For breeders, designer cats are a lifelong passion
Not so long ago, feline companions were associated with glamour, class and creativity. Salvador Dali brought his ocelot to the St. Regis. Tippi Hedren lay down with her lions in her Los Angeles living room. Josephine Baker’s cheetah, with a diamond necklace, wandered the Champs-Elysées. In their day, these wild creatures made chic pets.
But in the mid-1970s, a wave of wildlife awareness and legislation changed both the outlook on owning a big cat and the ability to purchase one legally.
Meanwhile, a cat breeder named Jean Mill was working on a more practical alternative: her leopard-spotted companion was just 10 inches tall. At his Southern California cattery, Mill invented a breed of domestic cat called Bengal, which would offer feral cat admirers the best of both worlds: crisp leopard coat and indoor cat size and demeanor.
Mill’s daughter, Judy Sugden, 71, carried on her legacy. Sugden grew up watching and helping the Bengal breed. Despite a degree in architecture, she realized her true calling was at the cattery. ” I thought ‘Well, I don’t want to be an architect.’ Really,” she said, ”I wanted to design a beautiful little cat.”
It may seem like an unusual career path, but the market for designer cats is thriving where supply rarely meets demand, and in its service, more than 40,000 registered domestic cat breeders worldwide are dedicated to providing for owners of Ragdolls, Sphynxes and other prized pets. breeds. (PETA argued that this clientele should adopt cats from a shelter instead.)
In the 1980s, Sugden imagined a domestic cat with a shimmering orange and black striped coat, reminiscent of a tiger. It would have small round ears, a large nose and a white belly like a tiger. He would only weigh 10 pounds, but he would move around the living room as if he could bring down a gazelle. It would evoke that alluring “tiger essence,” she said.
It would be called a toyger.
Toyger Toyger, burning
Some 20 years after Sugden’s experiment began, in 2007 the International Cat Association (TICA) declared the toyger a championship cat breed. A toyger made the cover of LIFE magazine. “There’s going to be toy fever,” then-TICA president Kay DeVilbiss told magazine.
And indeed, the appeal of wild-looking cats has only grown in recent years, said Anthony Hutcherson, 45, a political speechwriter, Bengal cat breeder and former Mill protege.
“I find people want the things right away that make them think ‘wild,'” he said from his cattery, Jungletrax, in southern Maryland. ”High contrast patterns, dramatic overall color and a look and proportions a leopard or ocelot would have. ”
He recalled that there were “tons” of advertisements for Persian cats on the back of Cat Fancy magazine. But the sleek, polished aesthetic of the Persian is no longer in vogue.
“That look doesn’t say, ‘I can survive in the jungle,'” Hutcherson said. “He says, ‘I need someone to open this box of cat food because there’s no way this cat will catch a mouse.'”
Carole Baskin, founder of Big Cat Rescue and star of Netflix’s ‘Tiger King’, called toy owners ‘selfish’ and said the creation of new breeds ‘attacks a nuclear warhead at the feral cat problem’.
Others might argue that compared to shelter pets, designer breeds (the rarest of which can cost up to tens of thousands of dollars per kitten) are a whole different beast.
As preferences evolve, Hutcherson said “the market has exploded” for Bengals, with around 2,000 breeders from Baltimore to Bucharest and some 60,000 registered Bengals worldwide. Meanwhile, Sugden estimates that only 150 breeders worldwide focus on the toyger.
Anthony Kao, 50, is among them, raising toygers and other animals like parrots and species of coral at his Urban Exotic Pets cattery in Los Angeles.
“The reason we have this breed is so we could satisfy the human curiosity for Exotics without having an Exotic,” he said.
Ligers and beefalos and grolar bears
For centuries, humans have combined the favorable characteristics of one living being with another, giving rise to creations ranging from the Honeycrisp apple to the Siberian husky.
Such creative endeavors have spawned – with no objection from animal welfare activists – hybrid animals such as the boeufalo, the liger, even the grolar bear (half grizzly, half polar bear).
But despite the clever portmanteau, a toyger is nothing like a tiger — at least not beyond the nearly 96% tiger DNA in all domestic cats. Because their chromosomes have evolved so differently since their species diverged 11 million years ago, breeding a wild tiger with a domestic cat is now considered a biological impossibility.
So how do you make a domestic cat look like a tiger without tiger parentage? “We don’t have the genes,” Sugden said from his home in Los Angeles, “so we have to pretend.”
To develop the Bengal, in 1963 Mill crossed an Asian leopard cat – a five to 12 pound wildcat – with a carefully selected street cat that had once raked the rhino enclosure at a Delhi zoo. This wild ancestry is the foundation of the Bengal breed, although over the past four decades Bengals have come, for the most part, from breeding Bengals with Bengals.
Like her mother, Sugden also traveled to India, enlisting the help of Kashmiri children to find a stray domestic cat with the right markings. She named him Jammu Blu and brought him back to California where she presented him with a prize-winning Bengal.
In a multi-generational process she calls “squinch-by-squinch development,” she’s getting closer and closer to the perfect toyger, inspiring her best felines to mate naturally and seek out desirable traits while monitoring the emergence of genetic disorders.
Other top breeders also cultivate their own lines of toyger, focusing on different aspects of the breed’s evolution, and trade cats among themselves to ensure genetic diversity.
Today, toyger kittens can cost up to $5,000, a price comparable to a real tiger in the US market. If the prices seem high, it’s because these breeders have to cover all of an owner’s costs (litter, food, vet bills, pet insurance) multiplied by many. Moreover, getting seriously involved in the genetic evolution of a species is a serious investment.
23andMe type feline DNA tests that help breeders (and owners) test for morphological appearances or disorders start at $89 per feline. And to further the research, Hutcherson recently worked with feline geneticist Dr. Chris Kaelin of Stanford University to clone one of his champion cats at a cost of $25,000.
Because every cat and kitten is an investment, breeders at this level tend to screen their potential buyers as rigorously as a buyer might assess a seller. Contracts often stipulate that the buyer must sterilize their cat and that no cat will end up in a shelter. Chats even come with an unconditional lifetime return policy.
Location is also a consideration: cats considered hybrids, such as the Bengal, are illegal in some places, including New York and Hawaii. In Rhode Island, owners of toygers — because of the Bengal in their lineage — need a permit, as do owners of an alligator, chimpanzee, or wolf.
Kao said these laws stem from a stigma “that it’s a wild animal, and you just can’t have it.”
In 2018, Sugden returned to her mother to be Mill’s babysitter. It was a good time to retire from active breeding, even if she couldn’t give it up completely.
“I was very careful when I moved here to send all my cats around the world to breeders who could use each best, to try and spread the genes,” she said.
But Mill died at 92, shortly after Sugden arrived.
“After getting rid of almost all my big cats, am I going to quit completely and do some writing? Or do something else?” she wondered.
For now, Sugden has a new litter of big-eyed toyger kittens in her cattery, EEYAA, and feels her responsibility is to “support other breeders around the world and keep doing what I do.” the ground always requires groundwork, she said, and together they are “jostling” for the perfect toyger.
“There are a lot of people in this world who don’t care if there’s a toyger,” Sugden said. “There are a lot of things in this world that nobody cares about. But no one cared if there was a ‘Mona Lisa’ until we had a ‘Mona Lisa’.”