966, with a cat that wasn't even purebred. Woodruff, who was living in Florida at the time, approached the owner of a prominent local cattery and suggested breeding her "little part-Persian" to one of their cats. "I was read the riot act," she recalls. "You breed purebred to purebred."

The cattery owner suggested the Woodruffs spay their cat and show her as a "household pet" - the CFA's competition category for mutts. They did, and "she won and won and won," says Woodruff, who remembers fondly the days when show trophies were made of real silver. Soon she and her husband were crisscrossing the state with their small children, showing cats.

The Woodruffs moved to Vermont in 1973. Three years later, they began breeding Persians, and they were founding members of Vermont's first cat club, which "fizzled out" in the 1980s, Woodruff says. Today they breed Persians and Exotic Shorthairs, which look like Persians with a short, low-maintenance coat. The Woodruffs' cats have traveled as far as Texas for national CFA competitions.

Woodruff speaks warmly about the people who have bought the couple's purebreds. "That's how we made friends when we first came here," she says. "I've always enjoyed that relationship more than the show thing."

But there's nothing easy about breeding cats for sale. Both Woodruff and Phinney emphasize it's not a big money maker. "If I've had enough kitten sales to pay for food and litter and some of the vet bills, I've had a good year," Phinney says.

Woodruff says she may have to stop breeding purebreds, because "You can't get a just price for a cat anymore" - particularly in Vermont. "The climate for selling cats and finding good homes has changed drastically," she says. "Everybody wants to breed; they want to buy cheap and they want to make money." Woodruff screens prospective buyers with great care. They have to be willing to spay or neuter the cat, keep it indoors, and feed it properly - maximum protein, with minimal processing and grain content.

"Some people just flat-out lie to me," Suzette Garey, of the Cozycreek Cattery in Georgia, says about the difficulties of finding good homes for her purebred Ragdolls and Himalayans. Garey started breeding and showing cats just a year and a half ago, but she's encountered some of the same problems that Woodruff and Phinney have. "I don't know how people make money off this," she says. Garey says no to potential buyers who run big breeding mills: "I just want them to go as pets, not to some large establishment with 60 other cats," she states.

If you want your cats to compete as unaltered Champions, though, not breeding isn't an option. Female cats shouldn't be allowed to spend three heat cycles celibate - it can lead to health and mental problems, Garey says. Then there's all the caterwauling to endure. So why did she start showing cats, after 13 years as a show-dog mom? "It's very addictive," Garey admits.

Breeding creates a cycle that leads to more breeding. In recent years, concern about animal overpopulation has inspired legislative efforts to regulate small-scale "hobby breeders" such as Phinney and the Woodruffs. The Pet Animal Welfare Statute, which Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) introduced in 2005, would have brought such breeders under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Woodruff worries that such laws will eventually be passed, if not at the federal, then at the state or municipal level, where fees imposed on breeders might be seen as a revenue source. Although she decries "backyard breeders" - such as one local woman who charged $350 apiece for Persians crossed with Maine Coons, complete with faked papers - Woodruff worries that regulation might crowd out the very possibility of purebreds. "We're just trying to be responsible, to keep the population down and keep them out of shelters," she says. "It isn't the purebred people who are filling up the Humane Society, so why are they after us?"

Back at Animotion, the Himalayans don't realize they could be at the center of a battle that pits cat and dog fanciers against regulators and animal-rights activists. While the older cats lounge like languid prop Persians from a James Bond movie, curious Nonie rises on her hind legs to grip a visitor's hand with her forepaws. Downstairs, one of the females claws impatiently at the wire mesh of Monkey's cage. For all their baroque appearance and breeding, these cats act just like cats.

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About The Author

Margot Harrison

Margot Harrison

Margot Harrison is the Associate Editor at Seven Days; she coordinates literary and film coverage. In 2005, she won the John D. Donoghue award for arts criticism from the Vermont Press Association.


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