American Curl – All You Should Know
One of the more interesting discoveries of the year 1981 was that of a pair of stray kittens with outward-curling ears. The kittens appeared on the doorstep of Grace and Joe Ruga, who eventually coaxed the young cats inside. One kitten ran away after being injured accidentally, but the other, named Shulamith by the Rugas, remained and became the matriarch of a new breed. In 1983 Shulamith and two of her grandchildren were exhibited at a Palm Springs, California cat show. By 1993 the Cat Fanciers’ Association had recognized the aptly-named American Curl.
American Curl 1981
What a seminal year was 1981. The black-footed ferret turned out not to be extinct; a group of Chinese scientists cloned the first fish, a golden carp; the IBM personal computer and the artificial sweetener aspartame were introduced to American culture; researchers determined that primates with testes that are large relative their owner’s size tend to be promiscuous; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discovered the AIDS virus; and a pair of stray, adolescent kittens with peculiar-looking ears showed up on the front doorstep of Joe and Grace Ruga’s condominium in Lakewood, California.
Parenthetical Expressions of American Curl Cat
Grace Ruga was 20 years old and seven months pregnant that day in June when the wayfaring kittens arrived at her condo. One was a black female with long hair. Her traveling companion, a black-and-white with a somewhat shorter coat, was presumed to be her litter sister. Ruga was not aware of the kittens’ presence until her husband, Joe, 24, who had discovered them outside after arriving home from work, told her about the youngsters and their unusual ears. Instead of standing upright the ears on these kittens curled inward, inclining toward each other like parentheses.
After telling Grace about the kittens, Joe suggested that even though they looked thin, it would not be a good idea to feed them. Grace set out some food and milk anyway. Not surprisingly the kittens were still there the next day, much like stray, hungry kittens have hovered near the dwellings of people who feed them since cats were first domesticated in Egypt 2,500 years ago. Once again Grace set out food for the kittens. This time she talked to them a while and was able to pet them. Before you could say, “I thought I asked you not to feed those kittens,” they had been invited inside.
A Shut-and-Open Case
Each night for about a week the kittens visited the Rugas, always asking to be let out after the evening’s pleasantries had concluded. One night as the Rugas were opening the door for the kittens, an errant blast of wind snatched the door and slammed in on the black-and-white kitten’s head, injuring her severely. No doubt confused, the kittens raced off and rebuffed the Rugas’ attempts to help them.
For the next few days the kittens remained in the area, but would not allow the Rugas to get too close; then, without preamble, the black kitten appeared at the front door, asking to come inside. When the door was opened, she marched over to Joe Ruga and climbed onto his shoulder. She never asked to go outside again. Considering her devotion to her black-and-white sister, the Rugas concluded that the latter must have died. They called their new cat Shulamith, a name they understood to be a variation on a Hebrew word that meant “black but comely.”
Shulamith’s newfound devotion to condo and hearth must have suffered at least one breach of security, for, on December 12, 1981, she delivered a litter of four kittens. Grace Ruga has written that those kittens were a black and white, a brown tabby, a lynx point, and a solid black. Other observers have written that the kittens’ father was a local boulevardier named Mr. Grey. Without going into enough genetic detail to bore anyone, we will simply observe that if Mr. Grey was entirely gray, not a gray tabby or a gray and white or a gray tabby and white, he couldn’t have been the father of the black-and-white or the brown-tabby kitten or, most likely, of the lynx point either. But what’s a little dual or multiple paternity among friends? The important fact about Shulamith’s litter is this: When the kittens were four days old, their ears began to mimic their mothers’ parenthetical bent.
Like 99.9-and-then-some percent of the American population, Joe and Grace Ruga were unschooled in the ways of the cat fancy. They assumed, therefore, that curled ears were not unique to Shulamith, her offspring or he recently departed sister. Indeed, Nature’s fondness for pranks being what it is, there probably had been other cats with curled ears born at other times in the history of the universe, but as of December 12, 1981, no one had recorded their names, much less thought that this particular genetic anomaly was the basis for launching a new breed of cat. After studying a number of pedigreed cat books, however, and not finding anything that resembled Shulamith and company, the Rugas began entertaining those very thoughts. As Grace Ruga later told the Los Angeles Times, “We wanted ordinary people like ourselves to be able to have a cat like this and show them.”
Making Ends Meat
1983 turned out to be another seminal year. The Apple corporation introduced the mouse and pull-down menus to computing; the first successful human-embryo transfers were performed; scientists working with a yeast created an artificial chromosome, and Nancy Kiester saw her first curled-ear cats.
Kiester, who owned a meat market, was one of the ordinary people whom Grace Ruga wanted to empower vis-a-vis owning and showing a curled-ear cat. One of Kiester’s clients was Ruga’s sister, Esther Brimelow, of Orange, California. Ruga had sent Shulamith’s brown-tabby kitten, a longhair female named Mercedes, to live with Brimelow. Kiester met Mercedes and her kittens in June of 1983 while making a delivery to Brimelow’s house.
“When I chanced upon Mercedes with her litter,” said Kiester, “I was hooked.” Two months later Brimelow gave Kiester a pair of curl kittens: a longhair, brown-mackerel-tabby female, which Kiester’s children named Princess Leah, and her short hair, brown-spotted-tabby litter brother, whom the children named, what else? Master Luke.
If Nancy Kiester had been hooked by curls when she first saw Mercedes, by the time she got her kittens she “had gone cat crazy,” she said. “What had been a flash of an idea had become a steady, burning desire to see this new breed established.”
Shortly after she had gotten her kittens, Kiester, who had bred and shown Australian shepherds for a time, read an article about Scottish folds in the Orange County Register. If folds, whose signature, downward-bending ears are the result of a genetic mutation, had achieved pedigreed status, why couldn’t there be room in the cat fancy for another cat whose ears are the product of a genetic misdial? She called Grace Ruga, and they decided to put Shulamith and her grandchildren Luke and Leah on exhibition at a cat show in Palm Springs, California, on October 23. This would be the first show for all concerned.
No Purebreds Need to Apply
The response to the curled-ear cats’ debut “was warm and wonderful,” Kiester wrote the following year. “Since then Joe, Grace and I have attended a number of shows; and with the help of a very dear and knowledgeable breeder of Scottish folds, Jean Grimm, we established a proposed breed standard (see sidebar).” They also settled upon a name for this new breed — the American Curl.
Most significant of all, they decided that the only allowable outcrosses for curls would be non-pedigreed domestic cats that approximated the curl’s breed standard, which had been written with Shulamith in mind. By eliminating pedigreed cats from participation in this project the foremothers and fathers of the American curl wisely maximized genetic diversity in their cats and minimized the chances of perpetuating the sort of inherited diseases that plague some existing breeds.
Despite the “warm and wonderful” reception given curls at shows, Kiester thought at first that it would be a cold day in Southern California before they were accepted for championship competition. She told the Portland Oregonian in September 1984 that acceptance by the Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA), the largest of the many cat-registering bodies in North America, was probably 10 years in the future. She was off by a year. CFA recognized curls in 1993. Within six months of her prediction, however, The International Cat Association (TICA) accepted curls for registration, and in September 1985, TICA granted curls championship status. Never before or since has a breed of cat climbed the charts so quickly. Not quite five years had elapsed between the birth of the first curl litter and the breed’s enshrinement as a pedigreed variety.
“I think,” enthused the late TICA judge Don Shaw at the time, “that the American curl is the most exciting event that has happened in the cat fancy in recent years.”
For her part, Grace Ruga saw a higher purpose in the curl’s success. “God created the cats,” she declared. “We’re just the press agents for them.”
The Building Code of Américan Curl Cats
But for its unique ears, there is no cat that more resembles the alley cats and barn cats with whom we are so familiar than does the American Curl. And for good reason. Shulamith, the matriarch of this breed, was a free-roaming, black longhair of mixed and unknown heritage, and the pedigrees of all American curls must lead to Shulamith. What’s more, the persons who framed the American curl breed standard decreed that only non-pedigreed cats could be used in curl breeding programs — a restriction that will be phased out in 2010, after which only curls or their straight-ear relatives may be used to perpetuate this breed.
The American curl has a rectangular body that is, ideally, one and one-half times as long as the cat is tall at the shoulder. Not too torqued and not too flabby, the curl should exhibit a medium depth of chest and flank. The curl’s head, temperately longer than it is wide, forms a modified wedge without flat planes. The nose, too, is somewhat longer than it is wide; the eyes are moderately large and walnut- shaped, oval on top, round on the bottom, and set on a slight angle.
The curl’s ears, moderately large and set as much on the top as on the side of the head, should exhibit no less than a 90-degree arc of curl and no more than a 180-degree arc. The ear cartilage is firm from the base of the ear to a distance of at least 1/3 of the ear’s height. Wide and open at the base, the ears should curve back in a smooth arc. The ear tips are rounded and flexible.
Curls are available with semi-long or short hair. Longhair curls have fine, silky, flat-lying coats with minimal undercoats. The coat on a shorthair curl is also fine, silky and flat-lying.
Personality Profile of American Curl Cat
American curl fanciers report that curls are “very people oriented” and that they “delight in bumping heads with their owners or new human acquaintances.” In addition, curls are intelligent, even-tempered, adoptable cats that adjust diligently to “almost any situation” and to other animals as well.
In its February 10, 1990, edition Science News reported, “In analyzing data on 81 [American curl] litters (383 kittens), Roy Robinson of the St. Stephens Road Nursery in London, England, has confirmed that the ear-curling gene is autosomal dominant. That means any cat with even one copy of the gene will show the trait.”
Autosomal indicates that the gene causing a cat’s ears to curl is carried on a nonsex chromosome. A sex chromosome, since you asked, is one that is inherited differently in males and females and “is the seat of factors governing the inheritance of various sex-linked and sex-limited characters.” Dominant also means that if a cat with one copy of the curl gene (i.e., a cat that is said to be heterozygous for the curl trait) is bred to a straight-ear cat, half the kittens, on average, will have curled ears. If two heterozygous curls are bred together, three-quarters of the kittens, again on average, will have curled ears; and one of those three kittens will be homozygous for curled ears (i.e., will possess two copies for the curl gene). Homozygous curls, in addition to being free of the skeletal deformities that bedevil homozygous Scottish folds and the myriad of problems that afflict homozygous Manx, will produce nothing but curled-ear kittens no matter what the arrangement of the ears on the cats to whom they are bred.
When curls are born, their ears are straight. Within two to 10 days the ears of kittens that are going to curl begin to show that inclination. As a kitten is maturing, its ears will gradually curl and uncurl in varying degrees and are not permanently set until the kitten is roughly 4 months of age.
- 1 American Curl – All You Should Know