In the classic movie Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, ambitious reporter Veronica Corningstone was offended and annoyed by her first assignment of covering a cat fashion show. It was not the sort of hard-hitting journalism she aspired to.
I felt quite the opposite as I headed to the former Hancock Fabrics at Marketplace Shopping Center on Saturday to cover the Illini Cat Club show. It was also much more than a fashion show (though I did get to see some in costume). This is exactly the sort of thing that I love to cover for this magazine. It’s unique, there are probably a lot of people who have no idea what goes on at a cat show, or that cat shows are even a thing, and it allowed me the opportunity to experience a niche segment of folks who are really passionate about what they do.
My mom and stepdad are dog show people, so I’m somewhat familiar with the world of show animals. They raise Toy Fox Terriers, they show some of them, they host shows multiple times a year, and they travel around the country to judge. They have admitted that there is a healthy amount of accuracy in the movie Best in Show, at least in terms of the interesting sorts of characters you encounter. I can confirm that, having attended one of their shows. But I think you have to be sort of quirky for this to be your lifestyle, just like with anything you choose to invest your time and money in. Maybe it’s gaming, maybe it’s your kid’s sport, maybe it’s knitting. For the people I met on Saturday it’s cats. It was lovely, and endearing, and I found it all super interesting.
Mary Auth, secretary for the Illini Cat Club, filled me in on some of the basics of what to expect at a show of this nature. This was a show sponsored by the Cat Fanciers’ Association, which recognizes 46 different breeds of cat. Cats grouped into four categories for judging: Kittens (4-8 months old); Championship (8 months +); Premiership (8 months+ who have been neutered or spayed) and the Household Pet category, which is for cats that are not purebred so they cannot compete in the other categories. I love that these kitties are included.
Auth described how the cats in the first three categories are being judged: “Each cat is judged against a written standard for each breed. There are 100 points per breed, with point emphasis on features unique to the breed. Color is worth 20 points on a Persian; eyes are worth 25 points on the European Burmese. For the European Burmese the standard calls for a rounded eye that is flat on the top edge.” Household cats are judged on beauty, health, presentation, personality, since they do not have a standard.
The annual cat show serves as a fundraiser for the Illini Cat Club, which regularly supports organizations such as Cat Snap, Champaign County Humane Society, and Hospice Hearts, who were all at the event. Auth said that this past year they also gave money to an organization that helped get cats out of Ukraine, and into homes in Poland.
When I got there, the place was packed with spectators, vendors, and of course cats and their owners. There were four “rings” set up, each with a pedestal flanked by scratching posts (which I thought was brilliant and amazing), with about 20 chairs lined up in front and a semi-circle of cages behind. As categories were called, owners would bring their participating cat to the designated ring, then place them in one of those cages where they would wait for judging.
One by one, the judge would take a cat out and bring it to the pedestal. I noticed that judges would spend time talking about the different characteristics of the breeds that they were judging. It was really an educational experience! They would also use wand toys to get the cats to show a little personality, or look in a certain direction. As I watched the cats calmly be handled, it made me realize how important the cat’s personality must be. They have to be fine with so many different people handling them, and be unfazed by the commotion around them.
While the judging portion was interesting, what I really enjoyed was strolling through the rows of tables that made up a sort of home base for the cats when they were not competing. Each owner had a station, where they would have a set up of cages, enclosures, and small tray tables for the kitties to perch or lounge on outside of their houses.
Some owners got really elaborate with their setups.
At times, an owner might have their cat out and available for passersby to pet (after a little dab of hand sanitizer). If owners were near their stations, they would often chat with spectators and answer questions about their breed and their cats. I was fortunate to get to talk with a couple of them.
First, I was introduced to Jim Wuersch, and his cat Bacchus, a Havana Brown. “Havana Brown is an English breed, a manmade breed, developed in the early fifties. The goal was to produce an all brown cat with green eyes…they came to the United States in 1961…They are very bright cats, very doglike in their mannerisms, very people oriented, and moderate in activity. This cat is just as apt to bond with a man as a woman.”
Wuersch is one of just 15 breeders of Havana Browns worldwide. A former Urbana Police Officer, Wuersch became interested in breeding cats after retiring in 2001. He was introduced to Havana Browns at an Illini Cat Club show. “I filled out an application, I went through a very intensive screening process, which is good, and I got my first intact male 8 to 10 months later. My very first cat was a National Breed winner, and it hasn’t happened since.”
Leading up to a show, his cat will get a bath on Thursday night using special shampoo that enhances the brown, and makes it shiny. Then they are brushed with just a little bit of fur polish.
I also spent time talking with Brooke Cole, who traveled to the show from Cincinnati. She was holding her cat Marty, a Norwegian Forest cat and a Grand Champion. “He has an amazing head,” she pointed out. “It’s an equilateral triangle from the chin to the ears. His eyes are set at a slant, ears set as much to the side as to the front.” He also has a double coat: an undercoat and then long guard hairs over it. Cole uses a special comb to maintain it. “He’s just a dear, he’s very independent. I still have his sister, and they kind of pal around together. He’s really been a nice cat to work with…They are really good house cats. They like someplace tall, so I have tall cat trees. They love hanging out in the window, they think window watching is the best.”
Cole travels regularly for shows. She said she would love to do two shows a month, but sometimes it’s just one. She likes to show kittens, which is a short season, since they only compete at in that category when they are 4-8 months old. For championship cats, you have to show them all year long. “It’s a commitment,” said Cole. The next goal for Marty is to become a “Grand of Distinction,” which means making the finals in 30 or more shows over the course of three seasons.
I timed my visit well, because I was able to catch the cat costume contest. It was worth the price of admission. First, can I tell you the chaos that ensued in my house when I attempted to introduce a small harness to our cat? She is fixated on the “outside” and I thought I’d give the harness a shot, as a way to safely let her experience “outside.” It didn’t go well. Therefore, I couldn’t fathom how these cats would tolerate wearing any sort of additional item, much less a full costume.
The crowd around ring four swelled as 12 p.m. neared, and spectators were handed plastic hand clappers to use for judging. Dozens of people? Clacking plastic hand clappers? Surely this would cause the felines to lose their minds. Nope. Not a one was fazed.
One by one, 13 different owners brought their cats to the cages around the ring, and one by one the emcee brought them out for viewing. They were cool as cucumbers. I will say that some of them displayed their unenthusiasm through somewhat steely glares, but they were very tolerant, and it almost made them that much cuter.
Spectators were asked “judge” using their clappers to indicate their favorites. This cute lil’ Easter bunny won the contest easily.
The Illini Cat Club show comes around but once a year. If you are a cat person, it’s definitely an event you should add to your calendar next year. If you are not, or if you are allergic, maybe it’s not for you. I certainly learned a lot! You can keep up with what the club is doing the rest of the year by following them on Facebook.