Burmese Cats: Cats that Act Like Dogs
I am a researcher so I like research. I like doing book research, chasing down old articles, and talking to old breeders. Two of my good friends, Phyllis Wilson(Incapaisley) and Lee Cunningham(Madame Butterfly) were a constant source of information about the Burmese breed. They both liked to talk and had minds like steel traps. These two women were smart and did not forget anything. They have gone to the other side and I miss them quite often. They each had their knowledge base and every once in awhile, a question will come to my mind and I will think, Oh, I should call Phyllis, or Oh I should call Lee. I cant call them anymore but I am really glad I did call them quite a lot while I had the chance.
They were great because they knew all about the 1947 Burmese controversy and what happened next. If you dont know about the 1947 affair, it went something like this. According to Lee and Phyllis, who, had first hand knowledge, the CFA dropped the Burmese breed, because the Siamese folks thought Burmese cats were too similar to Siamese cats. The Burmese crowd were told to go away and come back once the Burmese were a distinct breed. Trying to make one Thai cat dramatically different than another Thai cat, is a challenge. And these were all early imports. I would say it would have been impossible. And according to Lee and Phyllis, Burmese breeders used Persians and domestic shorthairs to change the body, the coat, and the eye color of the Burmese. Off book breedings mind you. It was not discussed. It was not recorded. They just did what they had to do to change the Burmese breed enough so no one could confuse a Burmese cat with a Siamese cat, to get Burmese cats once again registered as a breed. The Burmese breed, with gold eyes, was eventually re-admitted into the hallowed halls of the CFA.
As someone who has imported dozens of cats from Thailand, I can tell you this much. Thai cats are willowy, they have micro-short hair, and they ALL have aqua eyes. I have yet to get a cat from Thailand with gold eyes. This is just to say, the 1947 Burmese breeders, looking to get the Burmese breed re-admitted to the CFA, did not get the "new and improved" Burmese cats, with gold eyes, heavy bodies, and dense coats from Thai cats. None that I have seen. This corroborates Lee and Phyllis's stories.
Side Bar: The Copper Cats of Thailand. Brown cats with gold eyes. I have tried to find them, from one end of Thailand to the other, and have not found any. Brown cats with aqua eyes is what I have found.
Anyhow, according to these wise old women, Lee and Phyllis, the period that followed the Burmese breed getting kicked out of the CFA and then re-admitted, the period between 1950 and1970, was filled with off book breeding. People used Persians, domestic shorthairs, and in particular black shorthairs with gold eyes, and exotic shorthairs in their programs.
Before I go any further, you really have to understand that Lee Cunningham and Phyllis Wilson were strong women who did not mince words. More than once Phyllis would say of one of my cats, "That is an ugly cat. You should give that monstrosity away". They spoke the truth.
In the 1960's Lee had an interesting experience. Two women Burmese breeders had picked up a kitten from Nikki Horner(Shawnee) and on their way back to Seattle stopped to stay with Lee in Nevada. The kitten was stowed in the laundry room. It cried as could be expected, and Lee, who knew her cats, said to the women, that is the cry of a Persian cat. The two women shuffled their feet and eventually said, yes, it was a Burmese cat that came out of Nicki Horners Black Shorthair-Persian-Burmese breeding program. Thus Lee always said, that if you see Shawnee in a pedigree, you can expect that cat to have black domestic shorthair and a Persian behind it. Of course, Nicki Horner would go onto to create the Bombay breed using Persians, black shorthairs, and Burmese cats. But, according to Lee and Phyllis, the brown cats from Shawnee, that can be found in most East Coast Burmese pedigrees, had black street cat and Persian behind them.
Well, having imported and handled dozens of Thai cats, and having breed many many American Burmese cats, this peice of information makes sense. American Burmese have gold eyes, thick coats, and are heavy cats. Thai Burmese cats have aqua eyes, ultra thin coats, and are slender to say the least. You cant get gold eyes, dense coats, and heft from a Thai cat. It's just not in the Thai cat.
The purpose of telling this story is as follows. Some American breeders are purists. They would never think of outcrossing their Burmese cats. This is ironic because the breed was "created" in America using a variety of breed inputs. I promised I would never tell these stories while Lee and Phyllis were alive as they feared being strung up by American breeders. But, they are gone now and I think their stories could be of use to the contemporary breeder trying to save the Burmese breed through outcrossing.
I will end with this proviso. I believe what Phyllis Wilson and Lee Cunningham told me. They had bred Burmese cats for 50 + years. They were breeding Burmese cats before head defect was a thing let alone something you could test for. They were breeding Burmese cats before the word contemporary and traditional existed. They knew stuff about the breed from the time it came into existence. They were there. Phyllis had cats from the original West Coast breeders! I believe them. Others may not believe them.
What follows are some articles I thought breeders might find interesting. The article on Nikki Horner is especially interesting.
In the first instance, it's good to know how the breed started. As a genetics experiment. The second article talks the breed getting defrocked, what happened next, and about genetic defects from inbreeding. Defects that people believe came into existence later in Burmese history. It reveals head defect may have been around for longer than imagined. The third article is a fascinating review of a remarkable breeder, Nikki Horner, who was breeding and thinking and making new cats and improving cats her whole career. She had the real spirit of a great breeder and I would like to think I am a breeder that is cut from the some cloth.
And, I will add, when you read about Nikki Horner's breeding program, you will see how Lee Cunningham's story about the Burmese cat that talked like a Persian could have been the case!
PS: Phyllis always said that all Burmese cats were brown until a group of Burmese breeders imported Korats from Thailand........and began breeding Korats! Who knows.