As a kid, you probably imagined what it would be like to have a pet lion or tiger that you could ride around on, cuddle up with it and have fuck up your enemies whenever they messed with you. Then, ideally, you grew up and learned that having a pet wild cat, while totally glamourous seeming, is not at all practical.
Not only are big cats likely to click into their natural instincts at any moment and turn you into lunch (or at least a rather bloodied hacky sack), but being removed from the wild and forced to be a domestic animal is no fun for them either. Again, you've probably realized that...unless you're one of the purrfectly delusional people who hasn't.
In the past decade, exotic crossbreed cats such as the Bengal, the Savannah and the Toyger have experienced an increasing demand in homes across the world, with some being sold at as high a price as $15 thousand. A huge part of these cats value comes from their genetic makeup (Bengals are domestic felines crossed with Asian leopard cats, Savannahs are domestic cats bred with servals and toygers are just a lucky mix of various tabby cats). It makes sense to want one — not only are they gorgeous, but they're also huge status symbols. Oh, and they're often inbred, dangerous and terribly abused by their obsessive breeders.
In Living-Room Leopards, a piece written by Ariel Levy for the New Yorker, Levy visited several of the catteries where these wild crossbreeds are bred and spent time with the people designed them.
While we all have hobbies or pastimes that might be a little weird, these people's devotion to cross-breeding and bringing wild animals into the home easily goes from quirky to upsetting. Furthermore, their defense of their breeding practices and their products (the cats themselves) is contradictory and, quite frankly, often idiotic.
Let's start with the moral issues and severe mistreatment of animals that occurs in these catteries.
Meet toyger breeder Judy Sugden:
"I'm an artist!" Judy Sugden declared one evening in her kitchen in Covina, California, as she prepared supper for a couple of hundred cats.
Here's what Levy discovered upon being given a tour of Sugden's in-home cattery:
Inside Sugden's house, she showed me a group of cats she called "faans." They were cross-eyed, cow-hocked, and splayfooted, and, though you couldn't tell from looking, many of them had hydrocephalus, a condition in which "there's nothing in the middle of the brain except liquid." But faans also have a trait that Sugden considers crucial for the perfected toyger: small, rounded ears, very different from a typical domestic cat's pointy triangles.
Then there's fellow toyger breeder Nicholas Oberzire whose female cats have been so overbred that they can a.) barely carry their kittens to term and b.) no longer react defensively when you pull a nursing kitten away from them.
Of one cat, Oberzire boasts:
"We've gone through four miscarriages on this cat. The first was just blood. The second, two dead kittens were inside her. We took her to the emergency room — they charged me three thousand dollars for giving her two shots of oxytocin, and they told me she needed a C-section."
Oberzire decided that he would find a way to flush the kittens himself. (If it isn't already painfully clear, Oberzire is not a trained vet.)
While the female cats that he breeds no longer have any fight left in them, Oberzire insists that Big Kahuna, his prize male toygur, has jungle instincts.
"He goes to the dog parks, but I keep him on a leash," Oberzire tells Levy. "If a dog thinks he's going to attack him, it'll be the last thing that dog ever does."
And yet he allows his 8-year-old son to sleep next to the cats' cages.
I asked Oberzire if he ever worried about his child getting hurt, but he was confident that his cats were perfectly trained. "No means no; gentle means gentle!" he said. "The claws retract at command."
But Big Kahuna will rip an offending dog to shreds.
These breeders, with their questionable practices coupled with an industry where you have the potential to make a lot of money (although most of those interviewed were flat broke), are unsurprisingly defensive, both within the breeding community and to those who question it.
Judy Sugden hits below the belt when speaking of a fight over standard nose and leg dimensions with another breeder, saying, "She says bad things about me and she knows nothing! Her cats are ugly." Buuuuurn.
Of Savannah breeder Martin Sticki,, Levy writes:
Martin Sticki, the proprietor of A1 Savannahs, in Ponca City, Oklahoma, is prone to bluster, like a cat who makes his hair stand on end to exaggerate his size. "People either love me or they hate me," he said, and, if it's the latter, "it's jealousy. Me, I don't know jealousy. If you're running the number one cattery in the world, you're doing something right."
Their reactions to those who object to cross-breeding practices are even more outlandish than the "S/he's just jealous" defense. Anthony Hutcherson, chairman of the International Cat Association's Bengal Breed Committee, compares crossbreed discrimination to the one-drop rule. (Hutcherson is black, by the way.)
From the New Yorker:
"There's kind of this dividing line where we really have to emphasize domestic for policy and politics — versus the actual scientific truth," he said. "It's kind of like, What's being black? People have these really philosophical and long-drawn-out conversations about what it is to be domestic, what it is to be wild. Can we call it a hybrid and be honest about what's really in the past? And I'm, like, one drop: that's all it takes. It's how society views that one drop can make it O.K. or not O.K to be honest about what you are."
No, you are not reading that paragraph wrong. It just doesn't make sense.
Living-Room Leopards [The New Yorker]
Image via AP.