THE HIDDEN WILDCAT ANCESTOR OF THE ORIENTAL SHORTHAIR
In the 1960s, Maria Falkena-Rohrle (Cattery “van Mariendaal”) in the Netherlands was involved in breeding small wildcats as well as domestic cats. The foundation queen of her Oriental breed was a “Sudanese Desert Cat” (Felis silvestris rubida) and its alert character of this cat was inherited by its descendants via cat named “Ruby.”
Firstly a little background. In the early 1960's, Falkena-Rohrle bred ruddy Abyssinian and imported a pair of red (i.e. sorrel) Abyssinians from England. These were Tranby Red Sothis (male) and Tranby Delila (female) bred by Dorothy Windsor of Tranby cattery. These were the first red Abyssinians to be seen on the continent. Instead of being orange-red, as expected, they were brownish-red, like a fox. She decided to find out if her they were genetically red and mated Delila to a ruddy Abyssinian male named Nigella Simba. Among the four resulting kittens was a ruddy female named Iris. If Delila was genetically red, any female kittens should be tortie, not black. This meant Sothis and Delila were genetically brown, not genetically red. She mated Iris to Crossways Heritor, the first Havana (genetic chocolate) stud in the Netherlands, owned by Margo de Haas.
Iris and Heritor produced three strongly ticked male kittens in 1964. They were fairly Oriental in type. Two were black and one was chocolate colour like Heritor. They would be called ticked tabbies today. The most attractive kitten was “Choco Prince” and had chocolate ticking. He was registered as Any Other Colour. Falkena-Rohrle wrote to Dorothy Windsor explaining that the so-called red Abyssinians were genetically chocolate. Windsor (who was shocked at the idea of mating Abyssinians to any other cat breed) insisted they still be called red because that was the colour they looked. No-one appeared interested in Falkena-Rohrle’d discovery that red Abyssinians were really chocolate so she went back to breeding tame spotted cats. This is where Ruby enters the story.
A Dutch family had brought Ruby's mother, a Sudanese wildcat back from Sudan and a biologist described the animal as a "Felis silvestris rubida", one of the many subspecies of the Silvestris group. Felis silvestris rubida has brownish reddish cat with more or less faint markings. The specimen brought to Holland had only very faint spots on it.
Back in the Netherlands, the owners tried to keep their wildcat like a normal domestic cat. This worked in the sense that she always returned from her long trips away from home, but it turned out that she was eradicating the chickens on surrounding farms. When the Sudanese female mated with a local red tabby tomcat and had 2 kittens, the family decided to get rid of her. Mrs Falkena-Rohrle was not able to acquire the wildcat female, who first went to a small private zoo and later to the Tiergarten "Artis" in Amsterdam, but she was allowed to have the two female offspring. They were sweet and tame and outwardly barely distinguishable from domestic cats. They had completely different voices, a mew and a shriek when they wanted something. They also had significantly longer canines. The two half-Sudanese were named "Sylvi M. Callas" and “Ruby R. Tibaldi. " Sylvi stood for" silvestris" and Ruby for “rubida". The other parts of their names were the surnames of famous female singers.
Sylvi was an Oriental looking tortie that resembled the cats in Egyptian paintings in the Louvre. She was much prettier than her sister Ruby, who was more robust and not so elegant. Ruby had a sandy background colour and grey-black stripes which were interrupted in places by spots (broken mackerel tabby). Their voices apparently resembled a cross between a fatally wounded opera singer and a parrot. Both Ruby and Sylvi were bred to Falkena-Rohrle’s red (i.e. chocolate) Abyssinian Tranby Red Sothis. Both produced some spotted kittens and some ticked kittens. The ticked kittens were indistinguishable from a purebred Abyssinian and had perfect ticking on their bodies, but had dark banded markings on their legs and tails. Sylvi later went to Groningen with Mrs Falkena-Rohrle’s daughter and soon ran away. Her fate is unknown.
Falkena-Rohrle kept a spotted kitten named Mimi from Sylvi’s litter and mated her to Choco Prince (son of Crossways Heritor and Iris). This produced two kittens in February 1966. The ticked tabby female kitten was named Choco Satin. The broken-striped mackerel tabby male kitten was named Choco Stramin. Their pedigrees record them as “any other colour" and we’ll come back to them later.
Ruby’s first litter was with the Abyssinian male, Tranby Red Sothis, and produced Caruso who had a very small trout patch pattern (which is apparently shown in a photo of him), a red brother and two sisters (one being Hortensia van Mariendaal who is behind numerous Oriental lines). Caruso went to a woman in Munich who was a friend of Dr. Rosemarie Wolff who used him in breeding. A beautiful female kitten, Columbine, was homed to Mr and Mrs Taubert in Dusseldorf and appears to have closely resembled an Abyssinian. Columbine reached 23 years old. Ruby’s red son reached at least 21 years old, but there are no details about Caruso’s lifespan. Falkena-Rohrle attributed the longevity to the influx of fresh wild genes.
Right after birth, Caruso and his 2 sisters looked almost black. Later, the two kittens developed into outwardly beautiful Abyssinians with stripes around their paws, like the earliest Abyssinians, but very clear ticking – described as threefold – on a warm orange-brown background. This appeared to confirm the theory of African descent of the Abyssinians.
Ruby’s second litter was accidental and was sired by a lilac-point Siamese tomcat. This resulted in kittens with small, very uniform markings not trout-spotted. They inherited numerous colours and dilution factors from the father and in later generations black-spotted, chocolate- (brown) spotted, Iilac- and blue-spotted kittens appeared. It occurred to Mrs Falkena-Rohrle that this (Abyssinian x Sudanese Desert Cat x Siamese crosses) could solve the problem of so many people wanting to have wild-looking, spotted cats with tame temperaments. However the idea did not take off. She exhibited a very beautiful, brown-spotted tomcat, a great grandson of Ruby, named "Choco Spot van Mariendaal " at the International Cat Show in Amsterdam, but hardly any visitors bothered to look at him and the judges dismissed him as "This animal does not belong to any breed I know. Probably it is a hybrid and has nothing to look for at a cat show.” Choco Spot is also behind a number of Oriental and Siamese lines.
Ruby is listed in pedigrees as “Ruby R Tibaldi van Mariendaal, XSH” which masks her wildcat ancestry. Her own parentage is shown as “Karel” (retrospectively registered as a European Shorthair male) x Soedi (Experimental Shorthair female foundation). Soedi was a the Sudanese wildcat.
In retrospect Mrs Falkena-Rohrle knew she should have bred three generations and fought for recognition, but she decided not to. At that time cat-fur coats were in fashion and she was terrified that she would produce a spotted breed that would end up being bred for their fur, not as pets. Instead, she continued to breed from her wildcat hybrid, and its offspring, and when self-coloured cats with good Siamese conformation were born she registered them as experimental Orientals and they were well received. The self blacks became "Ebony", the chocolate brown became "Havanas" and there were also Blue and Lavender Orientals. She also had Cinnamon cats before these arrived in England – meaning she was the first person to produce Cinnamon Orientals. Mrs Falkena-Rohrle’s Orientals all trace back to a spotted Sudanese cat -many breeders of Oriental cats probably don’t realise that their cats carry a relatively recent influx of wild genes. In the end, it’s probably not very relevant because the Sudanese Desert Cat is a close relative of the ancestors of all domestic cats.
Let’s return to Sylvi’s spotted daughter, Mimi, who was mated to Choco Prince (son of Crossways Heritor and Iris). This produced the ticked tabby female Choco Satin and the broken-striped mackerel tabby male named Choco Stramin. Both were a much lighter chocolate colour than either Choco Prince or Crossways Heritor. The background colour was pale milky coffee. This was different from the apricot background colour of so-called red Abyssinians. Falkena-Rohrle could not explain this unusual colour so she wrote an article that was printed in magazines in the Netherlands, France, Germany, America, England and Finland. The only person who took her article seriously was Dr. Rosemarie Wolff, a FIFe judge from Germany who was interested in genetics. The article caught the attention of Dutch breeder Do Wielinga and she went to visit the cats. She noticed that they were the exactly the colour of Dutch cinnamon biscuits. This was how the colour got its name.
In 1969, Falkena-Rohrle mated one of her spotted males to a spotted female. She expected spotted kittens. Instead, because of recessive genes, she got 2 ebony (black) and 2 Havanas (chocolate). So she concentrated on breeding Havana cats for the next 10 years. Every little while some cinnamon biscuit colour Havana kittens were born and she gave these “mistakes” to friends. Cinnamon cats, and even lighter colour Havana cats, were born in other parts of the Netherlands. Independent cat clubs and breeders liked these cats.
In summer 1979, Falkena-Rohrle received a letter from Stibbe Lieneman. a breeder from one of the independent clubs. She also had “blond Havana" and she knew that they came from Falkena-Rohrle’s breeding experiments. Falkena-Rohrle acquired one of the blond Havana kittens, Desert Sands de Mont Eyk. Falkena-Rohrle then heard about a cinnamon male cat named Catty Castle's Singa Mas. He was owned by the van Eek family who bred Orientals. She mated her Havana female (carrying cinnamon) Akeleia van Mariendaal to Singa Mas. She also mated Akeleia's sister Alice with Desert Sands. She was now breeding cinnamon Orientals and became a member of the independent Dutch Cat Breeders Club called N.K.F.V.
In March 1980 lneke Zegers, the chairman of the N.K.F.V.. called Falkena-Rohrle to ask how many cinnamons she had. The number was more than 25 so Zegers suggested that they went for official recognition. In April 1980 they were recognised as Foreign Shorthairs. The cats were automatically recognised by the other independent cat clubs. FIFe still did not recognise them.
In 1984 Marvin Miseroy (El Chiridah cattery, Netherlands) who bred Siamese became interested in the cinnamon colour. He worked with Falkena-Rohrle to develop cinnamon point Siamese and cinnamon Oriental Shorthairs. He also imported cinnamon cats from England to improve conformation. In 1989, Miseroy and a Swiss breeder, Wendell Stoop (Silver Fox cattery), presented the cinnamon and fawn Siamese, Balinese, Javanese, and Orientals at the April 1990 FIFe International Cat show in Almere, the Netherlands. The Javanese and Orientals were recognised. Siamese and Balinese weren’t recognised at the same time because of problems with a recessive albino gene that had entered the European cinnamon gene pool from cats imported from England (this gene came from American cats). In 1995, when breeders were certain the albino gene was eliminated they achieved recognition of cinnamon Siamese and Balinese in 1995. Recognition at that time was only for solid points, not for cinnamon tabby or cinnamon tortie.
The English Cinnamons
In England in the late 1960's, Siamese breeder Maureen Silson wanted to produce a white Siamese. She followed the same process that had created white Guinea pigs i.e. breed a red to a Himalayan pattern. She knew that breeding a cat with the sex-linked orange (red) gene to a Siamese would produce red point Siamese so she decided to use the red Abyssinian as this “red” (actually cinnamon) was non-sex-linked. Silson bred a seal point Siamese female, Annelida Fair Maid, to a red Abyssinian male, Tranby Red Tutankhamen (litter brother of Tranby Red Sothis who gave rise to Mrs Falkena-Rohrle’s cinnamon Orientals). This gave a chocolate agouti and a black agouti. Silson bred these litter mates and produced Southwiew Pavane in May 1971. Pavane was the first cinnamon in the English cat fancy although she was registered as a Havana (chocolate),
Silson did not realise this was a new gene. She noticed that Pavane was unusually light-coloured for a Havana, She referred to the cinnamon cats as “milk chocolate Havanas,” but when Pavane grew up she was even lighter in colour and very obviously not a Havana. For a while, this colour was called pavane in England. Silson continued to breed these cats and found that the colour was caused by the so-called red gene from the Abyssinian. It proved to be an allele (i.e. it occupied the same position on the chromosome) of chocolate and it was recessive to both black and chocolate.
Silson still wanted to breed white Siamese so she obtained a female called Anart‘s Miiko from the USA. She bred Miiko to her “Pavanes.” It soon turned out that Miiko's white colour was caused by the “recessive white” gene (properly called blue-eyed albino). This gene had now entered the main breeding lines of English cinnamon Orientals. The British GCCF decided this gene was undesirable because colourpointed cats carrying it developed lighter point colours than cats that did not carry it. Some carriers developed white speckles. It also made the cats very sensitive to light which caused them to squint in discomfort. Recognition of cinnamon was not given until the recessive white gene was removed from the gene pool.