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November 23, 2015

International Cat Show draws thousands of people (and pets) to area

Feline from North Jersey wins coveted 'Best of the Best' prize

International Cat Show Whimsy
16-VanAukenT_voice_20151122_cats_0526.jpg Tracie Van Auken/for PhillyVoice

Sherrie Phelps, of O'Fallon, Mo., grooms Siberian cat Joshua before his competition in the Cat Fanciers' Association International Cat Show at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center in Oaks, PA. on Sunday, Nov. 22, 2015.

Vicki Nye remembers being 5 years old when her mom brought “a little male brown tabby” home to join their family and how, about two weeks later, “he broke his water in the living room and had five kittens.”

“So yes, I’ve always been an animal lover,” she said, letting the uncertainty of whether she meant male cats can, in fact, immaculately give birth linger in the air at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center in Oaks, Pensylvania, on Sunday.

Photo Gallery: International Cat Show in Oaks, PA

Time was tight. Nye was speaking during a brief break in Ring Nine action at the Cat Fancier Association’s International Cat Show, deemed by many of the estimated 5,000 in attendance as “the Super Bowl of Cat Shows” or “the big one, the Greatest Show on Earth.”

“People come from all over the world to this show,” explained Nye, an all-breeds judge with 29 years of experience, to a noob just minutes after his arrival. “They may or may not have cats. Sometimes, it’s difficult for them to travel with the number of cats they’d like to participate.

“In my long-haired finals yesterday, my second-best cat was from France. I had another cat in the finals from Brazil. We played the ‘Where Are You From?’ game during the finals. It’s the Big Kahuna to come to this show.”

Nye, a banker from Monterey, California, was one of 16 hand-picked CFA judges who – at the two-day event – selected the cream of the 700-cat, 42-breed crop, a competitive field that led up to a Manx from North Jersey named “Good to Be Me” – Manny, for short – as “Best of the Best.”

Best Of The Best
Gary Veach holds 'Best of the Best' winner Manny as Omar Gonzalez looks on. (Brian Hickey/PhillyVoice)
“I was hoping, but not expecting, this would happen. It feels like nothing I’ve ever felt before.” -- Gary Veach

“The great one always jumps out at you,” said Nye, generally speaking and noting that the thick “standards book” about scoring and desired cat qualities offers guideposts along the way.

Before we get to Manny’s resounding victory, let’s take a look at the event itself as seen through virginal cat-show eyes that saw order and structure replace the whimsy of cat videos and gifs that usurp millions of clicks on our computers.

The parking lot backed up the audience-demographic stance. Setting aside the locals who drove to the event about a half hour west of Philadelphia in Montgomery County, license plates indicated that cat fanciers from Maine, Florida, Michigan and, among other places, Ontario were in the house.

After a long-haired feline named “Camaliche Tequila Bom Bom” won the title in Ring Sixteen, the cat’s partner said they’d traveled across the Atlantic Ocean from the Canary Islands for the competition.

“Oh, I was very, very surprised,” said Maria Camaliche of taking the title. “I am very, very exhausted.” She wasn’t alone.

Inside the convention hall were row after row of cat owners and cages (or carriers) comprising a culture of familiarity. That’s not to say that, sometimes, a competitive streak doesn’t meddle in friendships.

As Nye tells it, her foray into the judging world started when her feline friend landed "Fifth Best Cat in the Nation" honors the first time she showed.

“That was followed by someone giving me a kitten that became ‘Best Kitten in the Nation.’ That was followed by 14 national wins and, finally, someone from our board of directors said, ‘You might want to think about applying for the judging program’ because I was starting to make more enemies than friends,” she said. “It gets to be that way. They’re happy for you for a while, but don’t wear out your welcome. … It’s generally very friendly, though.”

Meanwhile, Jacqui Bennett – a CFA judge from Buford, Ga. – held court at the show’s “Education Ring” and explained its mission.

“We talk to different exhibitors in the area who gave us these cats for the weekend to introduce them to the public,” Bennett said. “We show them about the breeds, tell them the histories and let them really feel the coats and understand the temperaments.”

Explaining the show itself, she said each of the 16 judging rings is independent – “It’s its very own cat show” – and spread across three categories (kittens between the ages of four and eight months, premiership for spayed and neutered adults, and championship for “whole cats”).

“We also have ‘household pets’ which is for random-bred cats or pedigree cats who aren’t showing in the class for one reason or another,” Bennett said of a feline population “all the way from our Abyssinians to Turkish Vans.”

Cat Show Winners
CFA Judge Larry Addison and several International Cat Show winners pose for a photo on Sunday. (Brian Hickey/PhillyVoice)

Demographically speaking, the crowd didn’t match the whole “Crazy Cat Lady” vibe one leaning on stereotypes might expect.

Sure, there was head-to-toe leopard-print garb, tons of kitten-ear headware and adult sons accompanying their mothers. But there were also men in “Dude, You’re Freaking Meow” and suburban fire-department T-shirts, folks donning Mohawks and purple-dyed hair, bikers with full-sleeve tattooed arms and others sporting camouflage hats.

In fact, it took three hours to see someone sporting a cat-themed sweater.

Near the Education Ring were signs for the “Meow Mall.”

There, cat-themed clothing, jewelry, carriers, furniture, ceramic tiles, books, photography packets and other trinkets, doo-dads and knick-knacks were available for purchase, as well as the “I Got Nipped” stand for “the World’s Strongest Catnip.” (Writer’s note: We did not fact-check the veracity of this claim.)

There was face-painting, “Pet Me Cats” exhibited throughout (people were invited to touch these cats despite others being off limits out of fear that “your kind affection may spread infection”) and a place for young visitors to color pictures of cats and play “Kittie Search!!!”

Cat Show Photo
This feline was off limits for cuddles at the International Cat Show on Sunday. (Brian Hickey/PhillyVoice)

“This is a family organization,” said Bennett. “We have something for everybody.”

Over at the “Feline Agility Competition” area, friskier cats were led through a 10-obstacle course involving jumps, hoops, tunnels and stairs. As a “ringmaster” kept time – four minutes and 30 seconds max – handlers lead their associates thanks to the help of teasing sticks with ribbons at the end.

On the minus side, Sunday’s agile cats were easily distracted, rarely locking in for quick laps through the course. On the plus side, that enabled Sonja Moscoffian’s 4-month-old Osicat named “Diablo” to take second place in the battle.

“You’re trying to figure out why they get bored and what new things will grab their attention almost daily,” she explained of the psychological rigors of the competition.

Over in the judging rings, the overall field was getting whittled down to the eight competitors who would be selected for the “Best of the Best” battle royale.

“Here, we have the best cats in the world all together,” said a judge named Pam Barnett sporting a candy-striper themed button-up shirt, engaging the crowd in her last Ring Three competition of the day.

Just after 3 p.m., roughly 150 people returned to the Education Ring, which had been transformed into center stage for a show-ending crowning competition which was introduced with the urgency of someone speaking as they drift off into an afternoon nap.

Of the 16 judges, three were randomly selected to weigh in on this momentous decision. One of them wore a gold ballroom gown. The event photographer’s dark suit showed signs of white cat hairs on it. Eight cat carriers were placed atop cages as parting gifts for each finalist.

After a 45-minute delay, the felines found their ways to their respective cages – one kept trying to break out – and the trio individually ranked them from one to eight. Numbers were then crunched by CFA overseers.

Though the show was supposed to end at 4 p.m. – a factoid regularly repeated over the sound system – the judging lasted until 4:07 and beyond.

“How you get to be up here at the Best of the Best,” the announcer said, “is to be near perfect in your breed.”

Then, word that “Astral Charles Fifth Element” landed second runner up was met with “Awwwws,” the snapping of real cameras and the lights of those on mobile phones and iPads. The same reaction met “Dot Dot Dot Sam I Am” being declared runner up.

Finally, it was time for “Good To Be Me” – aka Manny – to shine.

After the big announcement, which came at 4:20 p.m., well wishers surrounded Gary Veach, Omar Gonzalez and their Best of the Best feline.

Veach explained that the duo from Maywood, New Jersey, has won – and judged at – shows before, but there was truly something special about Manny. As opposed to many cat folks, they only had a two-hour drive to get home. But this trip would be buoyed by the satisfaction of their Super Bowl win.

“I was hoping, but not expecting, this would happen,” Veach said. “It feels like nothing I’ve ever felt before.”

And then, attendees were sent on their way with the promise that the International Cat Show would return to this very spot the weekend before Thanksgiving 2016.