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!