Dr. Douglas Schar and Dr. Anatoly Vinokur
Me and These Crazy Cats
I deeply believe that a Thai cat, be that Siamese, Burmese, or Korat, is unlike any other cat. They are beasts onto themselves. I have spent my life with them, and, if anyone should know, it would be me. Indeed, my attempts to write this article is being serious slowed by two Thai cats rubbing on me, sitting on my keyboard, and doing anything to make their presence known.
What follows is my story with Thai cats. If you are interested in getting a Thai cat, which I encourage, you may want to read this first. There are cats and then there are Thai cats, and, as you will see, the two should not be confused.
My first memory of an animal is of our family cat Nikko, a seal point Siamese. It was the late sixties and Siamese were very popular cats and my mother, despite a fairly limited budget, managed to get us one. There are two things that I remember about Nikko. The first was the he followed me around, wherever I went. If I went up the stairs, Nikko went up the stairs. If I went into the backyard, he went into the back yard. In retrospect, he was rather like a mall cop following a teenager around to prevent a theft. I’m not sure what Nikko thought I was going to do, but, he was not going to miss it. As a child, we moved with constantly. On one of these moves, Nikko got lost. The moving truck pulled out and he was not to be found. Here comes the second thing I remember about Nikko.
Our new house was about 15 miles from the old house, many roads, many neighbourhoods away. The remarkable event occurred one afternoon a year and a half after Nikko’s disappearance. I was home from school having a snack, as a 3rd grader in inclined to do, when I heard a noise at the door. I opened it, and in marched Nikko. He walked in, went straight for his favorite couch, and sat down as if he had never been gone. It took Nikko 1.5 years to find us, but, he found us. This is a story I have heard over and over again about Thai cats. They are so determined, if they get lost, they will do everything in their power to find their family.
The next chapter of this story starts in my college years. I moved to Manhattan to attend NYU. The dorms in those days were appauling. I hated them and figured out that I could buy a loft in SOHO for the same monthly cost of the dorm. I found a loft, and with my families’ assistance, bought it. The loft was forty feet long and 25 foot wide and had 23 foot ceilings. Having no money, my furniture consisted of a futon on the floor and a desk on. Shortly after I moved into the shoebox, a date decided to spend the night. Fortunately for me, my date was a sound sleeper and was out in a few seconds flat. As I fell asleep, I felt something run across me on the floor futon. At first I thought I had imagined it, but, when it made a round trip, I new there was an intruder. A rat. Unbeknownst to me, the building had been a food warehouse before it was converted into apartments and was riddled with rats.
Talk about an awkward moment. You have a date, you are trying to impress, the way young people try to impress a date, in your bed, and a pack of rats try to get in on the action. Being young, without language or emotional skills, is hard. Well, morning came, the rats went back to wherever they went, and the date awoke none the wiser.
However, seconds after farewell kisses were planted, and that loft door was slammed shut, I was looking up the nearest animal shelter. 96th street on the east side. I was getting a cat effective immediately. I hailed a cab and headed north.
In those days, animal shelters gave cats away. Today, the shelters want to run background check, visit your home, indeed, they make it about as hard as adopting a child to save a cat from the gas chamber. In those days, you walked in looking for a cat and walked out with Mr. whiskers. Anyhow, once in the shelter, I asked the matron to show me the cats that found themselves on death row. I wasn’t looking for a pet, just a night watchmen. So, I figured I might as well save somebodies life in the process.
Honestly, I was a little hung over, which was probably the best way to do the walk of sadness. Viewing row after row of condemned kitties should not walked sober. So, walked I did. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a cat that matched my loft. I had painted the loft a pleasing combination of creams, tans, and chocolate brown. The inmate in question was a seal point Siamese, and came right up to her cell to greet me. I was hung over, and she matched my apartment decor, so, the deal was done.
In the cab, I decided I would call her Bernice Johnson. She was traumatized from her near death experience, and I was hung over, so, we decided upon a nap. A nap, I must say, I felt more comfortable taking knowing that I had a security guard in the bed. Immediately, Bernice exceeded my expectations. She wrapped herself in my arms and fell fast to sleep. When I woke up, Bernice was starring me straight in the eyes with her piercing blue eyes. Throughout her life, when she wanted my attention, she would get up on eye level, and give me that same stare. Bernice and I connected and she communicated to me on an almost telepathic level.
Bernice worked nights. As soon as the sunset, she walked the four walls of the loft and kept walking them until the morning rose. No more rats. And, she was obsessed with me. She slept on my lap as I did my homework and would walk up and kiss my nose from time to time.
Two weeks into this mutually beneficial arrangement, disaster struck. Bernice Johnson came down with pneumonia. At the time, Manhattan was home to house call vets, and, a lovely vet came to my apartment to make the diagnosis. Too sick to patrol the loft, the rats came back with a vengeance. And, being New York City rats, I had grave concerns the rats would eat Bernice while I was at school. So, I locked her in the kitchen cabinet, and headed back to the pound. Bernice Johnson and I both needed a bodyguard.
I walked in, and, rinse repeat, I asked the same Matron to show me death row. Just a few cages in, I spied a color-coordinated inmate. She matched Bernice and my apartment. I said, I’ll have her. In the cab I decided to name the new security guard Rhoda Gotlieb.
When I got Rhoda back to the loft, she walked out of her box, perused the new digs, and took a seat on the bed. It was only then that I noticed she appeared to have only three quarters of a tail. At first I suspected the worst, that someone had cut her tail off. However, I would learn that a tail defect was common in cats in Thailand, and, many of the early imports carried the defect. It didn’t bother Rhoda one bit, though, I didn’t bring it up so as to not make her uncomfortable.
When Bernice and Rhoda met, they were fast friends. Rhoda sniffed Bernice incarcerated in the kitchen cabinet, Bernice gave her a welcome nod, and that was it. Rhoda stood watch over Bernice and made certain no rats ate her or entered the loft. Rhoda had the same obsession with me that Bernice had. Once Bernice recovered, one cat would sleep with me, and the other would patrol for rats, and vice versa. It was very odd. They tag team me with love while maintaining their anti-vermin campaign.
The only thing they loved more than me, was each other. The two cats were inseparable. They slept in each others arms and would cry if they could not see where the other was. My friends would refer to them as my lesbian cats, and, from all outward appearances, it did appear to be thus.
Well, within a couple of months I discovered that both Bernice Johnson and Rhoda Gotlieb were sexually active co-eds. They both went into heat. I thought I would loose my mind. They were so loud! The vet said he could not spay them in high heat and we would have to wait. Well, after two weeks of screaming, I came up with an alternative solution.
We would have kittens. I called around the city and found someone who had a boy Siamese gigolo, a cat named Piwacket, and made an appointment. I loaded them in a cab and off we went. After their day of love, I went back to pick them up. Piwackets Pimp, peculiar gypsy like crooked eyed woman name Gloria, said that Bernice Johnson refused Piwackets advances and indeed was downright hostile. Rhoda Gottlieb, on the other hand, turned out to be quite a dirty little girl. She screamed party in my pants and spent the whole day giving her love to the hired hand.
Exactly 63 days later, Rhoda had 7 kittens. The curious thing was that she and Bernice raised them together. Bernice cleaned the kittens, slept with the kittens, and handled all general child-care responsibilities. Rhoda, the birth mother, only dropped by the nursery four times a day to feed the kids. And so it went.
The kittens were not like any I had ever seen. As soon as they were old enough to walk, when someone came to the door, they all crawled to the person. It was like seven ants heading towards a dropped sugar cube. The sugar cube, in this case, was the swarmed visitor.
I wasn’t the only person in my loft building with rats, and, Bernice and Rhoda’s children were quickly adopted my neighbors. The mother cats used to go down the hall or up the stairs to visit their daughters and sons. Each of the children displayed the same obsessive attachment to their owner, sticking to them like glue the way their mothers did with me.
While living in New York, I used to send friends and relatives a monthly newsletter detailing my adventures…. well most of my adventures. The Newsletter came from Douglas, Bernice, and Rhoda. One night, while I was sleeping, Rhoda took a big old pee on me. I am talking a direct hit. Turns out she had a bladder infection. Well, I mentioned the urinary crime in my newsletter. I stated that I had spoken to Rhoda and informed her that if that ever happened again, we were through. My mothers’ best friend got the newsletter, read it, and called my mother in hysterics. “Jan, we have to go the New York immediately and rescue Doug, he is living with in a polygamous relationship and one of the women pees on him”. Somehow my mothers’ friend missed one important fact; Bernice and Rhoda were cats.
Later, Bernice and Rhoda and I moved to DC when I graduated from College. They suddenly had a yard to play in, but, being Manhattan-ites, they were never much interested in using it.
By then I was writing books, and, they were happiest sitting in my office, side- by side, starring at me. I don’t know what they found so fascinating, but, they never tired of watching me clack away at the keys. One on my left side, one on my right, next to me knees or at eye level on the desk.
In fact, most of their life was spent sitting next to each other, like sentinels, observing me, and whoever came and went from my life. My friends used to call them the book- ends because they were forever standing guard, perfectly stationary, only moving their heads, in unison, to take in the action.
At about the time Bernice and Rhoda turned 21 and 22, I decided to go to medical school in England. The United Kingdom had a quarantine requirement. The thought of my two very elderly cats going into prison again, so late in life, was unbearable. My little sister offered to give them a good home for what we suspected would be a short remainder of their life. I still owe her for that that favor. Bernice Johnson died at the age of 27 and Rhoda Gottlieb survived her by two years, making it to 29. So, what was going to be a one or two years of watching my cats turned into a 7 year hitch of feline geriatrics. Fortunately, even in old age, the cats never went to the vet. Rhoda had one urinary tract infection once, and apart from that, they never got sick. They were healthy down to the core.
While studying and practicing medicine, I did not have time to get a cat. Plus, Connie and Rhoda still lived and I thought it would be cheating. But, when I returned to the states, my two girls had gone to the big desk in the sky, and I decided to get a new Siamese cat. Now, I had not been in the market for a Siamese cat in 20 years. I started checking the paper and visiting litters. Little did I know, a lot had changed in those twenty years. The year 2000 Siamese cats did not look like what I had had before. They were tall, long, un-healthfully skinny, and had freakishly triangular heads. They looked like praying mantis’s that had been spray painted Siamese cat color. I did not like what I saw. They did not look like the Siamese cats of my youth.
I did what I do, which was a little research on the subject. I learned that this freakish look had become the fashion amongst Siamese breeders, and, through dangerous inbreeding practices, they managed to change the old Siamese cat into the science project it had become. About as attractive as Chinese bound feet, and equally healthy, my favorite breed of cat had been ruined aesthetically and in regards health for some peculiar human vanity.
The new Siamese were so strange looking there was no way I could have one of those in my house. In addition, I learned that these new Siamese were riddled with health problems associated with being inbred. Ugly and suffering from chronic health problems was not what I was looking to add to my life.
I came to discover there were a few breeders in America still breeding traditional Siamese cats, cats like Nikko, Bernice, and Rhoda. I was lucky enough to find one such breeder in my area and went and got a kitten. Connie Chung. She looked and acted just like Bernice and Rhoda. Obsessive, attention seeking, she was entirely focused on me. Followed me wherever I went and hollered at me if I locked her out.
Almost simultaneously to the arrival of Connie, I got a call from a New York friend. Indeed, someone who had had one of Bernice and Rhoda’s children! He was living in Baltimore and had just purchased a little Burmese kitten. He reported that he was not pleased with the kitten because it was more of a dog than a cat, and, was smothering him with attention. I asked, more than the usual Siamese thing. He said, like a turbo Siamese. He said the cat stalked him day and night and gave him no privacy.
My earlier Siamese cats obsession with me was moderated by their obsession with each other, and, when Sergio suggested I come and interview the stalker for potential relocation, I jumped at the chance. I drove up to Baltimore that night. I walked in Sergios door and before I could sit down, a little grey bundle of a cat clomped down the stairs and onto my lap. See, said Sergio, he doesn’t even leave guests alone. Well, I was sold.
I said I’ll have him. I asked if Sergio had a cat carrier and he said I did not need one. He liked riding in the car. Now, that was a new one to me. So, I threw the kitten in the car and we rode back to DC. He sat on my lap and just enjoyed the ride. When we got to the house, I carried him in, and when I put him on the floor, he was home. We walked right up to Connie, introduced himself, and then declared the house and all its contents, human, animal, and furniture, his own.
Bruce Lee would grow to be a big boy, 16 pounds, with hair like clipped velvet. When people would see him, they would say, what kind of cat is that, and I would say Burmese. Lessor known than the Siamese, his stunning good looks and always attracted attention. He loved to walk to my local Starbucks and while he would sit and enjoy me enjoying a coffee, captivated many a passerby.
Bruce Lee really was an atomic version of a Siamese. He wanted to be with me under all circumstances. If I went on a bike ride, he wanted to be in the basket on the front of the bike. If I went on a car ride, he wanted to be in the car. If I sat in the hot tub, he wanted to be in the hot tub. When he slept, he slept with his arms and legs wrapped around my arm. And when he fell asleep, he did not move an inch until I got up in the morning. No tossing, no turning, just dead slumber as close to me as he could get.
Bruce, like most Thai cats had a case of obsessive compulsive disorder. His thing was dirt. He did not like dirt, and, if I drag a clod of dirt into the house, he would sweep the dirt into a neat little pile. I drink expresso and making expresso always results in coffee grounds flying all over the place. Well, this drove Bruce nuts. He would get up on the counter and carefully sweep the coffee grounds into a pile. A little strange to the casual observer, but, just one of the things Bruce did in a day. However, he spent so much time sweeping up coffee grounds, eventually, just the smell of coffee in a cup would send him into a sweeping frenzy. He would sweep around the cup, over and over again. I would say Bruce, there is no dirt. Still he would sweep.
Bruce was smart and persistent. Not all my excursions could include the grey stalker, much to his dismay. He figured out that what stood between him and me was a locked door and or window. Before he was six months old he knew how to open door locks and window locks. I had to put safety locks on all portals to my house to keep him in when I went out. Sadly, this love affair had a tragic ending.
I went out one day, and left him at home. The safety lock on one window was not locked, and, Bruce opened the regular lock and the window. He let himself out and sat on the street where my car, his ride, was usually parked. A car driving too fast swerved to avoid another car and hit Bruce.
The truth is I have always sort of laughed at people who went to pieces when their pet died. All that carrying on, sadness, seemed ridiculous to me. Until it happened to me and I became one of them. When Bruce was killed, I was devastated to my core. In retrospect, he did so many things with me, like bike riding and working in the garden, his presence was missed. But, perhaps even more, I was afraid I would never find a cat like him again. I missed him and suspected that I would never have that relationship with a cat again. However, I thought it was worth a try.
By this time, my friend Sergio had moved to Costa Rica and could not be reached. All I knew was that Bruce had come from a Burmese breeder named Barbara in Pittsburg. Not much to go on, but, fueled by sadness, I kept at it until I found her. I explained the situation and asked if she had any kittens available. I did not realize Burmese kittens were somewhat of a commodity and they were not many around. Anyhow, Barbara had some kittens that had just been born and would be ready to go in about three months. I sent her a check and waited for the call the little boy was ready for pick up.
I got the call and off the Pittsburgh I went. I met Barbara Kish for the first, and she handed me a little silver colored boy kitten. I put him on my lap and drove back to DC. He did not make a move, and was just happy as can be to sit on my lap for the duration of the trip. I began to pull out of my sadness as it began to dawn on me that I had another Bruce in my possession.
Now here is the trippy part. When we got to my house, I made a cup of expresso. I put the kitten on the dining room table and the cup of coffee. The phone rang and went to answer it. I turned around to see a six inch Burmese kitten sweeping his way around my cup of coffee. Not being much into reincarnation, I was suddenly quite convinced Bruce was back. What cat sweeps around a coffee cup?
I named the silver stalker Bruce Lee 2, as he really was the reincarnation of Bruce Lee. That first night he slept curled up in the crook of my arm, never moving a muscle, until I woke him up the next morning. He followed me around, loved car rides, and did just about everything Bruce Lee 1 had done. The only difference being that Bruce Lee 1 was an excellent walker and followed me without any diversions. Bruce Lee 2 seems to have attention deficit and walking with him, with all his side tracking, is a nightmare. We don't walk. But, we do car ride, which he adores.
I am reminded of a trip he recently took. He and my assistant were flying from Florida to Washington, DC, and their flight was delayed. Bruce just sat on a hard plastic airport chair for 2.5 hours, watching the people go by. People would come up and greet him, and, he welcomed the adoration. What cat sits on a seat in an airport and waits for his flight. A Thai cat.
I have had Thai cats my whole life, Siamese, Burmese, Tonkinese. I like them so much that from time to time, I have been involved in breeding these cats. Siamese in the 80’s, Tonkinese in the 90’s, and then Burmese. But, in early 2000 I came to understand that all three breeds were dangerously inbred and the life span was going down by the minute. Long gone were the days when the cats of Thailand lived to be 30.
I know these cats and love these cats and wanted to make sure they would be around for a long time. I wanted to breed them, but, I wanted to breed cats that would live to be 20 or 30. My thought was, when they were first imported from Thailand, they were healthy cat breeds. If I wanted to breed healthy cats, all I had to do was import more cats from Thailand. Oh how ignorant I can be. .
Importing cats from Thailand turned out to be quite the interesting proposition.
I wanted to ad some genetic diversity to my line of Burmese and thought it was a good idea to bring some in from the motherland. A pretty simple thought. It turned out to be incredibly complicated getting cats from Thailand. The one breeder in American who had done it refused to help me in any way shape or form. She was utterly unpleasant and obstructionist and generally a bad human. I guess she thought I would cut in on her turf. Who knows. She would not and did not help. But, eventually I succeeded in getting cats sent from Thailand to my newfound cattery in America. All I can say is this. Nothing could have prepared me for the arrival of my new Thai cats. Nothing.
I got the call from Korean airlines that my cats had arrived at Dulles. I had been anticipating their arrival since the moment I knew they had flown out of Bangkok. I ran to the airport, hoping they made it alive. It’s a 24 hour flight and I just prayed they had been fed and watered per their itinerary. I got the crates, took a look in and drove like a bat out of hell to get the cats back home. I feared they needed food, water, and the litter box in the worst way. A solid blue girl and a seal point looking male had made their way from Thailand to America, to help me increase the genetic diversity of the Thai breeds.
I ran the crates into the house, open their doors, and out came a male pointed cat and a female korat. They came right over to me, rubbed on me, and then said, excuse me, we need to freshen up. They did their business and came right back to me. They had flown for 24 hours and still, had the energy to come and get a good petting.
That is the personality of a good thai cat. That was not the part that surprised me. It was their look. It was their color. I instantly knew why the Victorians we taken when the Thai cats got off the boats in London and San Francisco in the 1890's. They were so beautiful, so elegant, so regal. Their colors were absolutely mesmerizing. I could not believe my eyes.
The boy looked like what we would call a Tonkinese. Not Siamese, not Burmese. Somewhere between the two. His eyes were light blue but more chalk than blue. His coat, well, the body was white but the points where not brown, nor blue, but both all at the same time with a coat of frost.
The girl was a blue black, a color I had never seen on a cat before. With a heart shaped head and spooky yellow yes, the charcoal sphinx moved and shimmered like nothing I had ever seen before. Magical.
I went to the kitchen and got two cans of cat food. When I went back to the bedroomed I had them sequestered in, I sat on the bed with the two cans. The boy came over, picked up the first can, and held it in both hands, up in the air, and attempted to open the can with his teeth. Monkey. He was standing upright and doing something a monkey would do. They were once called the monkey cats of Thailand, and, I had my own little monkey on my hands.
I sat for hours and hours, marveling at their beguiling beauty. They looked nothing like the Siamese, Burmese, Tonkinese I had loved in America. They may have looked different to what I was accustomed to, but, the dog like personality was exactly the same. They followed me, loved me, obsessed over me, just like all my Siamese, Tonkinese and Burmese cats had done before them. Same pet services, just a different look and in some colors I had not seen before.
And they would be the first cats I imported from Thailand, but not the last. And, these two cats and all the others that have followed, have been woven into my line of cats, and, I hope, I am in the process of creating kittens for homes that will live to be 30 like my early cats did!