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Rock the catsbah: Denver's competitive cat scene is a subculture all its own

While you were outside enjoying the beautiful springtime weather in Denver this last weekend, people from around the country were showing off their pussies.

That's right. Hundreds of cat owners and breeders gathered for the Springtime in the Rockies all-breed cat show in Denver. The two-day show, at the National Western Complex on Humboldt Street, played host to over 140 different cats, including hairless Sphynx cats that looked exactly like Mrs. Whiskerson, Rachel's naked cat in Friends, and other, hairier cats, like the Exotic breed.

For those who have never been to a cat show, the best way to imagine one is like this: picture the movie "Best in Show" -- only without the prancing around, without the dogs and without Parkey Posey's awesome braces. But with all of the nuances of a major subculture few people are aware of. At the Springtime in the Rockies cat show, the owners and breeders are just as interesting as the cats they raise and train either in their homes or at catteries, places where cats are bred for competition.

Take, for example, Joann White. White has been handling cats for over 50 years, and she spends most of her weekends traveling the country to various cat shows with the Chiang-Lee/Ranchapur & Judo Catteries. One of her cats, a two-year-old Cornish Rex named Far Out, is the second highest scoring Cornish Rex in the country.

"I try to breed or find a top quality cat, then I travel with it to the different shows," White says about her competitive process. "When I started handling cats, all it took was working with one winning cat and the rest is history."

But it's not just about the competition itself, White says. It's about the community at the different cat shows.

"You have your friends, but you come here and you know everyone from other shows," she says. "We know each other. We help each other. It's a big group of people."

Like Trekkies at a Star Trek convention, these cat trainers, breeders, owners and fans are in a league all their own, a mecca of all things feline. As an outsider, a person may not appreciate the time and effort that goes in to a competition of this magnitude. "More people need to know about cat shows," says Karen Cannon, a professional illustrator who was selling her cat art at the Springtime in the Rockies show. Cannon, whose work is available for sale at www.thatsmycat.net, creates personalized art of your cat. And who wouldn't want a large, framed painting of their pussy?

So many spectators may think that a cat show is only a matter of packing the cat's bags and traveling to the next show, or venerating a moving ball of fur. It's much more than that. The competitive cat lifestyle is not just about the day-of show or the traveling, it's about the months and months of preparation. It's about the behind-the-scenes work. It's about the love of the kitty.

And it's about the judges, who are treated like gods among men in the competitive cat arena. Besides the felines, they are the reason for the cat shows in the first place, not to mention the cat show industry at large -- they are paid up to a $1.60 per cat they judge. The Cat Fanciers' Association website puts it best:

Each show is presided over by a different judge, who presents his or her own awards independent of the decisions of other judges. Hence, a cat which is chosen Best in Show by the judge in Ring 1 may not always be given the same award by the judge in Ring 2. Every cat entered in the show is evaluated by each judge, and judged according to a written standard for its breed (with the exception of the Household Pet Class, for which there is no written standard). The standard is part blueprint because it describes the ideal specimen for the breed, and part constitution because it can be revised by the members of the breed council.

In the ten-ring format, the Springtime in the Rockies cat show has ten distinct shows in which ten judges pick their favorites. Kittens, spays, neuters and household cats -- non-pedigree cats, or cats that are mixed breed -- compete in their own categories.

For show grand champion Meow Acres Morning, aka Funny Face -- a three-year-old Sphynx cat -- a cat show is more about the individualized attention than anything else. Whether from the judges or from his handler, Funny Face loves the attention. He also loves all of the necessary pampering he receives from his handler, Kelly Thompson, before competition. For the Springtime in the Rockies show, Thompson gave Funny Face one bath per day in the four days building up to the show.

"Because grease builds up on his skin, there's a lot of grooming, bathing and cleaning, especially behind the ears," Thompson says.

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Gatherings like this are all about the cats, yes. But they aren't all about only the competition. You can enjoy the spectacle of a cat being judged or you can simply walk around to look at the different cats in their traveling cages, which end up being decorated -- some extensively -- to reflect the kitty's personality. You don't need to be a cat lover to appreciate the subculture, but you better hope you're not allergic.

Attending the Springtime in the Rockies cat show is an experience unlike any other. With a subculture unlike any other. It's no coincidence that the cat was named America's no. 1 pet in 2011, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Parker Posey, eat your heart out.

Photos by Cory Lamz

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