My Five Years as a
Somali Breeder 1975 – 1980
Patricia Nell Warren
It was all June and Steve
Negrycz's fault. One weekend in late 1974, they rode the ferry from Patchogue
out to Fire Island, with their two Abys and one Somali in cat carriers. I
happened to be on that same ferry, heading for my own weekend on the Island.
Though intrigued by Abyssinians, I had never seen one outside of cat books. I
had never been to a cat show in my life. And what about that longhaired one?
Hey...who can resist cat magic? So I went over and
introduced myself to the Negryczes.
They lived in Brooklyn and worked for Harper
& Row as children's book illustrators. The longhair was June's Dancing
Moon. The Negryczes patiently explained about longhaired Abyssinians, called
Somalis. Moon had glorious ruddy color -- deep coppery-orange. He'd been born
from a mating between two registered Abyssinians they'd bought from Lynn-Lee
Cattery in New Jersey. There were a few breeders, they said, who were
struggling to pioneer this new breed in the face of prejudice and paranoia
from some established Abyssinian breeders. They didn't want it known that
their shorthairs threw a "surprise" longhair now and then.
I was intrigued. Having grown up on a Montana
ranch, I understood what the Negryczes were talking about. For several
generations, my own family had helped pioneer "the new" in cattle
and horses. My greatgrandfather helped introduce Shorthorn cattle and
Thoroughbred horses to the West. My dad had been one of the top U.S. breeders
of Hereford cattle and Belgian horses. At home our walls were hung with
rosettes from top shows across North America. My childhood was spent at the
show ring, 4-H meetings and stockgrower conventions. Breeds can come to
represent a lot of tradition and conservatism. Anybody with a new idea can be
regarded as a threat.
At the time, age 39, newly divorced, back into
horses on a small scale (a few show jumpers), and involvement in wild-animal
conservation, I wasn't looking for a third critter thing to jump into. But cat
magic got me -- the beauty of these small cats. There was that fox-like
appearance of the Somali, with bushy tail and ruff and ear tufts that enhanced
the lithe Abyssinian shape.
Result: I found myself at the next local cat
show, which happened to be the Brooklyn Cat Fanciers CFF show.
There I met some of the other pioneers, who were
exhibiting as a tight-knit phalanx. Among them were Ina and Marty Rauch of
L'Air de Rauch Cattery, and SCCA vice president Marge Hoff of Margus Cattery.
Most notably, there was SCCA founder/president herself, Evelyn Mague of
Evelyn had been an Aby breeder for many years.
She told me the story of her best Aby sire, Lynn-Lee's Lord Dublin, and how he
carried the recessive gene for long hair, from somewhere back in his pedigree.
"Dubbies," as she called him, sired the Negryczs' cats, so he
transmitted LH to them, resulting in the birth of Dancing Moon. For years,
Evelyn had been the sole U.S. breeder who stuck her neck out and championed
the Somali. Putting up with endless slings and arrows, she had painfully,
quietly collected a few foundation cats from Aby breeders -- the few who
didn't follow the customary practice of quietly "getting rid of"
longhair kittens. One early ally of Evelyn's was Canadian cat judge Ken McGill
(Dunedin Cattery), who started his Somali bloodline with a first-generation
longhair from the May-Ling line of Abys, and began the Somali's acceptance
process in the CCA.
As the Somali Cat Club of America formed up, a few
novice breeders had joined these early veterans. When kittens became
available, Evelyn placed them with SCCA's charter members.
I was hooked.
Joining SCCA, I registered the cattery name
Foxtail. This name was meaningful because, in the Western ranch world, foxtail
is a pesky but beautiful species of grass, whose silky seed-heads are shaped
exactly like Somali tails. Then I put myself on the club's waiting list for a
Somali kitten. One day in early 1975 I drove to the Rauchs' home on Long
Island, and became the owner of a sweet-tempered ruddy half-grown kitten named
L'Air de Rauch's Rocky Raccoon. Rocky was already a 3rd generation Somali, and
had both U.S. and Canadian cats in his background. That show season of
1975-76, Rocky became 2nd Best SCCA Somali.
It's difficult for young
breeders today, whose world is so crowded with a global diversity of
recognized breeds, to imagine the mid-70s. In CFA, then the giant among
cat-fancy associations, a handful of long-established breeds ruled the roost.
Norwegian Forest Cats, Ragdolls, Tonkinese and many others were still
struggling for acceptance. All kinds of political roadblocks loomed in the way
of getting a new breed or color accepted. But smaller associations, fighting
to build their membership, were blessedly more open to new breeds. Somalis
were allowed to compete as "experimentals," so judges and breeders
could get to know them.
So I joined the tiny phalanx. Show after show,
we were armed with our pamphlets and our best arguments why the Somali should
be recognized. The Rauchs always came armed with bags of fresh bagels and
pounds of cream cheese, and kept our energies from flagging.
Many judges and Aby breeders
looked at our cats and sniffed. "Poor quality. Dark roots...light
ticking...ugh. You'll never make it."
Yes, quality was a problem. Top Aby breeders
weren't letting us have any top-quality Somalis that they might get. They
weren't even letting us have Aby kittens or stud service, so we could upgrade.
Most SCCA members were novices to the fancy. Established breeders felt they
had too much to lose by getting involved with us. In a word,
"Somali" meant "kiss of death."
But our numbers grew. In the East, outstanding
novice breeders like John and Betty Bridges (Santgria Cattery) joined up. In
the Midwest, we picked up outstanding additions like the Harrisons (Winery
Cattery) and the Morrisons (Nephrani Cattery). Then, in the West, the first
established breeder, Ann Kimball of Millcreek Cattery, known for her top
American Shorthairs, joined us. The first British and European breeders got in
touch, the first being Mrs. Jutta Broisch of Cologne, to whom I sold a cat.
Then several Japanese breeders. Australian Somali breeders didn't import any
cats from us, because of the horrendously long quarantine there, but we
established fond links with them.
Meanwhile we pushed into pedigree research. New
York breeder Walter del Pellegrino (Touch of Class Cattery) shared my interest
in this. All first-generation Somalis seemed to have a similar pedigree
background, pointing to post-World War II foundation registrations -- mystery
cats like the ones behind Roverdale Purrkins in Britain and Begus von Orient
in Germany. An unregistered shorthaired foundation cat could easily carry the
longhair recessive, and transmit it down the line to its descendants.
It was sometimes said that
Somali breeders became a model for how to get a breed recognized. And we did
it in record time.
Though we had our in-club cat-fights, SCCA
members were animated by a fierce esprit de corps. The SCCA newsletter, first
edited by club secretary June Negrycz, educated its members about grooming,
show etiquette, ethics. We organized big turnouts at shows, so judges and
breeders could see large classes. We created professional information
materials, and urged our members to get professional portraits of their cats,
instead of relying on snapshots. SCCA's monthly ad in cat publications
showcased our Best Cat each year.
Soon we were on a roll -- recognized in ACFA,
Crown, CFF, NCFA, ACA, TICA. And we were closing fast on CFA. We could
register in CFA now, and worked feverishly to get registrations up to quota,
so we could apply for championship status. Evelyn was always urging, working,
tracking our process in half a dozen different associations.
The breeders knew our cat had to be upgraded, if
it was to compete with the best in its parent breed, let alone the best of
other breeds. Our professionalism was winning support among some CFA judges
and board members, including Dick Gebhardt, CFA president and celebrated show
judge. To help us upgrade, and in recognition that our gene pool was too
small, CFA allowed us to start breeding back to Abys, provided that
shorthaired offspring of these matings be registered as Somalis, never as
As a writer, I had big dreams for the breed, and
accepted Evelyn's challenge to help promote our foxy-tailed upstart. My goal
was do a Somali propaganda article for every single cat publication. With time
my byline appeared in Cat's Magazine, All Cats, Cat Fancy, CFA Yearbook,
Cat-Tab, Die Edelkatze, and others. It was Cat World that published my article
on Pellegrino's and my pedigree discoveries.
After that, old-time Aby
breeders started writing us, to fill in gaps in our history. From California,
the venerable Janet Robertson (Roverdale Cattery) wrote me to confirm that the
mystery mother of Roverdale Purrkins was a ticked cat that a British sailor
brought home from somewhere during World War II. German breeder Dr. Brigitte
Leonhardt wrote me the wonderful story of the humble Philippine origins of
Pilo von Manila, who traveled back to Europe with her to become the foundation
sire of the Von Orient line in Germany. Indeed, the emerging science of
population genetics, and some intriguing studies done by cat-loving
scientists, showed that Far Eastern streets abounded in cats with agouti
(ticked) coats. This suggested that tales of the Abyssinian's "noble
roots in Egyptian temples" were a myth.
Writing about cats was fun.
But I had big dreams as a breeder.
By 1977, I had gotten rid of the show horses,
and settled on a 12-acre rural property in Pawling, New York. The place was
located 45 minutes' drive from my book editor job at the Reader's Digest head
Here I teamed up with a friend and noted
conservationist, Reg Riedel, and we plowed our money into a model cat-breeding
facility. Under the first permit ever given to private breeders by New York
State Fish & Game, I assisted Reg's program of breeding endangered species
of small wildcats. This was done under guidelines being evolved in cooperation
with the Convention in Trade on Endangered Species (CITES) by an international
task force of zoos, animal parks, private breeders, biologists, government
wildlife personnel, etc. Our goal was to help keep rare small cats like
tigrinas, Geoffroys cats, etc. from going into extinction.
Around the central building, large outdoor runs
were landscaped like natural habitats, with trees, logs and rocks. This was a
new concept, and Reg helped to pioneer it -- it contributed to his success in
breeding sensitive species. Later on, many big zoos would build this kind of
attractive habitat enclosure.
But I also bred Somalis there, in a different
area of that wonderful facility. (Wildcats and domestic cats did not mix,
mainly because wildcats view domestic cats as dinner.) Pawling veterinarian
Dr. Charles Frumerie smoothed the way for us locally (we complied with local
ordinances, and never had any legal trouble because of the wildcats). Dr.
Frumerie became a loyal supporter and our vet in attendance. With time,
Foxtail became a popular place to visit on Sundays. We kept the coffeepot on
for local folks who wanted to see the wildcats.
At Foxtail I put into action everything learned
as a kid in the livestock business.
With Dr. Frumerie's help, I started with good
animal care and management. Combination vaccinations against distemper and
upper-respiratory disease had just come on the market. New antibiotics were
available to fight URIs. Catteries were faced with the urgent need to start
FELV testing -- feline leukemia had recently been identified, and at that time
there was no vaccine or treatment. Feline infectious peritonitis was also
newly identified. Though it wasn't clear what you could do about FIP, I began
a practice of removing cats from my breeding program and finding pet homes for
them if they weren't 100 percent robust or didn't produce robust offspring.
My inspiration came from Mother Nature, who lets
only "the fittest" breed. Foxtail had a low kitten mortality,
because of its rigorous health policy.
One radical innovation was diet. I fed the
domestic cats the same diet that Reg gave his small wildcats. This was a
custom "grind" of raw beef hearts and chickens (skin, bone and all),
with vitamins added. Wildcats develop osteoporosis in captivity, and wild
kittens simply don't survive, if they don't get raw bone -- cooked bone won't
do. With all due respect for the convenience of canned or dry cat food,
domestic cats still have some of that wildcat need for a high calcium intake,
and don't get it from cooked bone products in standard cat foods. So Reg and I
installed freezers and a restaurant-grade meat-grinder, and made our monthly
trip to local meat wholesalers. (Today, with so much salmonella danger in
poultry, this type of raw grind might not be advisable.)
My domestic cats also got lots of exercise in
those big runs. l didn't believe in keeping show cats caged. Horse breeders
know that mares and colts need big pastures to run in. Human athletes know
that exercise promotes high bone density. There were a lot of light-boned show
cats around, and I was convinced they got that way because of little exercise
and a diet deficient in raw bone.
As a result, our show cats had a recognizable
"God," said one judge, as he thunked
one of my Somalis onto his table. "How do you get bone like this?"
He gently thunked the cat a few more times, so spectators could hear that
satisfying sound of a solid-boned cat's paws hitting the table-top.
Above all, I
laid out a 5-year breeding program. To succeed as a breeder, you have to be
honest with yourself about where you are, and where you want to go, and how
you're going to get there. And you can't spare the cost. It's no different
than trying to breed a horse that will win the Kentucky Derby. There aren't
any short cuts.
First I collected the best in existing Somali
bloodlines, and mixed them and matched them to see what happened.
I was after good outcrosses. Enough linebreeding
and inbreeding had already been done in the Abyssinian. Indeed, it was often
an Aby linebreeding or inbreeding that threw a Somali, because the two parent
cats were closely related and both carried the recessive longhair allele. In
my opinion, close breeding had resulted in a loss of vigor in the Abyssinian
itself, and by extension in the Somali. Livestock breeders favor outbreds,
because when you breed too close, you start seeing a rise in congenital
problems and a loss of vitality and good health. Here too, Mother Nature gave
the example -- She doesn't tolerate inbreeding in the wild.
The good ruddy color in Lynn-Lee cats
consistently bred true, and eventually I found the sire I was looking for.
This was Tir-Na-Nog's Grand Canyon, whose pedigree was heavy on Lynn-Lee. He
came to me light-boned and wispy from being caged by his previous owner. After
six months of wildcat living, he glowed with new energy and substance, and
went on to tie for SCCA Best Somali in 1978.
As for females, I had several good ones,
including J.R.R. Prairie Rose and Marron's Long 'N' Silky. But my best queen
came from Andrea Balcerski of Lapinchat Cattery. This bloodline was
characterized by a floating silky coat, not the heavy fleece-like coat seen on
some Somalis. The Lapinchat coat showed off that lithe Aby body without hiding
it, with long floating ear tufts and awesome tail brushes. The line also had
consistent clarity, color, and many-banded ticking. Andy had bred an
outstanding foundation Somali, Sammy Sun, and I told her I wanted a female as
good as Sammy. She sold me Lapinchat's Kat Dancer.
From Grand Canyon x Kat Dancer, I got a litter
of two show-quality males in September 1978. One of these males, Foxtail's
Golden West, was exported to Japan where he helped establish the breed. The
other, Foxtail's Rio Grande, had everything good from the old Somali lines,
all in one outgoing high-energy package.
But Somali breeders were looking to capture
genetic material from Aby "forbidden territory" as well. If we got
our hands on that, we could beat the best everywhere.
As it happened, the
leading Abyssinian breeders at that time, Carl Smith and Rita Rerat, owners of
Soketumi Cattery, had recently been won over to the Somali cause. Carl and
Rita owned Anshent-Won's Manani, and had shown him to CFA Best Cat and Best
Aby. Manani had sired Soketumi Samadari, who had just gone Best Cat/Best Aby.
This grand slam was a first in Aby history, as far as I know. To me, the
magnificent Manani, with his fiery ruddy color, ticking, clarity and type,
represented everything outstanding in the parent breed -- plus he had proven
ability to transmit good stuff to his offspring.
Carl and Rita happened to be friends of mine,
and offered me a stud service to Manani. I sent Kat Dancer over to their Long
Island cattery. Of the kittens from that mating, I kept a ruddy female
"shorthair Somali" named Foxtail Shoshone. Carl and Rita also had
some amazing red Abys, and offered to help me with a red Somali program. (At
that time, many red Somalis were not as good as our ruddies.) This was the
kind of support that, years ago, SCCA had only dreamed of.
Meanwhile, in May 1979, the
timing was perfect for Rio Grande. He had just turned 8 months old, ready for
the adult division, and CFA had just opened championship status to the Somali.
As I recall, Donna Davis was the first CFA judge who had the courage to make a
Somali her Best Cat. Best Cat! Music to our ears! We were in the big time now!
After neck-and-neck competition with Nephrani's
Kubla Khan, an outstanding cat bred by the Morrisons, Rio edged ahead,
becoming the first Somali to grand. Khan granded the following weekend.
Campaigning meant a grueling
schedule of shows every weekend. But Rio loved motel rooms. No cat I ever
showed was such a relaxed performer on the show table. Carl and Rita
encouraged me. So I decided to "go for the Derby," and campaigned
Rio with some royalty money from bestselling novels.
It went like this: You studied the show
schedule, entered two or three shows each weekend, then called the show
secretaries on Friday to see which show had the most champions entered. Then
off you went to the show where you had a chance of the most points. (Hopefully
you remembered to cancel any alternative motel and travel reservations you'd
made.) My driving limit to a show was 3 hours, and I drove a Vega station
wagon into the ground that year.
Farther than that, Rio and I
went by air. I would finish my Friday at the Reader's Digest, drive to Foxtail
to pick up Rio and show kit, then drive an hour to Kennedy or LaGuardia
Airport. From there I'd fly to Houston or Seattle or Louisville or Tampa or
wherever, then bathe and groom Rio in the motel room in the middle of the
night. Sometimes I arrived back at Foxtail at 7 a.m. Monday morning to drop
Rio off, shower and drive to work. Reg had fed my Somalis while I was gone.
At the end of that exciting 1979-80 season, with
a growing number of top judges putting Somalis up, and growing support among
top breeders, Somalis made a big sweep in their first year. Many Somalis made
all-breed and specialty wins. Now and then, I'd notice that happy look in
Evelyn Mague's eyes. Rio wound up Best CFA Somali and 19th Best CFA Cat...the
first Somali to make the national all-breed awards.
Me, I was exhausted and broke. In fact my cat
was in better shape than I was. But Foxtail's wall of rosettes looked like the
one back home at the ranch.
My dad was bemused. When I told him I'd just
sold a show kitten for $1000, he grinned wryly. The cattle market hadn't been
good, and he was getting 60 cents a pound for a 1000-pound steer. "Hell,
I'm in the wrong business," he said.
It was a truism that cat
fanciers averaged five years in the fancy. One exception was Evelyn Mague,
who'd been there since the Year 1 and was still going strong, with outstanding
cats like Lynn-Lee's Catfish. But June and Steve Negrycz had already eased
out, devoting themselves to Animal Farm, their new clothing business. Marge
Hoff and the Rauchs were no longer showing.
I had started in 1975 -- now it was 1980. The
breeding program was paying off. My Manani daughter, Shoshone, had been bred
to Grand Canyon, and produced a good litter. The one I had kept was Foxtail's
Big Sky had everything I'd been working to get.
As a kitten, at the National Cat Show in Madison Square Garden, he became the
first Somali ever to make a Best of the Best win, under Dick Gebhardt. By the
time Big Sky entered adult competition in the 1980-81 season and granded in
two shows, many people felt he would be a contender in the national awards
"Derby" that year.
But I suddenly had lost my enthusiasm for the
Animal breeding takes a lot of time, as well as
physical and emotional energy. I suddenly wanted to put that time and energy
into more books, not more show rosettes. About that time, Random House offered
me a lucrative contract to write a Western historical novel. My health was not
good (eventually I was diagnosed with Lyme disease.)
The choice was clear.
Norwegian Aby breeder Kate Reinert had written
me for a couple of years, telling me she hoped to buy my best cat. She got Gr.
Ch. Foxtail's Big Sky. While he was sitting out six months in a private
quarantine station that Kate built him, I was dispersing the rest of my
breeding stock. Rio Grande went to Debbie and Larry Ritter of Silamos Cattery,
who had been breeding some excellent cats. They showed Rio for a while as a
premier (he never failed to "work" the crowd.) By spring of 1981 --
right on schedule, five years from when I started -- I was out of showing.
Our Pawling property sold. Reg moved his
wildlife breeding operation (which now included rare birds) to a new property
at Carmel, N. Y. I went to California, and started writing the novel.
There were no regrets. I
got my health back, and wrote more books.
Now and then, cat news reached me in the book
world. Big Sky won all over Europe, and sired good kittens for Kate. Grand
Canyon became the first DM sire in the breed, and Shoshone the first DM dam.
In 1991, while I was in Colorado Springs for a writers conference, the Ritters
came to visit and brought 13-year-old Rio with them. He was creaky, but still
full of zip and charm. Finally, one day two years ago, an email message came
from Debbie. Subject: "My Best Cat." Even before I read it, I knew
that Rio had died, after a long life in a loving home.
Times have certainly changed. TICA has grown to
giant size. Growing veterinary sophistication, rising costs, new diseases and
congenital problems, zoning regulations, media coverage, the Internet, DNA
testing -- as well as paradigm shifts in how breeding and animal care are
perceived by the public --make today's cat fancy a different world from the
fancy I knew.
What hasn't changed is cat magic. It still pulls
me back now and then, to write about felines for different
publications...including the SBFA web site and Newsletters.
Hopefully no one is offended if they find their
names omitted from this brief memoir. It's not for lack of appreciation, just
lack of room. I'm happy to know of renewed interest in the Somali's early
history, and in the hard work and friendships that got our breed going in
those bygone days.
Copyright (c) 1999 by
Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved. v