DISPATCH FROM THE CAT SHOW
by Jamie-Lee Josselyn
Pulling into the parking lot of The Riveredge, a banquet hall in Reading, Pennsylvania, a wave of glee rushed over me. I scanned the rows of SUVs and minivans for the now-familiar “I ♥ my Persian” bumper stickers and “Show Cats on Board” placards suctioned to rear windows. And, of course, there were many variations on those popular stick figure family decals: Stick-Dad with a baseball cap, a Stick-Mom with one long curly-cue for hair and a coffee mug in hand, and no fewer than three Stick-Kitties. Sometimes a Stick-Kid or two. Sometimes just Stick-Lady (Stick-Cat-Lady?) with any number of Stick-Cats. The license plates covered the Mid-Atlantic region, as well as Virginia, Michigan, Ohio, Texas, and Ontario.
We made our way into the lobby, and I presented two cans of Fancy Feast to the woman at the registration table. “Oh, donations!” she said as she placed our cans in a crate heaped with tins of Friskies and Royal Canin. “So, you each get a dollar off admission.” I handed her a ten dollar bill and, when asked, told her we were already on the mailing list. We’d gotten the post card announcement a few weeks earlier.
This was our third cat show.
The previous show had also been here at the Riveredge, about an hour and a half drive from our home in Philadelphia. Our first show had been closer, just over the Delaware River at an armory in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Both Aaron, my boyfriend, and I had not expected this to become anywhere close to a recurring weekend outing. He had suggested the first show, about a year earlier, as what I assumed to be a sort of Hail Mary pass attempt in response to my wails of, “Why don’t we ever doooooo anythinnnng?” which increase in frequency every winter, when Philly is too cold to be comfortable and too warm to be majestic.
I think we were first drawn to the cat show out of that smug, even bratty sense of irony which seems more and more prevalent these days. Sure, we’re cat owners. Sure, our friends were jealous when they saw our posts to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram chronicling the day’s events. We were doing it for the story (as evidenced here). As we entered the show hall and wandered through the “benching area,” rows of deluxe-sized, individually decorated cat carriers – adorned with fabric, ribbons, feathers, and sparkles with themes of anything from America to Mardi Gras to the Green Bay Packers – there was no doubt that we had come to look at the freaks. And their cats.
It only took a moment of gawking for me to feel guilty. Aaron, meanwhile, was snapping photos, often pretending to take an one of me, or of a cat, while really trying to capture a mulletted, NASCAR shirt and fanny pack-wearing man in jean shorts and tube socks hustling a cat with bold tiger stripes, which I would soon learn was known as a Toyger (as in, “toy tiger”), to a judging ring. “That dude is awesome. Move to the left,” Aaron told me, shifting the lens of his phone away from me as the man stowed his cat in one of the holding cages behind the judge’s table.
“It’s not a big deal. My dad probably has that shirt,” I said. I’d grown up in a small town in New Hampshire that had both a dragway and a speedway. There is something about the largely working class crowd at these shows that reminds me of home: the curling iron-induced hairstyles, the drop ceilinged banquet hall, the raffled off gift baskets of Yankee Candles, Milano cookies, and Robusto Ragu.
“But your dad doesn’t have that cat,” Aaron said. “Look at that thing!” We took a few steps closer and stood behind the two rows of chairs that were set up to view this ring’s judging. Slowly, the holding cages were filling up with other Toygers, just as the ring next to us was filling up with their mini-leopard counterparts, the Bengals. As the holding cages, which were each marked with a blue (male) or pink (female) number card for each participant, filled, the cats’ owners settled in the chairs to await the judge.
Even after three shows, I can’t quite say how cat judging works. There are a lot of ribbons. The show hall has a number of these U-shaped “rings” around the perimeter, and each has a separate judge presiding all day. Individual shows run concurrently based on category – first, specific breeds (i.e. Persian, Sphynx, Ragdoll, Bobtail, Exotic, Maine Coon, and many, many more), then more general categories like short-haired alters (“alter” meaning spayed or neutered) and long-haired kittens, and, eventually, the coveted Best in Show.
Cats have the opportunity to advance if they score well in their breed, but the great thing I’ve learned about cat shows is that every cat is a winner. The judge gave his preliminary examination of each of the Toygers, taking the cat out of the cage, first stretching the cat out (“Look at the long, tubular body on this boy. Very nice.”), then placing it on the judging table, a plexiglass-covered and frequently disinfected platform with two twine-wrapped cylinders on either end. At my first show, I waited with nervous excitement each time a cat was placed on the platform, assuming that before long, someone would get spooked and leap into the sea of onlookers, many of whom were clad in animal prints. It’s never happened and based on my own cat’s surly-verging-on-violent nature, I can only imagine how much pre-show handling it must take to prime a cat for this spotlight.
The judge held the Toyger’s face and felt his cheeks, neck and ears. “He’s got a nice strong jawline and a good ear-set, spaced good and wide.” The judge then picked up a long wand with strands of tinsel and ran it up the platform’s side post. The cat immediately pounced, his front paws capturing the glimmering foil. The audience rumbled with laughter. “Playful boy!” the judge chuckled. “Excellent shoulder definition, too.”
Some cats were unfazed by the judge’s attempts to get them to extend to the posts, and a few even hissed when the judge approached their cage. “Okay, you won’t come out today,” the judge would say, stepping back.
But still, each cat was given a place, and it was always in the affirmative. After all of the ring’s contenders had been brought out, the judge would pace by the cages, take some notes, and arrange his placing tags, which would go first on each cat’s holding cage, and then on its carrier in the benching area, often attached to a large ribbon. “We’ll start with number 287, a sweet Toyger girl with a great personality, a stunning coat, and wonderfully wide-set eyes. My tenth best Toyger today,” the judge said, clipping a tag to 287’s cage. Later, the tag would be exchanged for a “10th Best Cat” ribbon. No quiet exit for being the worst. A prize for being 10th best.
“Yaaaay,” the onlookers said, not quite cheering, but enthusiastic enough as they clapped. They always said, “Yay” as the places were called, tenth through first.
There would always be a pause when it was down to the last two cats in a category. The judge took them each out, not for his own benefit, but for that of the rest of us. And probably for the sake of suspense as well. At this point, I glanced around to figure out who the two competing owners were, but had no luck. There was no clutching a co-owner’s arm or crossed fingers . It felt like everyone was waiting to hear what the judge had to say about each cat. “See how this boy’s eyes have a perfect almond shape, plus they’re this beautifully vibrant green,” he said as heads, including Aaron’s, nodded. Next cat. “This girl here has such a delicate yet solid body, and her muzzle is just textbook Toyger. She’s my best today.”
This “Yaaaay” had more pep. As the spectators in the know crowded the winner’s owner, an older woman in a purple blouse and silver tiger brooch, I caught the judge nuzzle the winning Toyger as he turned to place her back in the cage. Over the rest of the afternoon, I learned that this was his tendency. He didn’t nuzzle every cat, but about a third of his ring’s competitors would get a little affection on the way back to the cage. It was about more than structural integrity for this guy.
For the rest of the afternoon, I was less focused on the cats and how they placed, and more on the judges and how they got there. What did it take to become a cat show judge? Later in the afternoon, when Judge Chris from Toledo, Ohio urged each cat’s owner to tell his or her favorite Cat Show Story as she went through her judging. It became clear to me then that Chris and the other judges were either former participants in the show circuit, or who still competed, but in other regions. Many of them had known each other for decades. Most of the “best show” stories involved a high rank, often a first place ribbon, which came after years of showing and usually multiple cats.
“Hi, everybody, I’m Pam. But most of you’ve known me forever.” The woman now speaking was wearing a sweatshirt with Siamese cats bedazzled across the chest in rhinestones. A “Cat Mom” button was pinned by her neckline and her thick, curly blonde hair was pulled back with a scrunchie. “You all know Tom too,” she said, as she gestured toward the back of the crowd of spectators. A man with a “Cat Dad” button pinned to his polo shirt gave a little wave. “When Tom and I first started dating, cat shows were just starting to become ‘my thing,’ and Tom made it very clear that it was not going to be his.” The crowd chuckled. “But, eventually I got him to come to one show to volunteer, and the rest is history. He’s more into it than I am now. Opening our Holly Hill Cattery was his idea! So, this isn’t really one memory, but I have so many favorites, twenty years later, much poorer, and also happier.”
Pam wiped her eyes as Judge Chris handed her Cat #71, a small female with a smushed face which I knew by now placed her in the Exotic category. Pam walked with her 2nd Best Cat back to Tom, who kissed them both on the head, then wrapped them in his arms. At the judge’s podium, Chris fanned her face with her judge’s score card, her eyes glistening. For a moment, I thought mine might too. I was still there for the story, but it was a different one than I’d expected.
Jamie-Lee Josselyn is the Associate Director of Recruitment at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, where she also teaches nonfiction writing. She holds a BA from the University of Pennsylvania and an MFA from Bennington College, where she was the nonfiction editor of The Bennington Review. She lives in the Italian Market neighborhood of Philadelphia with her boyfriend, her two cats, and her dog.