In Roger Tabor's opinion, cats would be better off if we left them largely alone to run their own affairs. We should feed them, pet them and make sure their health needs are met, he says, but when it comes to breeding them, the British biologist, author and television host has advice for cat-lovers everywhere: Don't meddle so much.
"The minute you disassociate form from function you've got a problem," says Tabor, the author of "Understanding Cats: Their History, Nature and Behavior" (Reader's Digest Books) and host of a PBS series with the same name that has been popping up on stations around the country. He argues that the thoroughly random-bred domestic cat -- which the British endearingly call "moggies" -- is about as perfectly adapted an animal as can be found anywhere. "Once you get to the point where you are selecting and breeding cats for showing, that inevitably leads to extremes."
Extremes are everywhere in the world of purebred cats, he says, from the near-hairless Sphynx to the unusual ears of the Scottish fold or American curl to the short-legged body of the Munchkin. These cat breeds were all developed from spontaneous mutations that natural selection would arguably have eliminated, coaxed to breed status by those smitten by the novelty factor.
"Mutation selection is the worst problem," says Tabor. "If there were a surgical procedure to do this, the veterinarian and breeder would be facing cruelty charges."
Don't think that his criticism ends with those breeds based on mutation, though, because Tabor has a few things to say about our handling of such naturally developed, long-established breeds as the Persian and the Siamese.
"Through this very slow process of breeding, year after year, as cats go to (the) show bench, they change," he says. "In Persians, that means a larger head and a flatter nose, animals with breathing problems and problems with their teeth. Some of these cats have noses so flat they're behind the eye line, and that means problems with tear ducts.
"When we were filming the series, I saw a cat with tears that were flowing freely within seconds of going to the show ring. A lot of these cats are on antibiotics daily. This is bizarre."
Nor is he any fan of the modern Siamese, a slender cat a long way from the stockier "apple-headed" variety most people still think of when they think "Siamese."
"I would argue for the Siamese apple-head," he says. "What happened if you go back 30 years is you'll find that people began to want to go for a stranger, more exotic-looking cat. They wanted something more 'oriental-looking' than the real thing.
"Today's Siamese don't look healthy. There are breeding problems, where you've gone for thinner and thinner cats."
It probably won't come a much of a surprise that Tabor's views aren't exactly popular with some segments of the cat-showing crowd.
He doesn't much care.
"We need to take off the glasses and look from the animal's point of view. If we are causing them distress by what we're doing, then the morality issue comes into it. If the animals look pretty in your eyes, but you stand back and you can't say you've improved it in health and welfare, then it's not right."
Although admitting his fondness for the random-bred cat -- "I'm a moggy man," he says -- Tabor believes healthy purebreds are attainable, as long as health, not just looks, is the goal of breeding programs. He says his cause isn't lost, if people will listen -- and act. "We can turn things around. It's possible to have cats that look good and are healthy as well.
"But at the end of the day, I'm not God. I have no power in organizations. People can disregard my views; I just offer them for what they're worth."
When a cat-lover and scientist of Tabor's stature offers them, they're worth a lot.
Pets on the Web: The Animal Welfare Act is the federal government's landmark piece of legislation governing the care of animals, especially those in commercial settings such as laboratories, circuses and zoos, and large-scale breeding operations. The Animal Welfare Information Center (http://www.nal.usda.gov/awic) offers the complete text of the act, as well as information on updates and publications.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies" and "Cats for Dummies," and is the editorial director of the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or e-mail to Giori(at)aol.com.
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