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Dispatch: Are Cat Shows Cruel?
Reading time: 5 min.
(Every once in a while—because that’s about as often as I leave my apartment to do something new—I’ll bring you a dispatch reporting on an experience I’ve undertaken to improve or fortify my mental and emotional health.)
Answer: I didn’t think so.
This is part dispatch, part confession, part mea culpa. (Try not to judge. Read on.)
I purchased tickets for my mother and myself to attend the 41st annual International Cat Association’s cat show because it’s the kind of activity I never take part in: light, purposeless in the best way, fun. And I love cats. Cat videos on Instagram are almost solely responsible for my mental health. The idea of seeing four hundred or so of them was (for me) impossible to resist.
My thinking went something like this: Cats were bred to be shown. Unlike dogs bred for their usefulness to their masters, cats were propagated solely for appearance. We didn’t even bother to soften their predatory instincts. Their DNA remains relatively unchanged from their days as big cats viciously hunting prey on the savannah. They’re basically beautiful killers.
So why not put them on display? I imagined performing cats, perfectly at ease on some sort of stage being admired and enjoying being idolized the way that cats believe they should be. Just like a dog show but with cats.
Add to this the fact that my own cat—Siddhartha Sweets is descended from show cats. (I don’t mean to brag, but his father is the number one Birman tabby in the world.) Siddhartha was too shy to be a show cat.
Add to this the fact that the theme of the 2022 show was “Feline Inferno” (read: the Chicago Fire).
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I did my research. Cat shows are historical events, which may have started as early as the sixteenth century. The first show on record was the National Competition at the Crystal Palace in London in July 1871. Two hundred thousand Londoners flocked to see the Siamese, Persians, Manx, etc. gathered. It was an aristocratic affair, and the second show, which took place a few months later, encouraged “working men’s cats” to join.
The two events spurred a feline frenzy that spread throughout Europe and across the pond to the U.S.
While researching, I watched a video of the Cat Fanciers’ Association International 2016 All-Breed Kitten Final. The cats seemed fine. No stage, more like a podium on which they’re held aloft, the straightness of their spines and length of their tails and quality of their coats admired.
I should have known cat shows weren’t what they seemed. While watching the All-Breed Kitten Final, Siddhartha sat beside me. I turned my laptop, so he could see. He looked on in horror, his expression saying, They do that? To cats? Put them in public? On display? Torturing them? Objectifying them? (I kid you not. It was an expression of horror.)
Still, I was excited. I was going to be in a room with my people—all of us unashamed of the cat hairs flecking our clothes, unembarrassed about the amount we spend on lint brushes and cat beds and cat food and cat toys.
Like clockwork, my anxiety struck on the way down to the Hilton, where the cat show was being held. I was having trouble breathing and felt I had to leave. I sojourned on, and it faded. (Notice I said faded.)
My mother and I arrived at the exhibition hall at the Hilton an hour-and-a-half after the doors opened. Announcements blared from loudspeakers positioned around the room: “Ragdolls 28 and 29 to area 11,” “Bengals starting in area 5.” In the middle of the hall were the areas curtained off. Folding chairs faced the display podiums, where judges displayed the cats, appreciating their coloring and the shapes of their faces.
The perimeter of the hall was lined with table after table of extra-large cages (what dog people refer to as “crates”) and cat carriers, most with tiny litter boxes and cat beds inside. In one was the most exquisite Siamese I’ve ever seen: perfect brown mask, fluffy white fur, seal points on the tail and ears.
None of this was necessarily a problem—although PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) would disagree. The owners clearly loved their animals. The problem was the cats themselves. Some looked perfectly at home being carried from one show area to another and being exhibited; most, however, did not. Their meows were sometimes mournful, sometimes desperate. It was painful to hear. The sounds alone seemed to confirm that if dog shows seem cruel, cat shows definitely are.
Forty-five minutes after arriving, we left the hall. My heart was heavy. Should we breed and show cats when there are plenty of unwanted ones at shelters across the country? If you put it that way, no. Should there be kitten mills? Of course not. But should we maintain the genetic lines of the species’ most exquisite examples? Maybe. Perhaps. Should breeders also do what they can to support local shelters? Yes. Should we travel with those cats and compete against other cats for best in show? Only if the cats want to. Unfortunately, we don’t speak meow.
When I got home, I went to Siddhartha and apologized for having gone and told him that might have been him there, miserable. An apology isn’t always enough. I pulled out a toy purchased at one of the booths, a transaction that left me conflicted (should I support these people?): a yellow wand on the end of which was a dragonfly made from pom-poms and feathers and plastic. Siddhi lost his mind. I’ll say one thing: Those people know cat toys.
What do you do for your mental and emotional health that doesn’t quite fit the self-help mold? Write it in the comments. I really do want to know.
“A fiery manifesto of a memoir” —The New York Times