Invasion of the cat people isn't so terrible, after all

January 15, 2001|By Kevin Cowherd

LOOK AT you now, in the belly of the beast, and you can feel the panic rising in your gut.

You are not the sort of person who attends cat shows. And yet here you are at the Mason-Dixon Cat Fanciers annual 'do, 325 cats and 167 exhibitors from all over the country spread out across the polished floor of the Essex Community College phys ed center.

Three thousand miles away, the Ravens are preparing for a football holy war with the Oakland Raiders. But you, you're spending a morning with cats . . . and cat people. Row after row after row of cat people sitting in front of curtained cages primping their cats, cuddling their cats, kissing their cats, showing their cats, talking baby-talk to their cats. ("Does Fweddie wuv Mommy? Mommy wuvs Fweddy!")

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My God, who knew there were this many breeds of cats! Siamese, Burmese, Persians, Japanese bobtails, Abyssinians, Maine coons, Birmans, Scottish Folds, long-haired cats, short-haired cats, cats with no ears, cats with no tails, ugly cats, cute cats, all awaiting their turn in the six judging rings.

On the periphery of all this are vending booths displaying all manner of cat-related products: cat gift bags, cat stationary, cat foods, cat vitamins, cat toys, cat Odor Blasters, cat scratching posts, cat sweatshirts ("I'm a cat Purr-son." "Have a mice day!")

It's all too much. You can feel yourself getting lightheaded now, your heart beating like a tom-tom, on the verge of hyperventilating.

Then you meet Pam Huggins, who turns out to be the perfect person to talk you down.

"I don't much like cats," you explain weakly. "I'm a dog person."

Huggins smiles. She's a cat person to the core, and she's only heard this about a thousand times. She's 54, lives in Severn, works for the Department of Defense and is a big muckety-muck with this show, but not a wild-eyed proselytizer, the way some cat people are.

You relax immediately when she says one of the three cats she's showing here is a Siamese named Pia -- for "pain in the a.., 'cause she's into everything."

Then, with an air of certainty, she says: "If my husband can become a cat person, anyone can."

When Gary and Pam Huggins were first dating, she explains, Gary would come over to Pam's house for dinner. He'd be sitting there in the living room and Pam's 15-year-old Siamese, Poco, would jump in his lap.

Gary would make a face like someone had just dumped a load of medical waste in his lap. Then he'd pick the cat up, put her back on the floor and thunder: "I don't like cats!"

Poco would wait maybe five minutes, then jump in his lap again, triggering the same response. This would go on a half-dozen times a night.

After a few weeks, whenever Gary came over, Pam noticed he'd start looking around for Poco as soon as he sat down. It was the beginning of the end of his cat-hating days.

"Now he's a real cat person," Pam says.

You listen to this story of Gary Huggins going over to the dark side. Then, when she's done, you start ticking off all the things you don't like about cats: They don't listen, they're not affectionate like dogs, they're aloof, they're --

"That's because you've never had a cat," Pam Huggins says. "See these Japanese bobtails here? They'll fetch, they talk to you."

OK, fine, you say. But dogs will protect you. If someone breaks into your house, a dog will --

"Cats are great watchdogs!" she says.


Then she tells you the story of Felix, the Siamese she had as a young girl living in a small town in Kansas, and how he may have saved her family from tragedy one day.

"It was the middle of the afternoon," Huggins recalls. "My mom and sister were in the back room and they heard a ruckus in the front of the house. When they got there, they saw Felix and a man going out the front door."

Felix had launched himself at the intruder like a cougar. The man turned out to be an escaped mental patient. When he entered the house, Felix "leaped at his throat" after sensing the man didn't belong there.

"That's natural instinct in a Siamese," she says. "They were originally bred to be guard cats."

Mentally, you make a note not to make any sudden moves around a Siamese ever again. A few minutes later, you have a cup of coffee with Gary Huggins, who takes a break from collecting money at the door. Huggins turns out to be a big, strapping guy with a handshake that makes you wonder if you need X-rays after he lets go.

He's ex-Navy, a DOD employee like Pam, and only too happy to talk about his conversion to cat-lover.

"Oh, I hated cats. My favorite book was `101 Uses for a Dead Cat'," he says. ". . . [But] Poco must have known something about me that I didn't know."

Over the years, he became entranced by cats. He found an affection and playfulness in cats that he didn't know existed. "Cats are just like people," he says now. "Some are aloof, but some aren't."

He especially grew to love the hypnotic purring of cats and how soothing it can be when a cat curls up on your shoulder at the end of the day.

"I still like dogs," Gary Huggins says. "Dogs are great. But dogs don't purr. I probably like cats better now. It surprises me to say that, but it's true."

Look, you're still not a cat person. And, frankly, you doubt if you'll ever be one. But the cat show has been interesting. It's been a lesson in cultural anthropology, a great look at how the other half lives.

On the way out, you stop to watch Ellen Honey from Odenton, who is brushing a magnificent-looking Birman named Excalibur before heading off to the judging ring.

"What do cat people say at a show to wish each other good luck?" you ask.

"Break a paw," says Honey.


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