Miss Cat-geniality

Cats, like reality show stars, aren’t here to make friends. A pageant cannot undo their primal tendencies.

July 25, 2016

Omar Mouallem has written for The Guardian, Wired and The Walrus. He served as the Edmonton Public Library's writer in residence in 2013 and won the...

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Illustration by Meg Hunt

I unclipped the kennel latches and patiently waited for my cat to willingly exit.

Earlier that morning my wife and I feared accidentally dislocating his limbs while vertically cramming him through the opening and slamming the cage door shut like a lid over boiling lobster. But after nine hours of pageantry—being molested by cat fancy judges and baby-talked nearly to death by spectators—this box was the only thing worth trusting in his scary world. Eventually my wife Janae enticed him with a trail of Temptations treats and he sauntered out into our apartment, weary and woozy after his cat show debut.

You are wondering what kind of people put their house pet in a cat show, I know, but it is the wrong question. The right question is, why him and not our other cat?

The boy is a Siamese-cross, and cross-eyed. His coat is like cashmere and he is perilously cuddly. As for his companion, the girl, she’s a plump blue tortoiseshell—Plain Jane, except for these big green eyes that she prefers squinting, giving her uncanny resting bitch face. What she lacks in looks, she makes up for in smarts, proven by her punishment of fresh turds on the door-mat every time we return from vacation.

Her healthy distrust isn’t a trait admired by the cat fancy world, but it’s to be respected and, occasionally, feared. When she hunches down and her ears fold back, when her tail lashes and the claws of evolution eject from her paws, you can see in her dilated pupils 40 million years of natural selection. In those rare terrifying moments, you cannot, however, see 160 million years further, to a time when homo sapien and felis silvestris shared a common ancestor and cause.

We couldn’t have known this when we adopted her as a kitten, but maybe we sensed it, or manifested it into reality, when we christened her “Darwin.” We named the boy “Orwell” because we liked the theme of strong, brave historical figures, but he never lived up to his title. It is clear which of the two would survive in the wild and which would thrive in a beauty pageant.

After Orwell swallowed the last Temptations, he looked up to see the end of the treats and the beginning of Darwin’s whiskers. She sniffed and recoiled at the funk of hundreds of foreign cats. Her fur and back shot up, she growled and spit like never before. In retrospect, I think this was the moment she broke.


I got over the stench of piss at the Edmonton Cat Show pretty quickly. It’s not so much my nostrils that adjusted but my eyes, to rows and rows of beautiful creatures. Plump British shorthairs smiled in their sleep and Regal sphinxes owned their ugly. Janae and I carried Orwell in a kennel, treats and a litter pan, plus a big blue ribbon on which to adhere the gold stickers he was sure to win (a literal participation prize for this coddled generation of cats). We ventured past the two dozen fancy pedigrees to the ghettoes of the show hall, where calicos, tabbies, torties and other non-purebreds were stationed.

The vast majority of the Household Pet category contenders are rescues, entered without charge by local charities in hopes that someone will adopt “Norman” or “Hamish” after seeing what these scruffy orphans are really made of. Knowing my semi-exotic cat would be up against the most unfancy specimens gave me confidence, but only me. Orwell cowered in the corner of his kennel, scrunching into a ball, unwilling to eat or drink.

Janae was hesitant about my brilliant idea of putting him in the show from the start and thought I’d traumatized him enough the night before when I surprised him with the a bath and mango-scented shampooing. Darwin observed, somewhat proudly, as her companion fought for his life in the bathtub. It wasn’t enjoyable for me either, but The International Cat Association (TICA) guidelines suggest bathing show cats, trimming their claws and cleaning their ears, eyes and asses.

Grooming and hygiene is especially vital in the Household Pet category. Pedigreed cats have standardized physical criteria. For instance, the head of a Devon Rex (worth up to 40 points) should be “delineated by a narrowing series of three distinct convex curves.” Household pets, on the other hand, are primarily scored on grooming, condition, health and personality—a criterion subjected to judges’ personal tastes, and worth 30 points. It’s the only category requiring a winning personality, meaning a properly pedigreed Oriental could give no fucks and still take gold, but a half-breed like Orwell would have to put on a smile of sorts.

Our decision to enter him over Darwin was validated after learning about TICA’s rules on aggression. There is no place for it. Hissing, spitting and growling can have any cat regardless of pedigree disqualified, and swatting at the judge almost certainly will. When the occasional cat breaks free and makes a run for it, the protocol is to close all open doors and yell “cat out!” But you are not to touch that cat. That responsibility, and shame, belongs to the owner.

The semiconductor is no doubt the most important invention of 1947, but considering that there are nearly 100 million house cats living in 37 per cent of American homes, Michigander Ed Lowe’s highly absorbent granulated clay is a close second. 

Orwell’s coping mechanism, luckily, was petrification. “We have a Siamese meatloaf,” the first judge, Melissa Parsley, who had a soft spot for shyness, told the crowd as she carried him from the holding kennel. The seven spectators in the ring aw’d as Orwell shivered on the show bench. Parsley lifted his tail, inspected the insides of his ears and rubbed under his chin. “A true apple-cheeked Siamese,” she exclaimed. “You don’t see it anymore!” For decades Oriental cats have been bred for pointed faces, but Parsley was smitten by his nostalgic facial traits.

As she returned him to his kennel, her child assistant rushed in from one side of the ring with a spray bottle, sanitized the bench with a swift wipe, then hustled to the other side like a tennis ball-boy. After Parsley showed all 14 competing household pets, she began pinning ribbons to each kennel from 10th place to 1st, with a brief declaration of worth for each one.

“For the kitty who lost her ear to frostbite … 10th place!”

“Lily is very elegant, the sweetest looking cat … sixth place!”

As we neared the top three, Janae looked at me with wide eyes and for a brief moment her regrets had been washed over with pride. “This little guy,” said Parsley, turning to Orwell. “Old-style traditional Siamese. Nice dark features. And he’s not one of those skinny mini cats. Full-body seal point … third place!”

He had seven more rounds to go, then another eight the next day, but surely if he could snatch bronze in his first attempt he would be going home with a few gold finishes.


TICA has been showing and awarding titles to non-purebred domestic cats—even the maligned black ones—since its 1973 beginnings. It’s a stark contrast to the practises of the 110-year-old Cat Fanciers Association, which for decades didn’t even bother hosting the category. The association now emphasizes it like TICA, and in the last three years finally started giving non-purebred cats Grand Championship titles equal to pedigrees. The hope is that it will curb the cat fancy world’s declining entries and revenues.

Spectator attendance is strong—thanks very much to the Internet’s infinite and thrilling supply of cats—but exhibitor numbers are historically low. It’s an aging and expensive hobby, and showing is surprisingly physical for elderly exhibitors, requiring almost nonstop schlepping of pet from one side of the show hall to another for two long days. But at $60–$100 per cat to exhibit, compared to just $10 for spectator admission, the Household Pet category is a decent revenue driver, something TICA has always recognized, but which is especially apparent now that North American cat ownership has reached an all-time high.

So far this season, a bright-eyed torbie named Penny with 11,230 standing points looks like she could repeat her 2014–15 championship. I reached out to Penny’s owner to find out what it takes to be the world’s best housecat, but she didn’t reply. So I talked to Patricia Clary, owner of the world’s second best cat, Mr. Starbucks of Carolinameows, who trails Penny’s by only 136 points.

Mr. Starbucks, or “Bucky” as Clary calls him, may not have a posh pedigree but he’s undeniably majestic: there’s his cream and white long coat that’s gorgeously groomed, and then there’s his green and blue heterochromia eyes. But it’s his personality that puts him over the top. “He stands there like he’s royalty,” says Clary. “The judges kiss on him and he just eats it up.” You would never guess that his mother was a stray.

All along she was saying “I own you, fucker” to me, as she lapped up my facial hair, and to him, as he napped like a toy in her grip.

Clary has shown Maine Coons in the pedigreed categories to some success, but Bucky is her first international star. On the eve of a show, Clary might spend an hour washing and drying a single cat (a regimen requiring four different shampoos and oils for their coats), and that’s in addition to the hours she spends on an average day preparing their diet of ground deer meat, chicken and scrambled eggs. “Is it time consuming?” she asks herself. “Yes. But that’s what it takes to win.”

A hobby so draining, personally and financially, cannot just be about winning. It must also be fun, otherwise Clary would still be showing at the rival cat fanciers competitions organized by the CFA, which started welcoming household pet cats in the ’30s, but as more of a sideshow and never very seriously. “I didn’t like the people,” she recalls. “They were all about the sale.”

To appreciate the two associations' historically different perspectives on house cats, understand that the CFA is pre-Kitty Litter and TICA is post-Kitty Litter. In 1906, when the CFA was founded, a domestic cat, no matter how loving and social, primarily functioned as a mouser unless, of course, it were pedigreed, which the upper classes treated as haute props. “The New York cat show,” observed one 19th century newspaper, “appears to be a sort of asylum for purse-proud aristocratic cats, or those which exhibit some exceptional intelligence or tail or something.”

Four decades later, their public perception would dramatically change.

The semiconductor is no doubt the most important invention of 1947, but considering that there are nearly 100 million house cats living in 37 per cent of American homes, Michigander Ed Lowe’s highly absorbent granulated clay is a close second. Since cats evolved in the desert, their urine is highly concentrated and extremely noxious. “Boxes filled with sand, sawdust or wood shavings provided a measure of relief from the resulting stench, but not enough to make cats particularly welcome in discriminating homes,” wrote The New York Times in Lowe’s obituary. “Until a fateful January day in 1947, those who kept them indoors full time paid a heavy price.”

Kitty Litter meant a cat could live exclusively indoors, thereby completing 10,000 years of domestication. This didn’t just inform TICA’s inclusive philosophy but it solidified the common house cat’s place in the general psyche as more pet than utility. Today there are far more cats than dogs living in Canadian and American homes and many of them, like Orwell and Darwin, are strictly indoor. This has greatly extended their lifespans, but it’s also introduced some emotional issues.


Our home in Edmonton can also be split in two eras: Pre-Orwell and Post-Orwell.

Darwin moved in before the boxes in our new apartment were even unpacked. From the moment we found her at the Humane Society, Darwin wanted to be held like a baby and that is how we have always treated her. Yes, we are those people, but Darwin really earned it. At night, she’d crawl into bed and rigorously lick my beard stubble. Some nights we kept her out, until her crying became so relentless that it was more tolerable to lose sleep while her sandpaper-like tongue scraped layers of face.

Orwell moved in a year later and Darwin immediately began showing slight predatory behaviour, stalking him and swatting him when he got too close. But he was a lovebug, dumbly following his frenemy, no matter how loudly she hissed.

By the time she was in her terrible twos, which is to say her teens, Darwin became more withdrawn and spent all her time on the balcony, gazing into the urban desert, pondering her life as an outdoor cat in another world.

Middle age mellowed her out and in recent years we’ve caught the two of them regularly snuggling. Always, Darwin was the one grooming him. It appears affectionate, but according to Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet, this is a sign of dominance. All along she was saying “I own you, fucker” to me, as she lapped up my facial hair, and to him, as he napped like a toy in her grip.


Like Orson Welles and Haley Joel Osment, Orwell had peaked early and garnered a 4th, 7th and 10th in subsequent rounds. The last judge, Ellen Crockett, was explicit about her preferences. “In my ring,” she said, twirling a teaser feather around his noncompliant head, “I want cats that are having a good time.” His place standings kept declining, even after the emcee announced that Hamish, a rescue who was gobbling up golds, had been adopted—to rapturous applause.

Orwell did fine for a rookie, but he lacked something possessed by the Hamishes and Mr. Starbucks of the cat world, what Pamela Barrett calls “star quality.”

Barrett, an older woman with a smart blond bob, who courageously wore a black turtleneck to the cat ring in Edmonton, was recently awarded TICA’s Judge of the Year prize. It’s essentially the Best in Show of judges; anyone who’s sat in her ring knows why. A former fraud investigator, Barrett is exceptional at pattern recognition and spotting deviations. But the fancier is also a stellar performer. Some judges silently assess the feline specimen; others coo with babytalk. Barrett speaks right to the audience, explaining every physical facet of the cat, with hands so calming that the animal will let her lift its forelegs to force it into doing a literal catwalk.

She told me that it’s normal for owners of the Household Pet contenders to take losses very personally. Professional breeders look at their specimen and see quality ears, eyes, coats, paws, but what about people like me? “All they see is love. It hurts them—it hurts me, even as a jaded professional. But it is a competition. You have to rise up, figure out what’s wrong and do it better next time.”

Orwell’s coat and icy blue eyes impressed judges, but his personality was lacking, and there would be no chance at improvement. Halfway through the first day, Janae, cradling his quivering body, declared a fatwa on putting any of our future pets in a pageant.


I can’t tell you which of my cats is the best, but I will categorically say that my wife is the world’s best cat mom, a statement best summed by the fact that every morning she feeds them before herself. A mental health nurse, Janae's cat intuition or empathy or witchcraft is uncanny, though I didn’t recognize it for a long time. About a year after the cat show, Janae sat me down and very seriously asked, “Do you think Darwin is depressed?”

I laughed at the absurdity of projecting human conditions onto our animals, before rubbing Darwin’s belly and talking baby to her. “Who’s a belly girl? Yes—you are…”

Then, one day, Janae called me in hysterics. “Something is wrong with Darwin,” she cried. “She’s gone ballistic! She’s trying to kill Orwell!”

A stray had entered the parking lot below while the three of them were on the balcony. This had become more common lately, and Darwin always watched with interest, never aggression. For some reason this one stray set her off.

She growled and yowled, then turned to Orwell and saw not her companion of six years, but the devil incarnate. Janae tried to protect him and Darwin lunged at her, leaving her with deep cuts to her arms and legs.

Janae was visibly traumatized, yet until I saw it with my own eyes I didn't believe Darwin could be so vicious. We cut her off from the balcony, but after two months without outbursts, and the cats snuggling again, I thought she re-earned her privileges. Within minutes of sliding open the door, Darwin had Orwell cornered. When I picked him up, she attacked us both. In that moment I realized that I hadn’t brought a fur-baby into my home, but a wild animal.


The veterinary world calls it “redirected aggression,” a sort of kitty mental illness that triggers sudden spurts of violence in territorial cats. Drunk guys punch holes in walls; cats tear at the luxurious fur of their once-friends. Studies show that it’s almost entirely unique to indoor cats in small households inhabited by two or fewer humans. The vet explained that aggression hormones were pent up from the sight of all those strays, plus several new neighbours’ cats on the balconies surrounding her, and possibly the stench of show cats on Orwell. It was inevitable that she would snap.

Terrified as she was, Janae was vindicated after Darwin attacked Orwell and me. But there was no laughter from either of us after subsequent episodes, only tears, as we realized one of them had to be re-homed for the emotional and physical safety of both. I am tempted to make a Sophie’s Choice comparison, but it was more like We Need to Talk About Kevin. There was no mistaking who would have to go.

There’s almost an insistence amongst cat owners that one is not enough. They must have companions to keep them company while you’re away. But cats, like reality show stars, aren’t here to make friends. A cat pageant cannot undo their primal tendencies, and certainly not enough time has passed since Kitty Litter’s invention for them to have evolved to fully cope with the indoors. “Cats today have essentially the same senses, the same brains, and the same emotional repertoire as their wildcat forebears,” reads Cat Sense. “As far as we know, all that has changed in their brains is a new ability to form social attachments to people.”

This is nature, but we are not yet ready to accept it. Even after a pair of friends said they’d consider adopting our wild girl, we couldn’t give up on her yet. We’ve started medicating her with anti-anxieties and invest in expensive cans of Feliway, a synthetic pheromone that mimics a calming hormone that mother cats excretes through her milk to keep their kittens at peace (or “mommy boob juice,” as we’ve come to call it). A second visit to the vet also revealed that she had several gum lesions and cavities, so we had five teeth removed hoping that her outbursts were caused by physical, not emotional, pain. She came home with a swollen face and saintliness like never seen before, until the morphine faded.

Despite medicating Darwin, her redirected aggression still flares up, but never so extremely and never for long. Something has changed, and I’m not entirely sure it’s her. Orwell has finally started defending himself. When she growls, he growls. When she swats, he punches back. He stands his ground and she backs off. Orwell is finally living up to his name.

Omar Mouallem has written for The Guardian, Wired and The Walrus. He served as the Edmonton Public Library's writer in residence in 2013 and won the Canadian National Magazine Award for Best Profile in 2014. He's written a book about cats. Now he's writing one on kebabs.

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