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Munchkin: Fur is flying over this rare cat breed

Published Oct. 4, 2005

People who fancy cats are accustomed to odd breeds cropping up. Take, for example, the Sphynx, a hairless cat that looks like a cross between a chihuahua and a grub. Or the American Curl, which has crunched-up ears.

And then there's the Munchkin.

Katherine Crawford, a longtime member of the International Cat Association, says there are limits to what can rightly be called a new line of feline, and she thinks the Munchkin, which has been likened to a mutant sausage, is way past that limit.

"I'm resigning over those damned cats," says Crawford. "They're an abomination. I will judge my last show for the International Cat Association in November."

Much fur is flying. Tord Svenson, a cat association board member and Munchkin owner, says that anti-Munchkin arguments "don't involve the frontal lobes of the brain." As for Munchkin foes, he says, "The more the facts go against them, the more vituperative they become. They get nasty. I don't think they need to be convinced; they need to be treated."

Nothing is tearing cat lovers apart like the Munchkin _ a cat that looks like a dachshund, with stubby legs that are half as long as a normal cat's. "It's a pretty radical departure in terms of the physical appearance of what we usually expect in the cat," admits Solveig Pfleuger, who breeds Munchkins.

Many cat fanciers say that the Munchkin's truncated forelegs are a deformity and that it is wrong to breed for the trait. But Munchkin lovers say that the cat isn't crippled _ just different _ and can run, menace mice and shred upholstery with the best of them.

On a scale of cattiness, the Munchkin tempest rates a strong 10, and not just in the U.S. "It has France in an absolute uproar," Crawford says. It also raises questions: How does a freak become a breed, and why does the transmogrification make so many cat fanciers howl?

Many cat breeds have inelegant beginnings. The American wirehair has such rough, crimped hair that it picks up house dust like a magnet; the patriarch was found in 1966 in a New York barn. The first curly coated Cornish Rex was no feline aristocat, but a mutant that was mated with its parents.

The first Munchkin was a stray found cowering from a pit bull under a pickup truck in Rayville, La., in 1983. Its rescuer, music teacher Sandra Hochenedel, named it Blackberry. When she got the kitty home, Hochenedel discovered it had stunted legs and was pregnant.

No one knows how many Munchkins exist today. The short-legged gene can occur in nature, but a growing number of Munchkin breeders are responsible for the 300 known specimens in the U.S.

Demand for the cats is high. Breeder Laurie Bobskill of West Springfield, Mass., owner of a 21-bed cattery, says she gets as many as eight inquiries a day. People are said to be willing to pay $1,500 or more for a Munchkin. The cat is also gaining a pawhold _ if not universal acceptance _ in official circles.

Before the turn of the century, the government kept the cat studbooks that defined purebreds. Today, in the United States, there are two large cat registries, plus several smaller ones. The biggest is the Cat Fanciers' Association in Manasquan, N.J., with 645 member clubs representing more than 75,000 cats of 36 breeds. The second-biggest is the International Cat Association in Harlingen, Texas, with 400 member clubs, 300,000 registered cats and 50 recognized breeds.

The Cat Fanciers' have never recognized Munchkins. But last fall, the International Cat Association's board, by a 7-4 vote, allowed Munchkins to compete in a limited category called New Breed and Color in the 1995 show season, which opened in May in Fall River, Mass.

But that has scarcely quieted Munchkin foes. It isn't just the legs that upset them. Munchkins slink along like ferrets, and when they sit up on their haunches and wave their deformed paws, they look like alert rabbits. That is either cute or disgusting, depending on one's view of the matter.

Crawford, the cat judge, is so enraged that after returning from a recent judging trip to France, she dashed off a furious letter to the cat association's board, accusing pro-Munchkin forces of making the group "the laughingstock of the entire cat fancy," or cat world. She called the perpetuation of Munchkins "an affront to any breeder with ethics."

Dissenting board member Sue Servies, owner of a boarding kennel in Pacific Grove, Calif., worries that Munchkin owners, pushing the edge of the genetic envelope, will breed cats with legs so short they won't be able to scratch their chins. "A regular cat that's pregnant can get so big it can't clean itself anymore," Servies says. "So what do you do when the tummy is bigger than the legs, and the legs can't even reach the ground?"

She adds: "Look at the dachshund _ its front feet turn out, and the back feet turn in. That's the only way the thing can stand up."

But the Munchkin Manifesto, drafted by Paul McSorley, secretary of the International Munchkin Society, warns that "anti-Munchkin people will use any excuse they can to work against our cats."

Reached at his cattery in Hull, Mass., home of his prize stud, Supa Dupa Trooper Man, McSorley accused the anti-Munchkin brigade of spreading hearsay and rumor and of making up lies to try to ruin our breed.

Equally irate is Svenson, of the cat association, who voted to approve Munchkins. "There isn't anybody much who is screaming about dog breeds that have short legs," he says.

Besides, he insists, Munchkins aren't freaks. "It would be like if you were driving down a road and you saw a picnic of elves. Would you be horrified, or would you just be intrigued?"

Pfleuger, a physician in Springfield, Mass., acquired two Munchkins several years ago as research models for human genetic disease. But the more she studied them, the less freakish they seemed. They could scoot about with lots of ground-hugging speed. They climbed curtains. They did all the normal cat things _ except jump onto kitchen counters.

She X-rayed their joints and bones and found no evidence of crippling. So she began breeding Munchkins and, as chairman of the cat association's genetics committee, she began lobbying to get Munchkins recognized.

What happens next is anybody's guess. Patti Andrews of Elkhart, Ind., an exasperated anti-Munchkin board member, says things are getting unethical. She accuses Munchkin breeders of giving free kittens to cat association power brokers, in hopes of winning sympathy and votes. She predicts the downfall of the group if the breed is allowed to continue. She also claims to have seen several unsettling deformities in Munchkins while judging the 1995 season's first cat show, including knock-knees, kinked tails and balloon heads.

An International Munchkin Society newsletter calls Andrews the "Wicked Witch of the Land of the Great Lakes," who warns: "I'll get you, my pretty, and your little cats, too."'

Svenson, the pro-Munchkin board member, just sighs. "This is the way things are done a lot of times in the cat world. Issues degenerate to personal matters."