The Briman All About Cat Breed
According to legend, the Birman (Sacred Cat of Burma) was revered in its native land because people there believed that the souls of departed priests returned to their country’s temples in the guise of pure-white Birman cats. One of the temples where the sacred cats lived was Lao-Tsun in western Burma between China and India. Built centuries ago by the Khmer, descendants of the aboriginal inhabitants of Cambodia, this temple was dedicated to the worship of a golden goddess with sapphire-blue eyes named Tsun-Kyan-Kse, who presided over the transmutation of souls. Among the goddess’ most ardent disciples was a priest named Mun-Ha, who knelt in nightly adoration before her statue. Always at Mun-Ha’s side while he prayed was a sacred cat named Sinh.
Photograph by Isabelle Francais
One otherwise tranquil night marauders from Siam overran the temple of Lao-Tsun and murdered Mun-Ha. Sinh stood up at once and planted his front paws on Mun-Ha’s head, facing the statue of Tsun-Kyan-Kse. As Sinh stood over his fallen master, a wondrous transformation occurred. Sinh’s coat reflected the golden glow radiating from the statue of Tsun-Kyan-Kse. His yellow eyes turned a deep, sapphire blue; and his legs shone with a brown-velvet radiance — except for his feet, which remained sparkling white, a symbol of the purity of Mun-Ha’s soul. By the next morning, all the cats in the temple had been miraculously transformed, too. The faithful Sinh remained at Mun-Ha’s side for seven days before joining his master in death.
In Reality Briman Breeder
As one Birman breeder has observed, the legend of Sinh “fails to explain the exact scientific origins of the Sacred Cat of Burma.” Unfortunately, history doesn’t do a much better job. In all probability, the soulmates that joined forces to create the Birman were Siamese cats and long hair, bicolored Angoras. The formerly contributed genes for blue eyes and dark markings on the extremities, while the Angoras contributed genes for long hair and white spotting that’s confined to the feet and hind legs. It is futile, however, to speculate whether the Siamese-Angora combination — if it was, indeed, the one that produced the Birman — was organized intentionally or whether it resulted from the free-range mingling of those cats in an isolated geographical setting. Whatever the Birman’s parent breeds might have been — and wherever they might have fraternized — they had to have been carrying genes for point color, blue eyes, low-grade white spotting, and long hair.
Like the legend of Sinh, accounts of the arrival of the first Birmans in Western Europe begin with attacks on Burmese temples, this time in the early 20th century. Many priests died in those attacks, but others managed to escape to Tibet, taking some of the temple cats with them.
Two Europeans who were traveling in Asia at the time — August Pavie and Major Gordon Russell, a British officer — were sent a pair of temple cats in 1919 upon returning to France. Maldapour, the male cat, did not survive the journey from Burma; but Sita, the female, gave birth to kittens soon after arriving in France. According to some versions of this story a temple priest sent Maldapour and Sita to Russell because he had helped several priests and sacred cats to escape from the temple of Lao-Tsun into Tibet.
In a variation on this theme, a shadowy figure referred to as “a Mr. Vanderbilt” obtained the sacred cats “for a price of gold” from a greedy servant who had stolen them from the temple. Although neither of these “histories” mentions what became of Sita after she had delivered her kittens in France, it is reasonable to assume that those kittens — including a perfectly marked daughter named Poupee — were the foundation stock used to create the Birman breed in France.
A third account of the Birman’s arrival in France was presented in an article in the 1969 Cat Fanciers’ Association Yearbook. Verner E. Clum, the author of that piece, claimed to have “a magazine dated 1927 Le Monde Felin, in which there is a picture of a Mme. Marcelle Adam, first importer of [the Birman] breed in France in 1925.” Mme. Adam’s cattery name, incidentally, was Maldapour, and she was president of the Federation Feline Francaise.
Clum’s research appeared to have settled the issue, but in her next paragraph, she recounted the Major Russell story without bothering to say which of the two individuals — Mme. Adam or Major Russell — was truly the first Birman importer. (In order for Mme. Adam to merit that distinction, she had to have been persuasive because in 1925, the year she is alleged to have brought the first Birmans to France, the breed was recognized for championship competition.)
Though Birmans weren’t prolific, they prospered well enough until World War II. After the war, however, only a handful of Birmans stood between the continued improvement of the breed and its extinction. By dint of judicious outcrossing with other breeds, the sacred cat was re-established in France by 1955. This process was accelerated, one suspects, by the introduction of colorpoint longhairs to Birman breeding programs.
The first pair of sacred cats arrived in the United States in 1959. By the mid-1960s the breed began to be accepted for championship competition, and about that time its name was changed first to Burman and then to Birman. Today the Birman is not only recognized by every cat association in North America but also ranks among the most popular cats. In 1998 the Birman was ninth among the 37 breeds registered by the Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA). The Birman’s 896 new registrations that year, however, represented an 11 percent decrease from the preceding year. This decline mirrored that of pedigreed cats across the board. Total CFA registrations fell 6 percent from 1997 to 1998 — the eighth straight year that pedigreed registrations have been in free fall.
The Building Code Lacing on the Gloves
The Birman is a pointed breed — one whose face, ears, legs, tail, and feet are a different color from the rest of its body. Like other pointed cats, the Birman is identified by its point color. A seal point Birman, for example, has a dark brown face, ears and so on. A blue point Birman has a blue face.
Seal, blue, chocolate and lilac (sometimes called frost) point Birmans are accepted in all associations. Additional point colors – red, cream, tortie, lynx, etc. – are accepted by some but not all associations.
Besides being pointed the Birman is a mitted cat, i.e., its feet are white. They are not, however, white in any haphazard fashion. The Birman’s feet are categorically white, and the two categories into which that white is divided are known as gloves, which occur on all four feet, and laces, which are found only on the hind feet.
The gloves on the front paws should end in an even line that crosses the paws at or between the second or third joints. (If you’re not intimately familiar with cats‘ feet, the third joint is the place where the paw bends when the cat is standing.) What’s more, the gloves should extend no farther than the metacarpal (dew) pad, located midway up the back of the front paw, above the third joint and just below the wrist bones. Of course, “symmetry of the front gloves is desirable,” the Birman breed standard declares.
The gloves on the back paws should cover the entire toe and may extend somewhat higher than the front gloves. Symmetry, nevertheless, should also be sought in the rear gloves.
The Birman’s back paws are also decorated with laces — extensions of the gloves that stretch partway up the back of the hock. Each lace should end, symmetrically, in a point or inverted “V” one half to three-quarters of the way up the hock. Lower or higher laces are acceptable, but in no case should they extend beyond the hock.
Cats with perfect gloves and laces are rare. Whether or not Birman breeders assert that divine intervention played any role in the origins of the Birman, they all acknowledge that divine intercession is needed to come up with perfectly defined gloves and laces. One cannot easily predict which kittens in a litter will pass the white-gloves-and-laces test.
“Birmans are born pure white,” one Birman breeder explains. “The color on the extremities comes in first. Then you wait for the gloves and laces to appear. And you do a lot of praying.” Which is how, come to think of it, the Birman legend begins.
Personality Profile of Briman
Although Birmans are a placid, gentle race whose serenity rivals that of the Dalai Lama, they are as capable as the next cat of pulling the occasional caper — wind surfing or spelunking for example. Hershey, a windsurfing Birman, lives in New Zealand with Ann and Robert Lang. One evening last January their daughter’s boyfriend left the Langs’ house to attend a fly-fishing course. He arrived at his destination a brisk 20 minutes later, got out of his car, and wondered why people were staring at him. Then he heard a cat meowing. He turned around and there was Hershey sitting on the roof of his Nissan Patrol.
Hugo, a spelunking Birman, lives in Kilwinning, Scotland, with Eileen Kennedy, her 7-year-old son, Jack, and her 16-year-old daughter, Laura. When a workman was laying new tiles in Kennedy’s kitchen, Hugo decided to have a look under the floorboards. His visit was extended after the workman had replaced the floorboards, trapping Hugo below deck.
When Kennedy came home from work later that day, she sensed something was wrong because Hugo wasn’t there to greet her. Then she, Jack and Laura heard Hugo meowing from under the floor. They went into the living room, and the meowing followed them. They stepped into the hallway, and the meowing did also.
Kennedy called the workman at once. He rushed over and cut up the kitchen floor with an electric saw. After he had made a large enough opening, Kennedy called Hugo, “and all of a sudden we saw this wee head pop up with big sad eyes.”
As Hershey and Hugo displayed in their adversities, Birmans possess a wonderfully balanced temperament and an unruffled serenity. Their intelligence and curiosity are wrapped in an endearing sweetness. Their soft voice and delicate touch are tokens of a self-possession that borders on the spiritual. If the souls of departed priests do, indeed, return to this world, there is no better breed to serve as their earthly host than the Birman.