THE ABYSSINIAN CAT, BY HC BROOKE
It is with genuine regret that I have to state that it has been impossible, even though some years ago I appealed for the help of some of the oldest members of the Fancy, to discover any really satisfactory facts regarding the history of this beautiful and interesting breed in this country. The fact is deplorable, and I cannot but regard it as typical of the want of deep interest in matters apart from mere breeding and exhibiting, which is so noticeable in the Cat Fancy. I could give other instances, which, however, would rather be out of place here. In my opinion, and in that of certain eminent Continental Zoologists, the Abyssinian Cat may be regarded as the nearest approach to the Sacred Cat of Ancient Egypt now existing. (Sad to say - a prophet hath no honour in his own country! - I am not aware that any English naturalists have turned their attention to this eminently interesting breed.)
From the various mural and other paintings which have been preserved to us from the days of the Pharaohs, we see that the most common coloration of the domestic cat in Egypt some three thousand years ago, was much that of the African Wild Cat of to-day: that is to say, rather lightly striped in the manner of the tiger, not with the heavier longitudinal markings we usually call "Tabby." When and where and how the true tabby markings originated I cannot say, and I doubt if anyone knows.
A foreign scientist of some eminence wrote a few years ago that he considered the tabby (by which he probably meant stripy, whether vertical or horizontal) pattern to be latent in all domestic cats but the Siamese, and with this opinion I quite concur, though I am sure not only breeders of Abyssinians, but also of S.H. Blues, would be very thankful were it not the case.
I have examined several dozen skins of the African Wild Cat, which has received so many names in every language. (Fettered, Egyptian and Caffre Cat, it has been called in English; in Latin it has borne yet more synonyms), and whilst the large majority have been the common grey lightly striped form, there have been others which in gradation lead up to the Abyssinian as we know it.
As far as I have been able to ascertain, the first specimen of the Egyptian or African Cat to be described was the female mentioned by Rueppel, under the name of "Small-footed Cat" (F. maniculata) in his "Atlas zu der Reise in Noerdlichen Afrika". It appears to show some of the characteristics we demand in the Abyssinian: small size: "Its size is that of a middle-sized domestic cat, and smaller than the European Wild Cat by one third: all the proportions of its limbs are on a smaller scale"; colour: "Ochreous, darker on the back" (c.f. the "eel-stripe"). The illustration shows an ochreous coloured cat, with slight markings on tail, limbs, and face - just, as we find in inferior Abyssinians. This cat was found in Nubia.
At the present day, in the Natural History Museum, is to be found a small Sudanese Wild Cat (F. ocreata), of a rusty-red colour, slight in build, with slender limbs, and lightly marked on tail and legs. It reminds one at once of a certain Abyssinian Champion, whose colour is admirable but who fails in "ticking". In the specimens I have studied, I have been able to observe how the striping in some individuals degenerates into indistinct spotting, the spotting in its turn degenerates in certain specimens into a sort of mottling - an impression also given by some inferior Abyssinians - and then we get the plain unmarked specimens, with more or less ticking. I failed to find any well-ticked skins at the British Museum, but at the great Wembley Exhibition I saw a number of African Wild Cat skins exhibited by a firm of furriers, almost identical with our Abyssinians.
The "foreign" type we prefer in this breed is apt to appear and become more or less fixed in any variety in which we selectively breed with small, slender, and elegant specimens, in preference to those of a cobby or massive build. In the accompanying illustrations I show the gradations in the African Wild Cat of to-day from the faintly spotted form to the faintly mottled, well-ticked, modern Abyssinian type; and in the papyrus painting, over 2.000 years old, of an Ancient Egyptian Cat, we find the brown body with barred legs and tail of the third rate Abyssinian of to-day, the belly being of an ochreous yellow, such as we look for in a brown Abyssinian.
As I remarked above, it has been impossible to obtain details as to the early history of the breed in this country, though surely it should have been possible to ascertain when the breed first received official recognition, when it was first catered for at Shows, who were the first exhibitors, and so forth. Some details as to the early exhibits would also have been of great interest. The earliest reference I have seen is that made in one of the late Dr. Gordon Stables' books, "Cats, their points, etc." (1882). The cat therein portrayed is described as being the property of Mrs. Barrett Lennard, and as having been brought from Abyssinia at the conclusion of the Abyssinian War. The portrait, however, is not instructive, as it resembles no Abyssinian Cat that I have ever seen, but I judge this to be due to poor colour printing. In the quaint "Book of Cats" (C.H. Ross, 1867) no description is given, but we find this statement: "In Abyssinia cats are so valuable that a marriageable girl who is likely to come in for a cat is looked upon as quite an heiress".
When The Cat Club was doing its best to ruin The National Cat Club, nearly thirty years ago, it dropped the title of Abyssinian from its Register, and inserted instead "Ticks". At that time what we must call "British Ticks", often also known as "Bunny Cats", were far more common in various parts of the country than they are now; these cats were usually as well ticked as any Abyssinian, though some had a "mottled" appearance. Mr. Louis Wain was very fond of them, and obtained for me two or three nice specimens from various parts of the country. Their ground colour was usually a dark grey or blackish grey; they had heads of a pronounced "British" type, and heavily barred legs and tails. At that time the Abyssinian seemed to stand in danger of becoming extinct; of the few that existed many were shy breeders, kittens were difficult to rear, and these British Ticks made a useful outcross. It is remarkable how they crop up in different parts from time to time from ordinary "garden cat" parents; this, I think, is undoubtedly a reversion to ancient type. About five years ago I saw a fine male in the possession of the caretaker of a Public Hall in North London; there is a charming little queen in a cottage near here which appeared in an ordinary mixed litter of kittens belonging to a Taunton draper. A few years ago an extraordinary and beautiful form appeared amongst those owned by Sir William Cooke; in these the ground colour was creamy white, but the ears and dorsal stripe showed the rabbit-coloured fur so characteristic of the breed. Unhappily this lovely mutation was allowed to die out, and at present I only know of one existing specimen. The eyes of these cats were blue. To me it is very saddening to think that apathy has been responsible for the loss of several charming varieties of cats, and when we consider how any interesting or pretty mutation appearing in Rabbits, Mice, or Rats is eagerly fostered, I feel the Cat Fancy has little cause for pride. The fact that this Albinism appeared progressively shows that it was not, as has been suggested, due to a chance Siamese cross.
Probably the best Abyssinians ever seen in this country were Sedgemere Bottle and Sedgemere Peaty, the property of Mr. Sam Woodiwiss. They were, as far as I know, not related, and if this be the case it is really remarkable how two such specimens were obtained. They were very much the colour of a hare. Peaty ended her days in my possession, and I have always regretted not having preserved her skin, to at least retain her glorious colour, though her beautiful sinuous form and delicate limbs can hardly be imagined by those who have not seen her. About thirty years ago some very good Abyssinians were shown by the late Mr. Heslop, of Darlington ; Mrs. Alice Pitkin also exhibited some fair specimens, many of hers, however, being too dark and "British Ticks" in type. Later Mrs. Clark, of Bath, possessed many excellent specimens.
I bred quite a number at that period, perhaps the best being Chelsworth Peaty, who greatly interested Queen Alexandra, then Princess of Wales, when I exhibited her, suckling a ferret, at a Botanic Gardens Show. I sent quite a number to Continental menageries and fanciers; early in the century, however, I gave up all dog and cat breeding, and left London for the West Country to devote myself entirely to hunting. Had not Mrs. Carew-Cox about this time devoted herself to the breed I very much fear it would, ere now, have become extinct. Neglected - Heaven knows why - by the Fancy at large in an inconceivable manner, this beautiful and interesting breed certainly owes its existence to-day mainly to the devoted care and affection bestowed upon it by Mrs. Carew-Cox, who for a quarter-of-a-century has fostered it in the face of discouragements which I verily believe would have "choked off" any other person in the Fancy. Not for her the "big business" in stud fees, the "queued-up" queens, the cups and specials galore, which fall to the lot of many L.H. breeders; no, in the face of rotten judging, lack of recognition, poor prizes, lack of market, and a heartbreaking mortality in kittens, this plucky lady has carried the Abyssinian flag triumphantly through. She cannot (or modestly will not?) tell me how many champions she has bred since some thirty odd years ago she fell in love with the first specimen she saw at an hotel at Winscombe, Somerset, where they were said to have been left by one who had been a traveller in "furrin parts".
Incidentally, I may mention that a good many years back Mrs. Carew-Cox published a couple of letters from a gentleman who had been shooting in Abyssinia, and who stated that he had there shot a pair of wild cats, whose skins he brought to England, and which seemed from the description to correspond in every way with our present-day exhibition specimens.
To conclude, I will now give a description of the characteristics of this lovely breed.
The general appearance of the Abyssinian is that of a rather small and very elegantly built cat, with graceful slender limbs, elegant head, with rather large ears and lustrous eyes. What is commonly called in the Fancy the "British type" is here out of place; we do not want round short head, small ears, cobby build, powerful limbs. Of course, to those who can see no beauty in a cat which has not a head like a Pekinese the Abyssinian will not appeal, and I have read descriptions by such people referring to the Abyssinian as "gaunt" and "half-starved looking". As a matter of fact, any person capable of appreciating truly graceful lines and sinuous and elegant shape in the Cat, will admit that in this respect the Abyssinian has but one rival, to wit, the Siamese. The most usual colour of the Abyssinian very strikingly resembles that of a wild rabbit, in fact I have known many whose fur could not be distinguished from that of the rabbit, when placed side by side, until carefully examined, when it is seen that the fur of the rabbit is grey near the skin (under colour), whilst that of the cat is, or should be, rufous. The "ticking" is a most essential property in the Abyssinian, and is caused by blackish, or dark brown, tips to the hair. Some - the best ticked - have about three quarters of the length of each hair rufous, then two, or three, bands of brown or orange shades, the darkest being at the tip. Others have merely the rufous base and the dark tip. The under-colour should always be as bright and clear as possible, not a dull lifeless brown, which much detracts from the beauty of the cat.
Some years ago there were a number of so-called "Silver-Abyssinians" in existence. I regard silver as an absolutely alien colour to the breed, and though there would have been no harm done if these silvers had been kept to themselves, I cannot but think that they did an infinity of harm to the breed, by introducing a grey tinge into the coat, with the result that the beautiful ruddy tinge which we used to see in the cats of long ago, is now apparently lost to us. How they originated, or whether any cross was made use of to obtain them, I do not know. I am not aware if any Silvers exist now; personally I hope not, though some may not agree with me in this matter. Brown of a warm tint is evidently recognised by the older writers as the real Abyssinian colour, and I think Harrison Weir, writing in 1882, is the first to mention "Silvers", which he does as a sort of afterthought, referring to them as a new variety. For a while, some judges seemed to go crazy about them. Some Abyssinians are far more grey in general appearance, and in others the predominating tint is rufous. We find the same difference in the Wild Rabbit, whose coat so closely resembles that of these cats. Some greyish looking cats have yet a lovely ruddy undercoat. But to give a general impression of the colour we should strive for in these cats - though it seems non-existent nowadays - it is hard to improve upon the comparison with the Hare or Belgian Hare, dear to the older writers.
Absence of markings, i.e., bars on head, tail, face, and chest, is a very important property in this breed. Those places are just where, if a cat or other feline animal shows markings at all, they will hold their ground to the last with remarkable pertinacity. The less marking visible the better; at the same time, the judge must not attach such undue importance to this property, that he fails to give due importance to others. For instance, it does not follow that an absolutely unmarked cat, but of "cobby" build, failing in ticking and colour, is, on account of absence of marking, better than a cat of slender build, well-ticked, and of nice colour, but handicapped by a certain amount of "barring" on legs or tail. The belly fur is not ticked as on the rest of the body, and should be free from spots or stripes; the colour should be a light brown, matching the other parts.
Much has been said for and against the "eel-stripe" - the darkish line which in some specimens runs down the centre of the back. Personally I am indifferent; but, if allowable, it is certainly not to be regarded as a racial characteristic. (For the simple reason that all breeds tend to have a darker line down the back, which in some is an absolute defect; in the case of the Abyssinian it is not objectionable, and is approved by some people.) A little black tail tip seems to me to give a nice finish; the heels are also black. Ears large and open, and a blackish or dark brown tip to the ear is desirable. The head looks slender and pointed, but not of the wedge-shape or "marten-face" sought for in the Siamese. The heads of old males naturally tend to be more massive and round than we wish to see in the case of females and young males.
Eyes: These should be large and lustrous, of a kind expression; more oval than in the "British" cat. As regards colour, I prefer a bright green, personally, but a nice amber eye is certainly preferable to a "greenery-yallery", washed out looking eye. White marks of any kind, such as on chest, throat, or toes, taboo in show specimens. The colour of the paws should be of a very delicate yellowish brown tinge, harmonising with the general colour scheme.
The character of the Abyssinian is usually very gentle, rather shy, not taking readily to strangers, but very affectionate.
In short, it is one of the most charming and interesting varieties we have, and it has time and again been shown that a really good Abyssinian can usually be relied upon to do pretty well when it comes to judging the "mixed special prizes" at Shows.