The Cat's Meow

Q: What do veterinarians call a newborn cat with a three-inch tail, black stripes, and tufted ears? A: A kitten.

Cats have a sense of humor, so maybe they'll laugh at that bad joke. Cat showing, however, is serious business, full of pointed talk about dominant and recessive genes, melanin synthesis, hash-mark spacing, bone mass, eye color, coat color, and hair length. This is not to say cat shows concern themselves exclusively with mechanical animals, or the mechanics of the animals. Gloria Bessemer, a cat-show judge for 30 years and manager of the Miami Florida Cat Fanciers Cat Show this weekend at the Dade County Fair and Expo Center, can't help drifting into the enigmatic side of felinity: "The first time a cat looks at you, looks through you, and deems to come near you, it is a special gift."

When humans first made that magical connection to the padded-pawed predators is unknown. It is believed that the earliest ancestors of both humans and the domestic cat emerged in the Eocene period and that some 40 species (of cats, not humans) survived the Ice Age. The modern domestic cat (40 recognized breeds and countless mixed breeds) traces its origins to either the European wild cat or the more famous African wild cats of Egyptian fame. The Egyptians recorded feline domestication 5000 years ago.

At first the Egyptians worshipped kitties as being sacred to the goddess Isis, later associating the animals with the goddess Bastet, which then, naturally enough, became the preeminent goddess of Egyptian spirituality. "Cat" in Egyptian is mau, which means "to see." "A man will buy a cat for his wife or kids," Gloria Bessemer says, "but the cat knows who runs the house. They figure out who runs the domicile and will be nice to that person."

People have not always been so nice to cats. In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII declared holy war on meow-meows. At one point Europeans who dared possess a kitty faced execution (along with their pet). Catholics have been repenting ever since.

About 1870 a guy named Harrison Weir decided it would be cool to breed and show cats in an organized way, partly to create new types and partly to document the scientific aspects of catness. According to Gloria Stephens's book Legacy of the Cat, the first cat show took place on July 13, 1871. The Cat Fanciers Association, the world's largest registry of pedigreed pusses, began in 1906; the 60-year-old Miami Florida Cat Fanciers became the third member of the CFA and is its second-oldest continuously active member club.

The hundreds of cats on display this weekend will compete in four categories: kittens (purebreds four to eight months old); cats (older purebreds), premiers (neutered or spayed adult purebreds); and household pets. "The last one is the most fun for a judge," Bessemer says. "The most important thing about this group is that they be clean. No fleas." (She means the cats, not the judges.)

Half the cost of the fairgrounds rental is being underwritten by Friskies, which will import the Friskies Cat Team, featuring felines that play basketball and other sports, walk tightropes, and redesign computer software. Some, including the fluffy white Fancy Feast Cat, are celebs, having appeared in films and on television. Vendors will be selling all known products for cats. A crew will film the event for two programs to be aired on the Discovery Channel.

The main draw, though, will be the eight rings (most shows have only four or six rings) and the 450 odd, and not so odd, show cats. "Some of the colors that have come out in the past few years," Bessemer says reverentially, "like in the Abyssinians, which have three to five bands on each hair ... you see an Aby move and it has a sheen. The ground color and spotting ... it's dimensional." Something to see.

-- Greg Baker

The Miami Florida Cat Fanciers Cat Show takes place from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, May 22 and 23, at the Dade County Fair and Expo Center, 10901 Coral Way. Admission ranges from $3 to $6. Call 305-622-2887.