Welcome to the Cat Show

At first, the Cat Fanciers’ Association cat show appeared as odd and peculiar as I’d expected. I walked through the temple-like archway of the El Zaribah Shriner Auditorium in Phoenix, Arizona, and every stereotype one might have about a cat show and its participants came to pass… plus a few more. The first thing I saw was a girl who’d wedged herself into a cage with a large, sleeping Tabby. After walking through the gallery of Shriner Imperial Moolahs looking as serious as one can wearing a fez, I entered a crowded theatre of cat ladies in pumpkin sweatshirts and kitty ear headbands, men in feline themed T-shirts, and venders selling cat plates, cat clothing, cat jewelry, cat mats… and romance paperbacks (three for five dollars).

The cats waited in a miniature tent city lining rows of tables – their enclosures were decorated with orange ribbons, black ribbons, cutout pumpkins (this was the Official Halloween show!) and bumper stickers that read Friends Don’t Let Friends Get A Dog or Cats Never Lie About Love. Next to the tents, some of them intricately designed with multiple, carpeted levels for feline lounging, were stations cluttered with tweezers, combs, and freeze dried chicken treats. One owner hunched over a kitten with an iron grip on its head, pulling back its jowls as he squeezed drops into its wide eyes. Another proud exhibitor brushed her kitten while eating a makeshift sloppy joe made with loose meat and two Danishes, ingredients she’d bought from the snack stand that also featured a full bar.

Looking into their tents, I was surprised by what peered back at me. I couldn’t imagine a regal Abyssinian setting its sharp, antelope-like head on my lap as I watch television. I no longer think of Persians as simply a hairier version of normal cats. With their large, round eyes where their cheeks should be, the Persians managed to look both dormant and distressed. These were not your normal house cats. As if there were any doubt, house cats were here, but for a competition that lumped all of them together to be judged, “without regard to sex, age, coat length or color.” One cat is chosen for its “uniqueness,” but as long as they seem healthy, every household cat receives a merit award.

The stately show cats, however, are judged multiple times according to breed standards and are awarded a variety of points, plaques, and colored ribbons. The elaborate scoring system is often confusing for spectators. Judges present their awards independently of each other, and are peculiar in their own right. One pink-tied and bespectacled gentleman sported a muffin-top hairpiece as impressive as any feline mane in the show. He was one of the many judges who evaluate every cat, from testing out its ability to follow the path of a flittering cat toy to lifting up its tail and examining the anus. In order to judge at a CFA show one must participate in a training program and pass a breed standard exam, as well as have ten years of breeding experience. I suppose they should also like cats.

Throughout the day, participants listened for their cat to be called to one of six judging rings. This takes hours, as the cats must circulate through every one of the rings; so many conversations stopped mid-sentence as people froze and tilted their heads to hear the announcer who called numbers monotonously from his seat on stage. He sat above a table of raffle cups with prizes like cat bibs, scratching ramps, and a ten minute consultation with a cat behaviorist, the “infamous” author of My Litter Box was Dirty so I Left a Present in Your Shoe, (whose name, of course, you must already know).

Cat shows, like badminton tournaments or even baseball, aren’t likely to garner a large television audience. “I know the argument is that there’s more action at a dog show,” says Pam DelaBar, vice president of the Cat Fanciers’ Association. “Well, they call it action. All you’re really seeing are dogs running in a circle around a ring. I know people would watch [a cat show]; these cats are living art, works of beauty that purr.”

I did see some pretty cats, but I never even heard a meow. I had read about an agility competition but didn’t see any sign of an obstacle course. The cats were not the liveliest crowd anyway. In fact, they were all very docile, which was a bit anti-climactic. One unmet expectation was that there would be a lot of scratching and cats who’d squirmed free of their owners scampering about the showroom, perhaps even criss-crossing in the rafters above. The only act of insubordination seemed to be sleeping in their own litter, as opposed to just sleeping, which the majority of these pets were doing. They sleep until the judge pulls them out of their cage and puts them into another cage along the show ring, where they fall asleep again.

“The moment every cat breeder lives for is that moment of exhilaration when your cat is held aloft and proclaimed “Best Cat in Show!” according to the CFA website. I wondered, were ribbons and points really motivation enough to justify buying a thousand dollar cat, driving from state to state, and paying entrance, grooming, and cage fees for a long day at a show like this one? I wanted to talk to the man wearing shorts that revealed legs covered in scratches (how far up did they go?!), but he was too focused on herding from one ring to the next, so I spoke with the owner of an Abyssinian contestant named Jazzpur.

Joni recently joined the cat show circuit because she felt something was missing in her life, and I got the feeling from several of her tangents, because she has grown tired of her husband. Growing up, she would accompany her mother to dog shows from California to the Midwest, so she was already familiar with showing animals. She says it’s the people she meets at the CFA shows that keep her coming back. “I really liked the community. The people are really cool,” Joni said. By the end of our conversation, I had to cross out the phrase “Everyone’s Crazy :(”, which I had scribbled into my notes earlier. Our discussion was cut short when Jazzpur’s number was announced.

After talking to Joni, I realized that as foreign as the cat show had seemed to me at first, it was just another community built on shared interests, no more eccentric than the fraternity of Shriners sharing their auditorium today. No different, in essence, from any other like-minded hobbyist gathering, from Trekkie conventions to poetry readings to Civil War Reenactments. But when I got home and went over my notes and photographs, I realized I was right the first time. These people are freaks.

Written by Sara & Nathan