Being a food person, I love open air markets. When I was talking to Nolan before our trip, he asked what I would like to see. I said cats and markets. He said that would not be a problem. What I did not understand was that Bangkok is one big open air market. Most streets are lined with vendors and then where space permits more vendors congregate and create a "market". Some specialize in meat or fruit or fish but you can pretty much find all of those things at any of the markets.
And you will find cats. Market cats in Thailand seem to have a pretty good life. Their is a lot of food around for them, so, they are well fed, and they are looked after. If the cat has a collar, it probably "belongs" to one of the market vendors, but, even those that don't have a benefactor, have access to lots of food and kind treatment.
Two of My New Cats from Ari!
Ari brought in a new Siamese girl(Wichienmaat) from a temple and as it turns out, she was pregnant. She gave birth to two Tortie Tonkinese that will be coming over to me. They are quite astonishing in their appearance.
Cat breeding in Thailand is very different than in the west, and in my opinion, better.
To even begin to understand Thai cat breeders there are several things you have to understand first. To begin with, though there are a lot of beautiful cats in Thailand, some are considered more desirable than others. Which ones are more desirable? The ones mentioned in the ancient Thai cat poems. The general public, looking for a house cat, would prefer one of those mentioned in the these poems. That list would include what we call Siamese, Korat, Suphalak(Havana Brown), Burmese, and Tonkinese. So breeders tend to focus on these colors because they are the coat colors that people will buy.
Important detail. All the coat colors found in Thailand are considered to be the same breed. Siamese, Tonkinese, Burmese, Korat, Suphalak, are all the same breed. Just different colors. So, a breeder will breed a Siamese with a Korat and get what they get. Whatever is born is of value. Whereas western breeders see each of the coat colors found in Thailand as a breed, again in Thailand, they are just colors of the same breed. In Thailand, coat colors are just coat colors. And, as long as you are in the desirable range of colors, you will have kittens you can sell.
Next, Thai breeders see Thai cats as a national treasure and respect the auspicious colors mentioned in the ancient Thai poems. So, they breed cats to sell, but, woven into this business is a sincere interest in preserving the cats of Thailand. And when I say this, I mean the cats of Thailand as they exist today and as they existed in the poems 700 years ago. The Thai cat of today looks like the Thai cat found in photographs from the turn of the century. Thai breeders are not looking to change how the cats look. They are horrified by what western breeders have done to Thai cats in the west. What westerners see as "improvements" Thai breeders see as perverted distortions of their national treasures.
Its actually kind of a dicey issue for someone coming from the west. Understandably Thai breeders are hesitant to deal with us because they are concerned we will destroy the natural beauty of their cats.
But, all breeders make choices, meaning they select for this or that, and Thai breeders are the same. In this case, the "standard" they use is that found in the ancient Thai poems. Other than that, tortie cats and red cats are not popular so they breed away from the red gene. People like long straight tails so cats with straight tails would be selected for breeding over kinked tailed cats. They like Siamese(wichienmaat) with clear points and select away from muddy points.
Here is the really great part. If a breeder is at a temple or a market and sees a really good Siamese or Korat kitten, they will take it home and use it in their breeding program. This results in a constant influx of new genes into their "line" and removes the possibility of inbreeding. They constantly introduce random bred cats into their breeding program and thus avoid concentrating bad genes. The problems associated with inbred American cats, heart disease, auto-immune disease, bad teeth, and the like are not to be found in Thailand. They have challenges with infectious disease, but, not with the inbred royal family hemophilia like problems found in the cats found in the west.
We visited with two fantastic breeders in Thailand, Dtu and Ari. I learned a lot looking at their cats, how they breed, how they don't breed, and will be adding some of their cats to my line. I already have some cats from them in my line, but, I have more coming!
Khun Preecha Vadhana(Dtu)
Like I said, I have been to a lot of open air markets and seen a lot of cats living on the throw away food that come with a market. But, I have never seen one that rolled over on its belly and let a perfect stranger rub it. The cats of Thailand are different and you can see this in even a "feral" cat.
I am rarely at a loss for words, but, truly, I don't know where to begin with our cat adventure to Thailand. Toly and I went with a plan to meet with our Thai Cat Center partners in Thailand, Nolan Betterly and Bew Panacharat and to see as much cat stuff as we could see. In the first instance, Nolan and Bew were the best hosts and tour guides I have ever had in my entire life. That is saying something because I am borderline old and have been around a few times. These two know cats up one side and down the other and gave us the most comprehensive Thai cat tour imaginable. It helps to be hosted by two people who seem to know everything!
But, in addition, it turns out Bew is a food person much like myself, so, we got to experience the off the beaten track food tour of Thailand. I am famous for taking people to some remote corner because I know some berry is in season. Well, to my total surprise, Bew gets up to the same madness. We were traveling around the north of Thailand, and suddenly Bew announces we will stop by an artisan farm to pick up some turtle liver mushrooms which would be in season for about a week. The farmers gave us a tour of their secret cultivation process and we came away with truly rare and exotic mushrooms to be cooked at the hotel restaurant on our behalf. So, we got cat touring and food touring. They were just the best and I cannot thank them enough for being such gracious hosts and for all the do on behalf of Thai cats.
Lurking in that little food story is the nutshell of our trip. Bew who is Thai and Nolan who is American, have a deep understanding and respect for Thai culture in general and in turn a profound knowledge of the elements that make up Thai culture. Food for sure is part of Thai culture. It is sold on every street corner. But, cats are also apart of Thai culture, woven into day to day life. They were able to help us see cats in Thailand the way Thai people see cats.
The degree to which cats are apart of Thai culture hit almost as soon as we landed. We stayed at a 60 story high rise luxury hotel in the heart of Bangkok. When we got to the hotel we found a temple and a family of cats living at the temple, right at the foot of our hotel.. There was a mom cat with her babies, and it was apparent the father was at hand. The dad had no tail and all the kittens were without tails. While we were standing there seeing cats in Thailand, a Thai woman came with food to feed the family of cats. Temples, cats, and people being nice to cats... could not have been a more appropriate and accurate first impression.
What I have found is that cats can be found in four distinct locations; temples, markets, breeders, and private homes. I think I will start with those categories to give you a window into cats in Thailand.
I purposely put the cat photographs between the market photographs because that is how the cats live. They live between the stalls and stands. There are several curious things about the market cats.
The first is that you see a lot of really mixed trait cats. Tortie Siamese(Wichienmaat), tuxedo Burmese(Thong Dang), blue Tonkinese, and still others you might identify as straight up Burmese, Tonkinese, or Siamese. The markets are filled with cats that carry the various Thai cat genes and look like nothing you have ever see... but even between those cats you can see some surprising litters. If a black tuxedo is carrying Siamese(cs) mates with a black tortie that is carrying Siamese(cs) you can and could end up with an entire litter of Siamese cats. (cscs) So, a market cat may look like a mackerel tabby you could see on the streets of Chicago but even that cat can carry any of the Thai genes and produce a kitten you might see in America.
The second thing is that the cats do not display fear of strangers. The first picture on the slide show is of a blue tuxedo cat taking a nap on the pillow provided for him, in the middle of a bustling market. He did not appear to "belong" to anyone, but someone thought enough of him to give him a comfortable place to sleep. In markets you encounter cats that are freakishly friendly, for what we would consider "feral" cats. I have been to open air markets in Europe, the Middle East, and South America, and yes you will find cats lurking there. But, you better watch out because they are vicious and will take you apart. Not the market cats in Thailand. See below a video of the sleeping beauty at the market.
I had mentioned earlier that in front of our five star 60 story tall hotel was a mini-temple and a family of cats? Well, here it is. This was the first thing we saw when we arrived from the airport, and very appropriately, there was a family of cats there to greet us.
Breeders In Thailand
Ari, as he is known, has some amazing cats. He seems to have a talent for selecting for eye color and his cats have dazzling eyes. If you want to see more of his cats, visit his facebook page! We loved his cattery because it was indoor/outdoor and the cats had the chance to go outside and run around. Great Place, Great Guy.
Our Cat Adventure in Thailand
Ok, if you did not get the message from the pictures, let me spell it out for you. Diversity. The cats in Thailand are genetically diverse and are healthier for that simple reason. But, there are two levels of diversity.
The first is genetic diversity. Breeders are constantly bringing in new random bred cats into their catteries. They freshen up their genetic pool on a regular basis. This learning is pretty basic and is supported by pretty much the whole scientific world. Most of us know its best not to have children with our mother or father or sister or brother. Inbreeding is not a winning strategy.
But, here is my totally unsubstantiated second theory around diversity. In Thailand, the coat colors were never segregated into "breeds" and the different coat colors have always and continue to breed back in forth. They are not colorists. I think their cats are still healthy because these different coat colors, and the mutations that cause, them, are not bred back to themselves for extended periods of time. In other words, I am thinking that breeding blue eyed cats to blue eyed cats, and grey cats to grey cats, is its own form of inbreeding. Perhaps the cats in Thailand remain healthy because they come from color diverse matings.
If you would like to see more of Preecha's incredible cats, you can visit his facebook page. You will see some astonishing cats. Dtu has been very active in resurrecting a lost color in Thailand, the Suphalak. He has some stunning examples at his cattery and is now fully engaged in the "Bangkok Cat" project. His whole family welcomed us and gave us a wonderful Thai welcome. Dtu, his partner, and his daughter are all great people!
Dr. Douglas Schar and Dr. Anatoly Vinokur
Take Aways from Our Adventure
Oh boy. Where to start. I learned so much from Nolan, Bew, Ari, and Dtu. From observing the cats in the markets, the temples, and at the catteries, and in front of our hotel!
To begin with, I have been fooling around with Thai cats in America and in Europe since 1982. Sometimes more, sometimes less. Recently more and more. And, I am very familiar with how Thai cats get bred in the west. I am also very familiar with the health crisis in purebred cats of Thai descent in the west. Half of the kitten requests I get come from people replacing cats lost at age 18 and the other half are people who lost a cat at age 2. My first cats lived to be 27 and 29 and they ate Purina red food out of a cereal box their whole life and never went to the vet. Today, in the west, cats of Thai descent cats are not always so healthy as my first cats.
I imported a whole bunch of cats from Thailand to correct the inbreeding problem within my line of cats. And, I have to say, it worked. I have super healthy cats and kittens. (They are animals, and just like people, they can pick up infectious disease and there is always the possibility of a random congenital defect, but, nothing predictable based on a genetic defect in my line. )
I will remind you that I am a medical research PhD that now breeds cats, so, I take a scientific approach to things. I have found that many cats of Thai descent in the west are now riddled with genetic diseases and many live in a state of poor health. Their relatives living in Thailand are not afflicted with the same genetic diseases. The Thai's are doing something right and we are doing something wrong. Theory: it would be worthwhile to learn from the Thai's as to how they breed their cats.
So, two doctors go to Thailand to specifically learn from the Thai's about how to breed their cats. What is their secret. I will offer our conclusion with a photo array.
I don't know if Thailand is home to a shocking number of Temples and Shrines or if they are simply more ornate than churches in the west so you notice them. But, I felt like every corner housed a temple or shrine of some sort. And lurking behind and around and on top of these shrines, are cats.
There are a lot of misconceptions about Thai cats and temples and they should be cleared up. Cats are not worshipped, or sacred, or part of religious tradition. Cats are found around temples because people know if they drop off a cat they can't keep, one of the monks will feed the cat. The Temples act like a Thai cat shelter. In ancient times it seems the monks liked having the cats around because they ate the mice that ate the sacred texts but Im not sure that is true anymore. For the most part, it seems Temples act as havens for cats that need a home. The monks feed the cats. Cats are tied up with Temples from a religious perspective only in so far as Thai Buddhists believe it is their responsibility to be kind to animals and in this case, kind to cats. So, cat welfare around the temples really is a part of Thai Buddhism which includes being kind to animals. I have heard people say that Siamese cats were worshipped in Thailand. Nope. Thai monks feed cats that appear to the best of their ability.
And just like the markets, you will see all kinds of cats around the Temples. Some that look like cats you could see at a cat show in the west, and some are just crazy combinations of traits you would never see mixed up in a western cat.
Some monks are more interested in the cats than others and take a greater interest in their care. When Nolan was touring me around the Monks housing area he said look for a house with cat bowls. That indicated a cat feeding monk lived there and was a good spot for cat spotting.
Pairath Khumsawang's Cattery(Ari)