Bengal Cat, Leopard in Your Lap
Ernest Hemingway – a celebrated patron of domestic cats with Bengal Cat, though a frequent despoiler of other species – was asked one evening in a cafe in Malaga, Spain, why, in light of his devotion to hunting, he was always photographed with cats instead of dogs. “Don’t you realize,” said Hemingway, “that the fireside tabby is merely a shrunken lion without a mane?”
Courtesy of Quarto Bengal Cat
Hemingway’s imagination, perhaps, enabled him to read between the stripes and to see the lion that paces the cage within every house cat, but other cat fanciers have earnestly wished that domestic cats could look more like their wild counterparts, thereby taking the imagination out of being close. This desire to get next to the beauty – if not the beastliness – of an exotic species is the chief reason for the creation of spotted domestic breeds, clever knockoffs in fur that are spot-on re-creations of their free-roaming type sakes.
Cat spotting with Bengal cat
Currently, there are four handmade spotted domestic cats: the Bengal cat, the California spangle cat, the ocicat and the Savannah. (A fifth spotted breed, the Egyptian Mau, is naturally occurring.) Three of those breeds – the Mau, the ocicat and the Bengal cat – have been accepted for championship competition by various cat associations. Of those three accepted breeds, the Bengal cat is the only one whose relationship with its wild counterparts is more than skin deep. Developed by Jean Mill of Covina, California, the Bengal cat includes a dash of Asian leopard cat blood among its ingredients.
Mill, now 72, left Des Moines, Iowa, more than 50 years ago to attend Pomona College in California. She earned a degree in psychology and then took several graduate classes in genetics at UC Davis. By 1948 she was one of three breeders in the United States and Canada who were working, unbeknownst to one another, to develop the Himalayan cat, a longhair breed that combines the confirmation of the Persian with the coloration of the Siamese.
Mill, whose surname was Sugden at the time, bought an Asian leopard cat or Bengal Cat (Felis bengalensis) in 1963 when they could still be acquired at some pet shops. She was living with her first husband then on a cattle ranch in Yuma, Arizona. She soon realized that the leopard cat was out of sorts for being out of its natural habitat, which extends from India eastward into China and down through the Malaysian Peninsula.
“She was lonely,” Mill told one reporter, “so I put a black tomcat in there so she would have a little company.”
The leopard cat got over her loneliness long enough to produce a litter of kittens. Mill kept a spotted female from that union and eventually bred that female back to its father, which breeding produced spotted and solid-color cats. Mill’s husband died in 1965, however, and she had to leave the ranch. She gave the leopard cat to a zoo and moved to an apartment in Pomona, California.
Second Time Around Bengal Cat
In 1975, Mill re-married. Her engineer husband, Bob Mill, owned a one-acre horse property in the Covina Hills. Eventually, Jean was once again seeing spotted cats before her eyes. The bulk of her foundation stock – eight females out of crosses between leopard cats and domestic shorthairs (all males from such first-generation crosses are sterile) – was provided by Dr. Willard Centerwall, a pediatrician and geneticist at the University of California at Davis. Centerwall had been studying the leopard cats’ natural resistance to feline leukemia. Leopard cats, one breeder explained, “lack a feline-leukemia genome in their DNA structure, which makes them less susceptible to feline leukemia than domestic cats are.”
Having suddenly become the headmistress of a feline boarding school, Jean Mill set about finding a suitable escort for her charges. She “haunted all 32 shelters” in the Greater Los Angeles area for a year in search of a sturdy, sweet-tempered, domestic shorthair male, preferably a brown-spotted tabby with no white in his coat. (Given the number of females in her care, sturdy was the operative word in this description.)
On a visit to a zoo in Delhi, India, in 1980, Mill spotted a feral, orange domestic cat with deep brown rosettes that lived in the rhinoceros compound and earned its keep as a ratter. Mesmerized by the cat’s beauty – and mindful that any young male that hung out with rhinos wouldn’t be intimidated by eight calling females – Mill later wrote to an official at the zoo who agreed to ship the cat to the United States. There it was assisted in its new employment by a brown-spotted-tabby, domestic shorthair male that Mill had subsequently found in a shelter in Los Angeles.
Into the Fold
In 1983, just eight years after Jean Mill had begun working with Bengals again, the breed was accepted for registration by The International Cat Association (TICA), and eight years after that TICA became the first cat registry in North America to grant the Bengal cat championship status. That recognition was made after TICA’s genetics committee was satisfied that the Bengal cat is indistinguishable on a cellular level from domestic cats and that it exhibits a normal sterility profile. TICA further requires that all Bengals in the show ring be the products of at least three generations of Bengal-to-Bengal breedings. (The Bengal has also earned championship status in the United Feline Organization, the American Cat Fanciers Association, and the Canadian Cat Association.)
Wherever Bengals are exhibited they draw reverent oooohs and aaaaahs and, invariably, two critical questions. The first concerns temperament. Inquiring minds want to know if a genetic recipe containing as much as one-eighth wild blood isn’t a recipe for disaster. The answer is no. Just as one-eighth of a teaspoonful of cayenne pepper adds sprightliness to a dish without inflicting third-degree burns on the tongue, the Asian leopard cat’s influence on the Bengal’s personality is invigorating, but in no way a threatening, presence. Or, as one writer has observed, although Bengals “look a little bit like something you should approach with a whip and a chair. They act like they just oozed out of a … self-help workshop, all sweetness, and cuddles.”
The second question – regarding differences between Bengals and the two spotted breeds already in championship classes, the mau, and the ocicat – elicits a more complex answer. To begin, the spots on the three breeds are distributed differently: The mau’s in a random fashion; the ocicat’s in a pattern that subtly suggests the classic tabby configuration, and the Bengal’s in a horizontal alignment. There are equally distinguishing color and conformational differences, too, which space and a disinclination to leave the Gentle Reader going around in circles preclude an explication of here.
The Building Code of Bengal Cat
The Bengal cat is a medium to large, sleek, muscular cat – males weigh 10 to 18 pounds, while females are slightly smaller – whose hind-quarters are somewhat higher than its shoulders. The Bengal cat has a broad, modified-wedge-shaped head with rounded contours. Longer than it is wide and a trifle small in proportion to the cat’s body, the Bengal’s head is accented by a large, wide nose with a slight concave curve, high cheekbones, and prominent whisker pads. The Bengal’s ears are medium-small, short, with a wide base and rounded tips. The cat’s eyes are large and oval in shape, though a slight almond shape is also allowed.
A long, thick, muscular neck joins the Bengal’s head to its long, substantial body, which is characterized by heavy bone and considerable muscle. The Bengal’s coat, which is short to medium in length, thick luxurious, and unusually soft to the touch, may display a variety of colors and patterns.
The spotted pattern is distinguished by spots that are randomly or horizontally aligned. Rosettes are preferred to single spotting but not mandatory.
The marbled pattern, though derived from the classic tabby gene, should betray as little of that pattern as possible. Instead, the marble pattern should be as random as real marble, ideally with a horizontal flow when the cat is stretched out. A vertically striped mackerel influence is not desirable.