American Wirehair, Cat Breed Twist and Sprout
In March 5, 1966, a red-and-white male with a sparse, wiry coat, whose every hair was crimped, coiled and springy, even its whiskers, was discovered among an otherwise normal litter of six kittens on Council Rock farm in Verona, New York. This kitten’s parents, Bootsie, and Fluffy by name were standard issue domestic shorthairs.
Therefore Nathan Mosher, the proprietor of Council Rock farm, who was known around Verona for breeding bulls and for having shipped a prize-winning bull to South America, was aware from the start that he had an unusual kitten in his caboodle.
Bull Market Purchase of American Wirehair
Within weeks word of Mosher’s kitten reached Joan O’Shea, who lived in nearby Vernon. O’Shea bred Siamese, Havana browns and rex. She also wrote for a local newspaper and had made news herself a few years earlier when she imported the first German rex male into the United States.
“I got this phone call from a friend,” said O’Shea, “who told me there was a cat, ‘just like the ones you have,’ down on Mosher’s farm. So I went to see what it was.”
What it was, O’Shea recalled, was a different breed of cat; yet even though she was intrigued by this long-legged, crinkle-coated fellow and “wanted to find out what made him different,” Nathan Mosher wasn’t about to part with the cat.
“It took me two or three weeks to talk Nathan out of the cat,” said O’Shea. “He wanted to keep the cat because it was different. I tried to explain that this cat was as important to the cats in the United States as Nathan’s bull was to the cows in South America.”
After considerable persuasion and $50 cash on the barrelhead, O’Shea went home with the kitten, who was about 10 weeks old by then. She named him Council Rock Farm Adam of Hi-Fi.
According to some written reports, O’Shea also went home with Adam’s straight-coated litter sister, a brown-tabby-and-white named Tip-Toe, but Shea denied this report.
“All the other kittens in Adam’s litter had been killed by a weasel,” she explained. “That’s why the Moshers finally decided to let me take Adam. They thought it was prophetic that he hadn’t been killed, too.”
If Adam didn’t have any surviving siblings, then did O’Shea acquire a brown-tabby-and-white female, as some writers have claimed? In a manner of speaking.
“That was the Lynches’ cat,” said O’Shea. “Only it wasn’t a brown-tabby-and- white.” It was a calico that the Lynches, who was O’Shea’s neighbors, had gotten for their daughter, Suzanne, from Nathan Mosher not long after O’Shea had acquired Adam.
One day when the Lynches were on vacation, O’Shea noticed their cat, who was supposed to have been kept indoors by the Lynches’ son in their absence, wandering around her yard. The cat appeared to be saying, “‘I want a date,'” O’Shea reported, “so I invited her inside to meet Adam,” who was by then a little more than a year old.
O’Shea never said anything to the Lynches about the tryst, but approximately nine weeks later she got a call from Suzanne Lynch’s father, Doug. “I think you better come over,” he began. “There’s something wrong with Suzanne’s cat.”
“By the time I arrived, the cat had already had one kitten,” O’Shea chuckled. “Doug said to me,
“I think there’s some hanky-panky going on. This kitten looks just like that male cat you have.’
“I said, ‘Not to worry Doug, I’ll buy them all.'”
At least she bought the two curly coated kittens, red-and-white females whom she named Aby and Amy. The kittens she didn’t buy both had straight coats.
By the time Adam became a father, O’Shea had sent samples of his hair to A.G. Searle and Roy Robinson, British geneticists. Robinson replied that Adam’s hair samples were unique and that he wasn’t related to either of the rex mutations – the Cornish Rex and the Devon Rex – with which some breeders were working at the time. All three types of Adam’s hairs – down, awn and guard – were twisted. In addition, the awn hairs, intermediate in length among the three, were hooked at the tip. Though the Devon Rex possesses all three types of hairs, they are so foreshortened that they resemble down hairs (the shortest kind). The Cornish Rex, meanwhile, lacks guard hairs entirely (the longest type).
Because the Lynches’ cat, like Adam, was a graduate of Mosher’s farm, O’Shea couldn’t be certain that the two cats were not related. Therefore she couldn’t tell from the coat type distribution among Adam’s offspring whether the wirehair gene was dominant or recessive. When Adam was subsequently bred to an unrelated domestic shorthair, he produced three wirehaired kittens and one normal-coated youngster. This suggested that the wirehair gene is a simple dominant because there was little chance the unrelated female was carrying a recessive wirehair gene.
Acceptance Beckoning, American Wirehair
Adam’s daughter Aby died when she was about 5 months old. Her litter sister Amy went to live with Bill and Madeline Beck in Towson, Maryland. In August 1997 Bill Beck petitioned the Cat Fanciers’ Association’s (CFA’s) board of directors to accept wirehairs for registration. His petition was granted the following month, and the wirehair was on its way to becoming the first natural mutation originating in the United States to gain acceptance as a pedigreed breed.
Although the Becks were instrumental in obtaining registration status for wirehairs, the couple’s first love was the rex; and so they did not work with wirehairs for long, nor did O’Shea. Not long after Adam had died of cystitis, which was “around 1970,” O’Shea later recalled, she ended her involvement with the breed. (Adam had sired only three litters before he died.)
By this time, however, Rosemonde Peltz, M.D., had acquired Amy and her daughter, Barberry Ellen, from the Becks; and Bob Bradshaw, a CFA judge, had acquired a son of Adam from O’Shea. Thanks to the efforts of Peltz and Bradshaw, American wirehairs were accepted for championship competition by CFA in 1978. The breed is currently accepted by all the major cat registries in North America.
The Straight and Narrow
“In retrospect,” said Joan O’Shea nearly 20 years after she had stopped breeding American wirehairs, “I wish I had worked with the breed longer because I’m afraid they’re going to become extinct.”
The wirehair’s prospects have improved slightly in the meantime. In 1999 CFA registered 68 new wirehairs, a 13 percent increase over the preceding year. Nevertheless, the wirehair still ranked only 33rd among the 37 breeds registered by CFA.
“I never understood why they didn’t become more popular,” said Bill Beck. “They certainly are distinctive.” But less distinctive than they once were, he noted.
“The breed has gotten away from the original type. The early cats – particularly Amy and Adam – had large, prominent ears and almond-shaped eyes. The wirehair [breed] represented more than a coat modification. It was a total type modification as well, but a lot of wirehairs have just a little spinal crimping and a little another crimping here and there. The early cats, by comparison, were totally crisp. There wasn’t a straight hair on them. You could see the skin on many of them.”
According to Beck, the wirehair “evolved into an American type cat. The early wirehairs didn’t look like Americans at all. If anything, they resembled heavy-boned rex: very tall, very high on the legs, long-tailed. Amy used to carry her tail in a question mark like a rex. She had huge, open ears, a very pronounced muzzle break, and a strong stop. There was nothing about her that said American shorthair. Absolutely nothing. I hated to see that type lost.”
“The wires deserve to be more popular,” adds one breeder. “They’re easy to care for; they’re very sweet, and there are no genetic problems associated with this breed.”
Whatever the reason for their fitful growth, one hopes that wirehairs do not share the fate of Nathan Mosher’s farm, which is not even in the family any longer.