The Munchkin -- named after Oz's diminutive residents -- is a breeder's dream. It purrs like a cat, reproduces like a cat, and, best of all, this normal-size stubby-legged feline confection is a brand-meowin'-new gold mine.
Only a few thousand exist in the U.S., but it's not hard to make more if you know how A and have a few bucks to spare. Though proven studs have fetched as much as $15,000, a mere $1000 will buy you a kitten (preferably male) with the dominant Munchkin gene. Wait for sexual maturity, add a frisky female (for the time being, any breed will do) with a penchant for pygmy paramours, and you've got yourself an average of two to three Munchkins per litter.
"It's like a kitten that never grew up," says 23-year-old Jason Yacavone, who is biding his time while his $1000 investment, seven-month-old Goliath, takes his first tentative dip in the pond of procreation.
For the past four months, Yacavone and partner Jeff Hubert, 31, have worked to assemble a harem of sorts to stock the Miami Munchkins Cattery, a wall of four-by-five-foot cages constructed inside the screened-in patio of their home in Miami's Bayside neighborhood. After purchasing a handful of normal females from a pet store and rounding up others through friends, the partners now have two females pregnant by Goliath, plus a dozen more awaiting his favors. A fifteenth feline is also on the premises, having been impregnated by a stud in Tampa.
Not everything is purring along so well, however, in Munchkinland. While catteries are popping up across the nation like mushrooms after a rain, critics have lined up just as quickly, voicing health concerns, criticizing the breed as an abomination, and complaining that the current reproductive frenzy is destined to exacerbate the existing cat overpopulation crisis.
Sue Servies, a board member of the International Cat Association (TICA), the nation's second-largest cat registry, says Munchkin mania goes a step beyond other selective-breeding trends. "I've been in the business of breeding cats for 25 years and I know that most breeders take a moderate cat and breed it to an extreme," says Servies. "With this you are already starting with an extreme. Munchkins are cute little cats, but they're breeding for something that is a defect rather than something that is pretty."
Servies was one of four TICA board members who voted this past fall not to recognize the new line. They were in the minority, though; Munchkin owners won the right to exhibit in cat shows in a noncompetitive category called "new breed and color." (The Cat Fancier's Association, the largest cat registry in the U.S., has yet to recognize Munchkins. Spokesman Michael Brim says his group would also put the issue to a vote, but no one has offered it for consideration.)
Animal welfare activists are concerned about the short-legged creatures' current cachet. "When it comes right down to it, no matter how much a person says 'I love kitty,' breeders are there to make a profit," explains Janet Hornreich, spokeswoman for the Humane Society of the United States. "The more they can produce in the litter, the more they can make. They don't care if I'm the best pet owner. And what's going to happen if these animals have long-term health problems?"
Hornreich cites the Persian cat as an example of a breeding program gone wrong. "People think they're cute because their faces are pushed in, but they wind up having severe breathing problems, malformed tear ducts. So because some people think it's a cute property in a cat or dog or whatever, you wind up having animals that have serious problems, and the animal suffers. Will Munchkins have back problems and leg problems?" she asks, mentioning two maladies that commonly plague the Munchkin's stubby-limbed cousin the dachshund. "Will these owners be willing to pay the bills if they do?"
Paul McSorley, a Munchkin breeder since 1990 and publisher of The Munchkin Cat Informer, a newsletter based in Hull, Massachusetts, challenges the notion that the breed's well-being is inherently compromised. "A cat's spine is constructed differently from a dog's, and a Munchkin's spine is indistinguishable from a long-legged cat's," McSorley argues. "We haven't seen any of the spinal problems that are sometimes found in short-legged dog breeds, or anything else. Their short stature doesn't limit their abilities or their quality of life. So there is no reason why we shouldn't do this."
In 1990 Solveig Pflueger, a Munchkin breeder and genetics researcher, began doing research on the breed at Tufts University's Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Massachusetts, hoping to determine the source of the short-leg mutation. (Though the phenomenon occasionally arises unintentionally, the roots of the Munchkin craze can be traced to a Louisiana woman who adopted a pregnant cat with stunted legs in 1983 and began breeding for the eccentricity. Most of the current population springs from that line.) Pflueger expected to find that the defect would be detrimental, but she reports that joint and bone x-rays showed no evidence of crippling. "The Munchkin gene itself does not appear to hinder the cats' quality or length of life," says Pflueger, who chairs TICA's genetics committee. "Munchkins run very fast. If you have ever tried to catch a squirrel or a ferret, you know that short legs are not a handicap." Munchkins can climb and jump, too, though not as high as a conventionally limbed feline, she adds.
As a result of her research, Pflueger and TICA have created a set of criteria to define a healthy Munchkin specimen: straight legs, level back, and a head shaped like an equilateral triangle with rounded corners. Because there are so few Munchkins, TICA advises breeders to mate their studs at first with mixed breeds in order to ensure a broad gene pool. Once the population increases sufficiently, says Pflueger, the cats can be bred to one another, creating a distinct breed. (At present Munchkins can be exhibited at TICA shows but are excluded from championship competition.)
"The biggest concern right now is with breeders who have gotten involved in this because they see it as a hot commodity and a chance to make a profit," says the geneticist. "They are essentially taking anything they can find and breeding it with a Munchkin. That may lead to the introduction of traits that will produce an animal of lesser quality. I have seen Munchkins with bowed legs, and that's because some of these breeders have never raised cats before. If they can get $2000 for any cat, they're not going to be concerned with quality."
Miami Munchkins owners Yacavone and Hubert have never bred animals before, but they are working to meet TICA's criteria. Yacavone says kittens that don't quite measure up will be spayed or neutered and sold as pets.
"We wouldn't be doing this if we didn't love cats," says Hubert. "Yeah, there is a profit involved, but these are basically our pets."
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The partners fully expect to recoup their investment A and then some. They say they've got a waiting list of 31 people who appear willing to pay $750 for a neutered Munchkin pet. Animals deemed worthy of reproducing will sell for a lot more: up to $1750 for males, $1250 for females. (Males are more valuable because their reproductive capacity is greater.)
"Good homes" will be sought for the inevitable long-legged siblings in the litters, says Yacavone, and for their mothers once their breeding days are over.
Which doesn't appease Janet Hornreich in the least. "The real issue is that there are millions and millions of cats in shelters that are looking for good homes, and they are compounding the pet overpopulation problem," declares the Humane Society spokeswoman. "And if you think these cats will never end up in shelters, you're being naive. We already see Siamese and Persians there. Every few years you get a new cat fad and at some point they will end up in the shelters.