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About Persians and Angoras

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( Originally Published 1936 )



In the beginning there were Persian cats, brought to Europe and America from Smyrna and other ports on the Oriental coast, and Angora cats, from the mountainous Turkish province of Angora. The Persians had silky, uniformly long and abundant coats, and broad heads; the Angoras had narrow heads, and their hair was longest on the stomach, pendent like that of the goats of their native country.

Interbreeding has made the two one, and the official term is now "long-haired cat." Round heads, wide-set eyes, firm legs, cobby bodies, and long, fine, even hair have been the objectives of most breeders, and it is the Persian characteristics that are strongest in the best long-hairs today. The narrow Angora head is considered a blemish and is seen only in the poorer specimens of the breed.

The captains and crews of trading vessels that plied between the Orient and our Atlantic ports brought the first long-haired cats to this country. They throve best in Maine, probably because of the cold climate, and today in Boothbay Harbor and other Maine coast towns long-hairs are as common as short-hairs are in most parts of the United States. They are known as Maine coon cats, and there is a legend that the Adam and Eve of the tribe were brought here by a certain Captain Coon and got the name from him; but I have not been able to run Captain Coon's record to earth. The generally accepted theory is that some old Maine farmer who saw an animal with a broad head and a bushy tail in his poultry yard and at first supposed it to be a raccoon but found it was a cat, first gave the name.

But these coon cats were never show stock. The marvelous, proud, long-haired beauties who take awards in American shows were mostly imported (they or their progenitors) from England by breeders. In the Mauve Decade and the early part of this century the cat vogue flourished in England and Scotland; and the Champion family, Miss Elsie G. Hydon, Miss Evelyn Langston, and other scientific breeders produced some fine Persian blues, chinchillas, silvers, tabbies, and other varieties of the long-haired cat. Some of these breeders emigrated to the United States with their cats; Americans took up breeding, sales increased, cat societies sprang up, shows multiplied . . . . and then came the World War, and put an end to this, as to so many pleasant things.

It is only in recent years that the interest in cats in England and America has begun to revive, and there is little pecuniary gain in breeding them now. People have not the money they once had to pay for pedigreed animals, and it costs money, in stock, in overhead, in care, and in food, to raise thoroughbred cats. It is fortunate that there are breeders who are true cat-lovers and are content to work for small profits because they do love their cats and take delight in developing the best.

And there never were Persians like those of today. Even Miss Carroll Macy's King Winter, the grand chinchilla who was the sensation of cat shows twenty-odd years ago (I can still see him sitting royally in his silk-lined cage with his hundreds of trophies from former shows for a background)-even he would probably go down, in a battle of points, before some of the champions exhibited now.

The story of experiments in pigmentation, of controlled matings by which the many colors and shades of colors of long-haired cats have been developed, is too long to be told here. Of all the colors the blues are by far the most popular. I do not know how they started, but Mr. C. A. House, a veteran English judge of cats, suggests in his book, Our Cats and J11 about Them, that they derive from Russian blues, cats with thick short fur, like plush, that were first brought to England from Archangel by sailors. Harrison Weir, the artist, who wrote the first cat book (I believe) and got up the first cat show (it was in the Crystal Palace in London more than half a century ago) declared that the blues were just a variant of the blacks. The earlier blues had a dark streak along the spine, but the fanciers worked hard to eliminate this and produced the true, even, lavender blue which is the ideal today.

I love the blues, I suppose because mine were blues; they had the same grandfather that Miss Hydon's first American cats had-Siegfried, a magnificent male raised by Miss Shirley Turner and Miss Elsie Bunker on the Bunker farm in Merrick, Long Island, where my cats now lie in a wood beside the pond where Siegfried took occasional swims in hot weather. Siegfried went to California, and is buried there, but his descendants are many in the land. He was a brave cat, but very fatherly, not at all above tending baby kittens when their mother went gallivanting.

But Siegfried's title to excellence was not so much in his coat, though that was very fine, as in his build and expression. Fine coats do not always make fine cats, and a Persian with beautiful hair may be inferior in bone formation. In choosing a Persian kitten one should remember that the important points are the massive build and the sweet expression which properly set eyes give to a good long-hair.

Many people think that Persians are lofty and indifferent, and they do often seem that way in shows, but who would not? We would be bored and haughty if we were set up in cages with an endless procession of cats walking by us, making personal remarks about us, carrying us to and fro to judge our points. It is an evidence of the amiability of cats that they so seldom go berserk in shows.

There is an impression, too, that Persians are delicate and rather lazy, that they are not good mousers, that they are like the lilies of the field that toil not. But I have found that Persians have hearts that are just as stout, under their fluffy attire, as that of any short-haired alley cat. It may be that their digestion requires special care, but my long-hairs were no more susceptible to disease than my short-hairs. Of course a Persian hobo does look a wretched creature, just as a two-legged downand-outer whose clothes came originally from Bond Street or Fifth Avenue looks more forlorn than one in overalls or a Mother Hubbard.

The few Persian strays I have known showed good stuff. Take Black Pussy. On a sleety day two winters ago Robert Claiborne, a New Yorker who likes cats, picked up a draggled, emaciated one on Third Avenue and took him home. He was indeed almost at the last gasp, but he was not whining; he faced adversity with head unbowed. Washed and brushed, fed and petted, he bloomed out into a handsome, urbane Persian, sinking gratefully into the lap of luxury. I suppose he was returning to his original cycle. Then came another cycle. Mr. Claiborne sailed for the Virgin Islands and took Black Pussy along. Armed with a clean bill of health from the Speyer Hospital, the cat passed quarantine and took up his duties with his master's firm, the Virgin Islands Fruit Products Company in St. Thomas.

There were huge rats in the warehouse. Black Pussy cleared them out, and a sight it was to see him, with his tail like a plume, bringing down a rat almost as large as himself. Then he sought other game. No lizard or crab was too much for him, and once he killed a ten-inch centipede and brought it home. His cache was the top step of an old stone stairway, and there was quite a fuss when one of the negroes stepped barefooted on the centipede. But no negro dared molest Black Pussy, and in his favorite post, mounted on a sea wall near the warehouse entrance watching for crabs, he is a most effective watchcat.

He still hunts, and he has taken up sailing, though he does not try to handle the boat; he prefers to sit in the prow like a figurehead. He is fully aware of his decorative value. He lies for hours in the green caverns of the brushing coconut palms on a terraced roof, as if he knew he could not find a better background for his ebony self. I had an S O S from Black Pussy's master recently. The cat was indisposed, owing to eating lizards, which are not good for cats. I immediately mailed medicine, and though at first he retreated up a spreading grapevine to avoid it, he capitulated, came down, took his pill, and recovered.

Black Pussy is quite a conversationalist. He has a whole lexicon of miews, one for every occasion. His behavior and his life are a complete proof that a Persian can be just as intelligent and as capable as any short-haired cat that ever lived.