Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Lessons From a Cat Show, Day 2

What I Learned from Exhibiting My Cats At a CFA Cat Show, Day 2

The second morning of the Golden Boys' cat show experience was a little less hectic. We'd already transported and set up all the stuff for the vendor booth, so we had time for a nice breakfast at home (they get their canned food in the morning) and a little relaxation before heading out. I tried to calm both them and myself by playing some soothing music in the car on the way in and was sending positive thoughts and energy toward my boys.

In thinking about the first day, I wondered if perhaps carrying them over to the show rings was one of the things scaring them so much. That's a lot of new sights and smells for a young kitty to take in! Perhaps transporting the boys to the rings inside their familiar stroller, in which they go for walks, would be a better way to do it. And without a friend to help me on the second day, it'd be a lot easier than risking having one of them wriggle out of my arms and get loose.

They'd both started out the day stronger the day before, so I thought I'd give Gilly one more chance this morning, hoping that perhaps he'd be refreshed and a little more comfortable. We headed over to our first ring of the day with positive thoughts and both cats safely inside their stroller.

A Rude Awakening

A good start to the day, however, was not to be. The judge to whose ring we were called first was Rhett Bockman, a specialty judge from here in Jacksonville. The boys were not happy when I put them into the cages there. Rhett took Gilly out first, barely looked at him and quickly put him back. Then he did the same with Captain, saying nothing to the audience and asking nothing about them. Then he did the same with the other three cats in this category, never speaking a word to anyone. The only cat he spent any time at all with was Petipaw, the one who'd been shown several times before. He picked up the rosettes and said, "I'm trying to award these in order of unpleasantness, and I'm trying to figure out which of these two was more unpleasant," referring to my cats. I told him it was probably Gilly, so he awarded the last place to him; no big surprise there. Captain got 4th, with the top three spots going to the other three cats.

Rhett then pointed at my cats and said to the entire audience gathered, "Those cats do not like being at cat shows." I told him this was their first show, but he wasn't finished ranting at me. "They won't get used to it. Don't bring them back. Just have them at home and let them sit on your bed and play. What's going to happen if you keep showing them is that they're going to hurt somebody someday. And for a buck and a dime, it's not worth getting bitten."

I was shocked, a little embarrassed, and went to get my boys out of their cages and take them back. There was nothing I could say that would have tempered the harshness of those words. "Don't bring them back?" What a way to start out the day!

As I was putting them back in their stroller, Rhett said to the ring clerk, "I don't like judging household pets for just that reason." He fully intended for me to hear it, and it made me a little angry. Not wanting to get into it with him and upset my boys even more, I put them in their stroller and headed back to my vendor booth.

Lesson 6: The old adage about getting what you expect holds true here. Judges bring their own prejudices and preferences into the ring. And cats are very intuitive creatures. If a judge doesn't like them or doesn't want to be judging them, they will pick up on that hostility and direct it right back at the judge. They're like little mirrors of our own emotions. There's no real way to prepare your cats for this; it's part of their survival instinct to defend themselves against someone who is emitting negative energy that could mean harm to them. Several other exhibitors told me afterward that Rhett was a difficult judge and that he has a bad attitude toward the household pets. If he's the judge in any future shows where I'm showing my pets, I won't take them into his ring. I'm sure that both he and the cats will be happier about that.

And judges, if you have the desire to give an exhibitor a dressing-down, do it in private afterward. To scold a person in front of the entire audience gathered to watch the show does nothing to make you look good, and will discourage any novice onlookers there from ever even trying to enter a cat in a show. That does the entire show world a disservice. There is no excuse for being rude to someone like that judge was rude to me. If you don't want to be there, then don't judge a cat show. Your negativity is going into that ring with you and will be picked up by every cat you approach.

Not the End of the World

Luckily, there was a little time to recover in between that first, awful ring experience and the next one. One of the other vendors was selling lavender sachets, so I bought one to calm my boys (and myself). He said that the scent was strong enough to drown out a lot of the pheromones in the air at the show from all the unaltered cats in one gathering. I decided not to even take Gilly to any more rings; Rhett had been correct about him not liking it one bit. But Captain had more promise, and I wondered if showing him alone might work out better. When they called us to Ring 2, I put him in the stroller and we headed over.

When arriving at the ring, I told the judge (Wain Harding of Uriah, Oregon) that Captain had been hissy earlier, and if he didn't want to judge him I'd keep him in his stroller. Wain suggested that I place him directly on the judging table, without going into the cage first. That was somewhat helpful, but I didn't really have a chance to calm Captain down or reassure him, so he was still a little scared. I started to put him directly back into the stroller, but Wain said to put him in the cage after judging, that he'd go ahead and give him a ribbon. But he didn't want to do too much examining of him to spook him any more. He judged the remaining cats, then asked us each to talk about our cats and where we'd gotten them. When he awarded the rosettes, he gave Captain a 4th place, which was last since Gilly wasn't there to get 5th. Disappointing, but not unexpected, and at least he'd been a little nicer about it.

Lessons 7, 8 and 9: Just because one judge is unkind, that doesn't mean that they all are. Your next judge may be much more understanding and work with you more. The judges know their business, so you can certainly take their comments under advisement, but consider the source in light of what you know about your cats. Make adjustments where needed and make sure the judge is aware that your cat may be frightened. If your cat is acting aggressive, offer up front to withdraw your cat if the judge would rather not handle him, and they'll be much more agreeable. But it gives them an out if they want one.

And just because Captain had not meshed well with other male judges so far didn't mean that he would like only female judges. Each judge is an individual. Your cat will react differently to each judge based on all kinds of things we're not even aware of. Some factors we can control, and others we can't.

Kindness Goes a Long Way

The next judge we had was Tracy Petty, and she was very patient with Captain. I'd taken him to the ring inside the stroller again, which did seem to help him. I gave him some words of encouragement when putting him in the cage at the ring, but he still looked a little frightened in there, so I warned her again that he'd been a little hissy, but that without his brother he was doing better.

Tracy judged Captain first. She sat him on the table, where his tail remained tucked the entire time. She tried to get him to scratch on the pole, but he was too scared. He's not really as big of a scratcher as Gilly, anyway. She teased him with a feather, petted him on the head and got him to sit up a little better. He even seemed to enjoy the petting, bringing a smile to Tracy's face. Before awarding rosettes, Tracy allowed Diamond's owner, Nautika, to come up and show her cat to work toward her own judging qualification. My Captain still got last (4th) place when the rosettes were handed out, but I felt like he was going to be a little bit more comfortable the next time he faced a show ring thanks to Tracy's efforts with him.

Lesson 10: Cats who have been scared and hostile can be turned around with a little patience, kindness, and careful handling. Some judges are better than others at working with difficult or temperamental cats.

A Strong Finish

The final time they called household pets was to Ring 1 with Larry Adkison of Springfield, Missouri as judge. Knowing it was getting late in the show and that Captain was probably getting tired, I gave him some extra reassurance in the cage, letting him play with a feather toy a little from inside there, petting him, and telling him what a good boy he was. That seemed to make a huge difference! Larry began with him again, as I gather the judges like to do with the difficult cats. My boy even let the judge touch his head enough to feel the bone structure in it, even though it obviously wasn't the most pleasant thing for Captain. Larry also had each owner talk about where their cats had come from, asked what some of us fed them, and lauded us all for having rescued them.

The biggest surprise, for me, came when Larry started handing out the rosettes. He kept going to more and more cages, finally awarding my Captain his second 2nd place!

Lessons 11 and 12: Take the time to offer your cat an extra little bit of reassurance when you put him in the show cage. Make sure he doesn't have a hostile posture in the cage before you leave him. If that takes playing with him, talking sweetly to him, petting him, or whatever...just do it. He will show much better and not be as frightened. Judges are also watching your interaction with your cats, so seeing this also helps them think more highly of you as an owner. Don't think for a moment that this doesn't come into play when they're judging the cats!

The same goes for your cat's story, when they ask about it. That tells the judges a lot about how you feel about your cats. Those who ask tend to be a little more comprehensive in their judging and don't automatically rule out frightened cats from the rankings.

Recovering From the Trauma

My two Red Mackerel Tabbies, AKA The Golden Boys, spent most of the rest of Sunday afternoon hiding between their inner cage curtains and the cage, napping a little, but remaining wary with all the activity going on around them. A little yellow nose would peek out from under the curtain every now and again, to the delight of any visitors to my vendor area. We even managed to get them to pop their heads out for a photo when some friends stopped by to say hello. At the end of the day, they were happy to be back home and have all their toys back that had been on display in the vendor booth! They had a good dinner, slept well, and by the next morning were acting as normal as ever.

In reflecting on the whole show experience from an exhibitor's viewpoint, I wondered about the judges' practice of showing the most difficult cats first. Perhaps if my boys had been able to sit in their cages and watch some other cats being shown first, they wouldn't have been so scared when taken out of their cages because they would've had a better idea of what to expect. None of the cats, including those with a pedigree, would choose to be there on their own; they'd all rather be at home napping and playing. And with all the unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells, it has to be a traumatic experience for them the first time. Watching some cats get judged may have helped...but I could also see it making an unaltered cat more aggressive, so perhaps that's why they do it this way.

Will I show them again? Not Gilly. He didn't take to it at all. Captain's behavior when on his own made me more optimistic about his chances. If I do show him again, it will be without his brother present, and I'll spend more time working with him, both before the show and when putting him into the ring cages. He needs to get more responsive to the toys they show and better at scratching on the sisal pole in the ring, and more comfortable being handled by strangers. I've tried to socialize him, but have obviously not gone far enough with that. I'll calm myself for the show and get my vendor booth set up ahead of time so that doesn't give me such a frantic mindset in showing him and make him more nervous. And I'll find out more about the judges ahead of time and spare him from exposure to any who may have a negative attitude toward household pets. That tip about taking him to an empty ring before the judging starts and getting him oriented to them is an excellent one, as well. Wish I'd known that before the show had started.

The learning experience was also valuable for me as someone who sells products for cats and cat lovers. I have a much better idea of the types of products that could help people showing cats. The stroller did seem to help Captain, and I noticed some other exhibitors using them, as well. The lavender sachet also may have helped calm them, so I've added more strollers and calming products to the "Show Time" section of Old Maid Cat Lady. Naturally, there are plenty of grooming products there, but I'm looking to expand my selection of those into more professional and show-grade tools, as well.

If you've never been to a cat show, by all means find one close to you and go. They're very different from dog shows! CFA is one organization that puts them on, but there are a couple of others, so every weekend numerous cat shows are going on all over the U.S.A. You'll be amazed at the different breeds and learn a lot about their physical standards and temperaments.

And if you're thinking about showing your house cats in a show, make sure they're ready. Take the time to understand the rules and make sure you're complying with them. Know what to expect from the show environment and take the time and effort to make them as comfortable as possible in the show ring. If more experienced exhibitors offer to help or mentor you, take them up on it and heed their advice. Learn from my dozen lessons here and don't make the same mistakes I did. Your efforts will pay off in higher rankings when the rosettes get handed out, and in happier cats during the show process!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Lessons From a Cat Show, Day 1

What I Learned From Exhibiting At a CFA Cat Show

It was over 20 years ago when I attended my first cat show. Seeing all the different-looking breeds of cats -- the curly-coated Cornish Rexes, flat-eared Scottish Folds, huge Maine Coons, lithe Oriental Shorthairs, et al -- was fascinating! At home, I just had "cat cats" -- good ol' rescued domestic shorthairs. They were beautiful, as are all cats, but I'd never known that there were so many varieties of cats. One Devon Rex looked exactly like a little lamb curled up in his cage. And the vendors there had wonderful cat toys! Knowing that those types of products existed, but weren't carried in most pet supply stores, was one of the things that planted a seed in my mind for OldMaidCatLady.com.

That was a Cat Fanciers Association show put on by the Absolutely Abyssinians Cat Club here in Jacksonville. It takes place every year on the first weekend after January 1. CFA has a category for household pets at its shows. Last year I had a vendor booth there for Old Maid Cat Lady, but with a feisty 23-year-old cat my only possible entry, there was no way I could enter my cat in the show; I wouldn't have done that to her arthritic little body. And yet, I sell products on my site targeting show cat owners, so it's important for me to understand their needs. Now that I have the Golden Boys, showing them has become a possibility. At nine months old, they're no longer considered kittens by CFA (after 8 months cats may compete as adults). Why not wind up a hectic holiday season with yet more activity?

The Basics

Household pets don't accrue points in cat shows like pedigreed cats, so the judges mainly rank them based on temperament, cleanliness and health. They like to see a cat who is unafraid of being handled, playful when tempted with a teaser toy, and well groomed. Cats accustomed to being shown know that one pole on the showing table is wrapped in sisal and can be scratched. Judges like this, as it causes the cat to stretch out and show the length of the body and coat patterns along the sides. They'll try to coax the cat to scratch it by drawing a feather up the scratcher.

When breed standards are being judged, they'll also often pick up the cat and stretch it out horizontally to show the audience its length. They'll carefully feel the cat's head and other breed standards to see how well this cat meets them. But for household pets, all they do is check their ears, make sure their claws have been trimmed, and talk about the coat pattern. Some judges ask the owners where the cats came from to get a sense of their history and the relationship between the cats and their people.

When they call your class to the show ring for competition, you carry your cats over there and place them in the cage with their assigned number on top of it. Since so many show cats are unaltered, they have to be carefully placed so that two males aren't next to each other. The clerk for each ring handles this, as well as all the record keeping for the points accrued by the purebreds. Household pets must be spayed or neutered, and may not be declawed, in order to be shown.

I knew these things from having watched judging at previous cat shows, and I tried to explain to my boys in the days leading up to the show that it was going to be a fun adventure. Since they were tiny, I've been getting them used to being handled in the way the judge would handle them. Short of having a ring itself to use, I thought it was enough to get them ready for their first show. The day before the show, I trimmed the boys' claws and cleaned their ears. Their coats were beautiful, so they didn't appear to need baths. We were ready for the show...or so I thought. There was much yet to be learned.

The Golden Boys' First Cat Show Experience

The first day of the show was crazy; trying to get everything unloaded, set up the crate for the boys, get them ready to be shown, and get my vendor space arranged was more than could be done in the time allotted. My friend Mary was helping me, and thank goodness for that; I completely missed the first call for household pets, but she heard it! Each of us grabbed a cat and rushed over to the show ring where we were supposed to be.

Lesson 1: If you're also a vendor as well as exhibiting your cats, find out if the vendors can set up ahead of time. At check-in time, all the other vendors appeared to have already been set up. I was trying to rush in at check-in time, thinking that was the earliest I'd be able to access the show hall, and get everything set up while also registering my cats for the show. Nobody had told me otherwise. And the person who was supposed to handle check-in was out sick, adding another stressful wrinkle to the whole morning.

Their first judge was Betty White -- no not that Betty White -- but she was a kind lady from Albuquerque, New Mexico. I'm glad the boys had her for their first judge. She explained to the audience when she took Gilly out of his cage that although he was hissing, his body was not tense and he was obviously just frightened and not likely to bite. Captain didn't hiss, but had his tail tucked in. He seemed more in shock than anything. They'd surely picked up on my frantic mindset of the morning, and were in an unfamiliar environment being handled by a stranger. So naturally they were scared! Betty briefly looked them both over, explaining that they were Red Mackerel Tabbies, putting each back into his cage afterward and hanging a ribbon on the front that said "HHP Merit Award" which each household cat gets for merely participating. She was quite interactive with the audience on the household pets, so I explained to her that this was their first show.

Betty conversed with the other owners about their cats, as well. There were three other household pets being judged - a lovely black kitten named Diamond, a gray tabby with white named Petipaw, and a tuxedo cat named Amber. Once Betty had judged them all, she handed out the rosettes, huge ribbons showing where each of them had placed. They were very impressive looking! Hissy boy Gilly got 5th place, while Captain placed 3rd. Exactly the opposite of how I'd thought they'd have placed! Gilly is my playful, friendly boy. Captain is more reserved and shy.

We'd barely gotten the boys back to my vendor space and their ribbons hung on the outside of the crate before they were calling us again. Thanks to Mary, we didn't miss that one, either. Jerri Zottoli of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania was the judge in this one. Gilly was still hissy and got only limited attention. He was just not into this being shown stuff! Captain was scared and hunching over, but did okay. Jerri took her time with him and was able to lift his front end up enough to show his coat to the audience. The ring clerk commented that he had a beautiful coat. (I've always thought so, too, and was glad that it got some notice.)

When the rosettes were handed out Gilly got 5th place, as expected. But she kept putting ribbons on two other cages before coming to Captain's -- he got a 2nd place! I was so proud!

Lesson 2: Your cats don't just get judged once at a show. Household pets are assessed by every judge there. This show had 8 rings, so my cats were going to be called up 8 times during the two days to be shown. Each judge is different in personality and preference. Your cats may place differently with each. But they get a small ribbon and a big, beautiful rosette each time!

The boys' third call was to Ring 2, where Barbara Sumner of Mulberry, Florida was judging. She was a very personable judge who enjoyed explaining things to the audience. It was obvious that she loved doing this. She also told us that my boys were Red Mackerel Tabbies. Captain was starting to pick up the hissing from his brother, but made it through. Barbara didn't even want to take Gilly out of the cage, but she said if I would, she'd take a look at him. He was still hissy at me, but I knew it was all bravado and managed to get him out. He hissed again on the show table, so she just had me put him back and he got another 5th place. Obviously, Gilly is not going to be a show cat! Captain was starting to hiss more like Gilly, but he again placed 3rd, giving me more hopes for him.

Lesson 3: It's up to the judges whether or not they want to handle your cat. They've all been bitten and scratched before by aggressive cats and they're pretty good at reading a cat's body language. Some are nice and will allow you to remove the cat from the cage, but not all...as I was about to learn that very afternoon.

We had a bit of a lull after this and Mary went off to watch some of the other judging and walk around the benching area talking to some of the cats' owners. On her rounds, someone told her that one cat can feed off another's fear and hostility, and sometimes it's better to separate them. So when they called us up again, she suggested that maybe Captain would do better if we didn't show Gilly. I carried him over to Ring 8, where  Rick Hiskinson of Kirkersville, Ohio was judging. Rick is a specialty judge, while the others so far had been all-breed judges. Captain's first male judge; I hoped that wouldn't spook him!

Removing Gilly from the equation didn't help much in this instance; Rick didn't like Captain's attitude and turned down the number card on top of his cage, disqualifying him. He said, "A cat bite is a three-day hospital stay for me, and I'm not risking it." For that one, Captain didn't even get a small ribbon for participating, much less a rosette. I was heartbroken; my shy boy would never have bitten him, and had only picked up the hissing from his more aggressive brother. He was still scared and tired on top of it all. Luckily, that was our last round for Day 1 of the show.

Lesson 4: The judge is in command at his or her own ring. If that judge doesn't want to handle your cat, it's entirely within their power to disqualify the cat. Wain had been very generous in even allowing me to take him out for her to examine. Even if you know your cat won't bite, they don't have to judge any entries. You know how cats take more to some people than others, and if a judge and your cat don't mesh well together, the judge has every right to disqualify your cat. There's nothing you can do about it.

Judging was over for the day, and it was time to go home. I'd managed to sell a little bit in my vendor booth, and Captain had gotten one 2nd place ribbon and two 3rd places, so I was proud of him. Gilly...well, he's lovable and playful at home. I packed up the cats in their stroller, picked up the computer and my cash box, and we headed out.

Another exhibitor who was showing her Tonkinese cats mentioned in the parking lot that there was a wine and cheese party at the show hotel, so we went there, with the cats in their stroller. Another opportunity for them to become better socialized! In chatting with her, we learned that it can be helpful to go over to a show ring before anything is going on, put your cat into a cage, play with him there to show him it's a fun and safe place, and show him what to expect so it's not so scary and unfamiliar. Make sure you disinfect the space afterward, but doing this is great prep on a cat's first show.

Lesson 5: You can't entirely prep your cats at home for a show. They need to become familiar with the routine and the environment. The first time they see a show ring, it's going to freak them out. If you can find a quiet ring in which to familiarize them with it, they'll be a lot more comfortable when the actual judging starts.

The boys were good about going into the stroller out of their car seats at the show hotel, but they really wanted to get home. Once we found out that the event started an hour later, I didn't figure it was a good idea to keep them in there any longer. They'd had a rough day. It'd have been nice to have met some of the other exhibitors and judges, but it just didn't work out to do that this time so we headed home instead. Tomorrow would be another opportunity to start fresh and learn more about the cat show world. One of the cruelest lessons would come early.