By Dr. Douglas Schar
I wish I could say I got into breeding Burmese cats for noble reasons. I did not. I decided to breed Burmese cats for one entirely selfish reason; I wanted to make sure I always had a Burmese side- kick.
You see, the breeder that had always provided me with my Burmese cats announced she was retiring. I was sick when I heard the news. How could she do this to me? She made me into a Burm-addict and then thought she could cut me off, mid-life? Wrong answer. Ok, she had been breeding for 40 years, and was up there in years, and was suffering from ill health, but, considering the severity of my addiction to Burmese cats, logic did not come into play. Then I discovered she was not alone. A lot of Burmese breeders were retiring. Worse, the Iphone generation, was not taking up cat breeding……It seems there is no App to control tom cat spraying. For all these reasons, I decided then and there, I would have to become my own breeder.
I could probably dress up my motivation to begin breeding. I could say I decided to breed because of my love of the Burmese breed. But, that would be a half- truth. I decided to breed because of my love of LIVING WITH the Burmese breed.
My current “dog minus the walk” is called Bruce Lee. Recently, Bruce Lee and I were flying back from our winter house in Florida. As is his habit, he was sitting on the hard plastic chair in the airport terminal. He loves the airport because he sits on a chair and people come to him, talk to him, pet him, fawn over him. All of his favorite activities happen on one chair! For Bruce Lee, a plastic seat in the airport is his throne where fans come to pay their respects. By the time we hit the actual plane, he is so exhausted from adoration, he passes out under my seat. The only thing Bruce Lee likes more than an airport is running errands. When I say car ride, he runs to the door with lightening speed.
In short, he does all the normal Burmese things; he sleeps with me, he computers with me, he rides with me, he watches tv with me, he stalks me.
Then he has his unique behavior, and all Burmese seem to have one. This is his. In my kitchen, I have a mortar and pestle carved out of ancient olive wood. Bruce takes the pestle out, and sticks his head in the bowl and then rocks his head back and forth. He does this for half an hour or more. If human company comes over during one of his “don’t mind me, I am very busy putting my head in a bowl” sessions, he doesn’t stop. I just say to the visitors, “don’t mind Bruce, he is having some bowl time. ” Why does he put his head in a bowl? Who knows? Why does any Burmese cat do the odd things they do? It’s a mystery science has yet to unravel.
To insure I would always have a cat that sticks his head in a bowl, with his rear end up in the air, rocking back and forth, I decided to breed Burmese cats.
Beyond sustaining my burm-addiction, the timing was right to take up breeding. I had given up my medical career and was looking for something else to throw myself into for the second half of my life. I had spent decades studying and practicing herbal medicine, wrote lots of books on the subject, wrote for a national health magazine, and more. With that over and done with, I had the time to breed. And, I had space. My 10 acre farm 14 miles outside of Washington, DC, had lots of room for cat accommodation.
Being a medical researcher, I did my research before embarking upon my new path. I knew that the breed was created in 1930 by man named Thompson with two imported foundation cats; that very few cats had been imported since that time; and that a world re-known genetics expert had recently diagnosed my breed to be one of the two most “inbred” breeds in the fancy. I read the study, and, anything else I could get my hands on, and took all that information into consideration in establishing my breeding program.
So, I put together a stable of unrelated Burmese cats from diverse catteries. I learned about “inbreeding coefficients”. I learned how to use the inbreeding co-efficient calculator. I estimated my level of inbreeding to be between zero and five. By all accounts, that was really low, and my kittens would be healthy, healthy, healthy.
Here was my formula for success:
1. A collection of unrelated Burmese cats.
2. Three purpose built cat -houses, climate controlled, with up to the minute sanitization features including air filters that could make nuclear fallout breathable.
3. One Chrissy, a cat nanny, to spend extra time with all the cats so everyone’s emotional needs were met.
4. One full time neurotic medical professional with too much time on his hands. (Me)
5. A well researched cat diet certain to insure healthy cats and kittens…including a scary meat grinder strong enough to grind a whole chicken to paste, bones and all.
With all that in place, I was ready to succeed at my new venture.
Much to my surprise, I didn’t. I had a succession of problematic litters. My success included kittens that got infected eyes at eye opening time; kittens that developed respiratory infections; kittens that got diarrhea for no apparent reason; kittens that failed to thrive. I had one kitten die following a routine vaccination. She succumbed to the modified live virus used in the vaccine. The professionals opinion? My kittens had compromised immune function.
In my medical career, I had worked with HIV/AIDS patients, and knew my way around poor immune function. I new what I was dealing with when I saw it. Somehow my very unrelated cats were producing kittens with faulty immunity.
Being a chronic scientist, I began using my training to unravel the problem.
What I discovered was this. I had breeding cats that were only theoretically unrelated. In fact, they were all from a subset of the Burmese breed known as “traditional”. My theory became this. When traditional breeders broke away from contemporary breeders, they inadvertently created a genetic subset that was even smaller than the genetic subset called the Burmese breed. My breeding results suggested that my cats, from the breed, within the breed, were too closely related to produce healthy kittens.
Now remember, my selfish motivation for getting into breeding. I wanted to insure my supply of Burmese sidekicks. And, this breeding outcome was entirely unacceptable. Something had to be done.
I reflected upon the work of Thompson, our breed founder, to see if I could find any solutions. I read his article on Burmese genetics and anything else I could drudge up. The solution seemed straight forward enough. I needed to import some new Wong Mau’s from Thailand and use them in my breeding program. I needed to bring my little slice of heaven back into the genetically healthy range.
Before I get to what came next, I must pause and say this. I love, love, love the fact that I am doing my part to keep a breed going that was created by a guy that was cat breeder, psychiatrist, zoologist, and SPY. How many breeds can say their founder was a spy, and, picked up cats for his breeding program, while he was on covert operations? The fact that the words espionage and cat breeding, are found together in our early history, makes me love the breed even more.
So, I realized that if I wanted to make sure I would always have a Bruce Lee around, I would have to re-run the breeding experiment conducted by Thompson. I would reboot my colony of Burmese cats by repeating what Thompson had done. I would import cats from Thailand and use them in my breeding program. And this is where my story goes from adventure to off the road Safari.
Firstly, as a happy surprise, I discovered that the CFA had an outcross program that allowed me to import cats from Thailand, and use them to spice up my genetics. How hard could importing a cat be, thought I? I mean, they fly bananas from Costa Rica, grapes from Chile, surely I can fly some cats from Thailand. If I only knew what laid ahead.
Obsessive by nature, I turned my attention to finding Thai cats in Thailand. As best I could, I tracked down cat breeders in Thailand, and found that most of them breed British shorthairs. Not what I had in mind! But, I kept trawling the Internet and finally found a guy that seemed to breed Thai cats. And more specifically, brown Thai cats. The only problem was that he did not speak English.
I did the only sensible thing. I took his phone number to my local Thai restaurant and had my favorite waitress call him. Yes, the Thai gentlemen had solid brown cats for sale. And, they cost $200. I made an arrangement with the waitress to hire her her ex- husbands’ brother, in Thailand, to go check out the cats. Which he did. Then I hit the first snag of my well engineered plan. When the breeder discovered the cats were coming to America, the price changed to $20,000 per cat. That would only be an increase in price of $19,800.00 It seems there was a slight mark up for the American shopper.
I was infuriated, but not deterred. I decided to take a page from our breed founders play book, and go undercover. As my favorite waitresses ex-husbands brother had already made an appearance at the cattery, and his cover was blown, I had to find someone else to go back in and attempt to buy the cats. Back to the Thai restaurant I went. My second most favorite waitress got her cousins wife to agree to go and purchase two cats, on my behalf. I wired the money, my contact went to the cattery, and bought the cats for $200 each. When she called to report the mission was a success, I did a happy dance. And that is how my second most favorite Thai waitress got upgraded to my most favorite waitress.
My under cover cats had to be fostered in a “safe house” in Thailand, as they were only 8 weeks old. When they were 4 months old, they made the journey from Bangkok to Tokyo, Tokyo to Washington, DC. When I picked them up at the airport, I had two surprises. The first was that when I opened their crates, both cats came running out and jumped in my lap. They purred, they kissed, and they hugged. All this before they used the litter box, which, I’m sure they needed, as they had flown for 36 hours. They were 100% Burmese in the personality department. They had never met me, but, if I was willing to pet them, they were happy to know me. They did not look like Bruce Lee, but they sure acted like him.
The second surprise was this. They were not brown. The male was seal point Siamese in color and the female was blue. I called my contact in Thailand and was reassured that they both come from brown mothers, and my contact had been told they would produce brown kittens. I was a little disturbed because they were not what I thought they would be. But, I did what I do, and researched the situation.
What I came to discover was this. In Thailand, there is one breed of cat. It includes the range of cats we call Korat, Burmese, Tonkinese, and Siamese. They are bred back and forth, because, like Persians, they are just colors of the same breed. In fact my cats did come from brown mothers, but, the mixed genetics of their parents resulted in true rainbow litter! In Thailand, you can have Korat, Burmese, Tonkinese, and Siamese colored cats all in the same litter.
Enter genetics into my life. Though I never intended to learn about cat coat color genetics, or to be on a first name basis with people who work in genetics labs, this is now the case. To keep my life filled with Burmese cats, I had to come to grips with a new subject, cat genetics, and I have. I came to discover my two Thai cats could indeed produce Burmese cats, and…..they have.
Fast forward to the present. I have had four litters out my imported Thai cats, and, I am pleased to report that all the half Thai/half American Burmese kittens have been 100% healthy. No infections. None. They open their eyes, the nurse, they wean, and they leave the house and go onto happy homes with no intervention on the part of the breeder. Not one of my outcross kittens has needed one application of ophthalmic antibiotic cream on their eyes, or one dose of oral antibiotic for respiratory or digestive infections. The poor immune function just went away in one generation.
I have now forged friendships and contacts in Thailand, and I have imported 12 Thai cats, without the assistance of a secret agent! My new goal, apart from keeping the Bruce Lee’s coming, is to produce a classic 400 sable Burmese cat, using my American Burmese and my Thai imports. I aim to produce a basic brown Burmese that can be used by all Burmese breeders in their effort to keep the breed going. It’s a goal and if it takes the rest of my life to get there, it will be a life well spent.
The breed was started by a man on an adventure, and, doing my part to keep the breed going, has made me a man on an adventure.
My Burmese Cat Breeding Safari