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The American Curl: A Balancing Act


by Karen O'Brien
From The Cat Fanciers' Almanac, June 1996

Accidents happen. So do miracles. None have been so special or unique to the feline world as Mother Nature's gift in 1981, the American Curl. Still considered one of the newest breeds in the cat fancy, the American Curl continues to gain in popularity and numbers as evidenced by the most recent statistics published by CFA. For the calendar year 1995, 223 American Curls were registered with CFA, an increase of 23% over the 1994 totals, which resulted in the Curls being ranked 25th out of 37 recognized breeds - quite an accomplishment for a breed that had such austere beginnings just 15 years ago.

THE FIRST SIGHTING

In June 1981, the breed which is true to its name and its place in modern American culture was discovered in the suburban California community of Lakewood on the doorstep of some unsuspecting residents, Joe and Grace Ruga (Curlniques Cattery). Grace, in the throes of being seven months pregnant with their first child, remembers that she was "trying hard not to do anything" on the day that the first American Curls graced the Rugas' path. Joe returned from work that evening and spotted two six-month-old kittens outside his home. He approached Grace inside and remarked, "Did you see those kittens outside?" When Grace replied that she hadn't, Joe continued, "Well, they look skinny; don't feed 'em!" According to Grace, Joe went into the other room to change clothes, and Grace "promptly got the kitties something to eat," noting that they had "ears that curled back from their heads in a funny way." The kittens appeared to be sisters; one was black with long hair and the other was black and white with semi-long hair, both of their coat textures being fine and silky. The kittens were christened Shulamith and Panda, respectively, and they needed no further invitation than a decent meal.

Although Shulamith was very protective of her sister, Panda disappeared approximately two weeks later, apparently due to fright, leaving Shulamith to become the foundation cat of the American Curl breed. Shulamith promptly ruled the home of the Rugas, making a place in their hearts and a place for herself in history. Joe Ruga quickly forgot his dietary recommendations, and, working side by side with Grace, has been an eloquent leader and spokesman for the American Curl breed ever since. Interestingly, "Shu" became Joe's companion, and according to Grace, "The sun rose and set on each of them, as far as the other was concerned."

Prior to finding Shulamith, the Rugas described themselves as "casual pet owners," but in December 1981, after the birth of Shulamith's first litter, their outlook changed as they realized that Shulamith's unique ears could well indicate an entirely new breed of cat. They immediately began diligent research and test breedings which eventually led to the official recognition of the American Curl in varying registries. Shulamith did her part as well, contributing several litters of kittens whose charm and intelligence would win the affection of friends, relatives, breeders and fans the world over.

THE ROAD TO CHAMPIONSHIP BOULEVARD

As a result of an article she authored on Scottish Folds for a local publication, Jean Grimm, a CFA judge and breeder of Scottish Folds, was contacted to assist this unusual breed in its infancy and determine if this strange cat was indeed unique to the cat fancy. After examining Shulamith and many of her progeny, Jean determined that the cat fancy had never seen anything like these cats before. She was hesitant in the beginning and warned the Rugas and those involved that the road to obtaining recognition by the cat associations was long and hard. But Shulamith's fans were believers, and, with Jean's knowledge and support, they forged a path to the first presentation of American Curls to the public at a CFA show in Palm Springs, California on October 23, 1983. After a close study of Shulamith and a review of various breed standards and renderings from The Book of the Cat, the first breed standard for the American Curl was drafted. The Abyssinian, Egyptian Mau and Ocicat breed standards were used as structure references, but that is not to say that the American Curl should resemble any of these breeds. The Curls originated as a domestic cat with an unusual mutation. To preserve their particular identity, the Curl standard was structured around the characteristics of Shulamith, the foundation cat of the breed. This description of the ideal Curl varied just enough to distinguish it from all other breeds, thereby dictating that the only allowable outcrosses for American Curls would be non-pedigreed domestic cats closely matching the breed standard. This would ensure a large genetic pool and optimum health in the breed while also maintaining the individual and unique appearance of the American Curl.

Two noted geneticists, Solveig Pflueger and Roy Robinson, were contacted to study this unusual mutation. They each determined that the peculiar curled ear was a genetic trait and was inherited in every case, causing it to be labeled a dominant gene, with no deformities attached to it. Referred to as a spontaneous mutation, the gene that causes the ear to curl appeared to be following a single dominant pattern.

The first Curl-to-Curl breeding occurred in January 1984 with the resulting kittens born in March. Playit By Ear, a black and white male kitten from this litter, became the first known homozygous American Curl, which meant that all of his offspring would have curled ears, regardless of his pairings with curled or straight ear females. Needless to say, homozygous American Curls are very desirable in breeding programs for their predictable progeny. Since that time, countless Curl-to-Curl breedings, including pairings with homozygous American Curls, have been conducted with no genetic abnormalities reported.

These breedings have resulted in a healthy cat, remarkably free of the genetic defects that afflict other breeds. Due in part to the huge domestic gene pool behind the American Curls, breeders who work with other breeds in addition to the Curls have reported that Curl litters are generally very hardy and are less susceptible to the usual kitten diseases and shot reactions seen in their other breeds.

American Curls were first accepted for CFA registration in 1986 and achieved Provisional status in 1991. Shulamith was a key contributor to the precedent that was set in CFA in 1993 when the Curls were advanced to the Championship Class. Shulamith, a longhair cat, delivered the first shorthair Curl in her third litter and later offspring followed suit, producing both longhair and shorthair Curls, which resulted in the American Curl being the first breed to be admitted to the CFA Championship Class as one breed with two coat lengths. Due to their diverse domestic ancestry, American Curls are available in both longhair and shorthair varieties and come in any color or coat pattern, including pointeds, which were initially noted in Shulamith's first litter. Both coat lengths are presented in the Longhair Division at CFA cat shows.

In their short history, American Curls have truly become an internationally appreciated breed, having strong and loyal followings in Europe and Japan, as well as North America. Sightings of feral cats possessing similar ear characteristics to today's American Curl have been reported in numerous U.S. locales, as well as in Australia.

THOSE WHIMSICAL EARS

When Curls are born, their ears are straight and the kittens resemble the Flying Nun; but within two to seven days after birth, their ears begin to curl back. For the first six weeks or so, the ears will be tightly curled. Then the kitten's ears will gradually curl and uncurl in varying degrees until they are set permanently when the kitten is four months old. At this point, breeders determine the kitten's quality - pet, breeder or show. Along with the kitten's overall conformation to the breed standard, degree of curl to the ear is a key factor in determining quality as follows: first degree (pet), second degree (breeder), and third degree (show), which emulates the graceful curve of a full crescent (as shown in figure 1 below). Note that the curve should be smooth and graceful without abrupt changes of direction. The desired angle of the curl when viewed from the rear is shown in figure 2, which also depicts the imaginary lines that follow the curve of the ear through the rounded tips and point to the center of the base of the skull. Ear furnishings fanning outward from the ear accentuate and further enhance the curled ear.  

An interesting point to note about the degree of curl to the ear is that it is virtually impossible to predict what degree of curl will result on the kittens based on the parents' degree of curl. Along with other breeders, Patricia Speciale Krook (Mihit Cattery) reports that "a male or female does not have to have a third degree ear to produce it, and two third degree parents can easily produce a first degree ear!" This is obviously Mother Nature's way of keeping tabs on us! When breeding Curl to Curl, the resulting kittens will usually all have curled ears. However, a Curl bred to a straight ear domestic cat or a straight ear American Curl will produce at least 50% curled ear kittens and usually more due to the dominant nature of the curl gene. Straight ear American Curls from such litters are very valuable in a planned breeding program and also make outstanding pets.

Unlike normal feline ears, which are soft and supple, the cartilage contained in the ears of the American Curl is firm, similar to the human ear. This firm cartilage should be present from the base of the ear to at least 1/3 of height and most commonly, may go up to 2/3 of height, with the remaining 1/3 tip of the ear being flexible.

A common question in the minds of breeders and judges alike surrounds the size of the American Curl's ears: What is the desired ear height? The current breed standard calls for "moderately large ears that are wide and open at the base," which is consistent with the ear type of most early American Curls. From the very beginning, the ideal American Curl has been described as a well balanced cat, which indicates that the ideal ear height is one that is balanced and in proportion to the overall size of the cat's head and body while maintaining a graceful, smooth arc. Due to the Curl's unique features, aesthetics play an important role in determining the ideal structure. The biggest challenge for breeders to date has been the achievement of this totally balanced American Curl.

As in other breeds, regional variances in type exist in today's American Curls. Specifically, variations in ear type are most common, with head shape and body length following at a close second. These differences occur partly due to the use of non-pedigreed domestic cats in the Curl breeding programs, but mainly due to the geographical distance between breeders and misrepresentations in various publications as to the proper allowable outcrosses for American Curls. For example, some recent publications have been reported to state that American Curls may be bred to any pedigreed or purebred cat, which is in exact contradiction to the American Curl's sole allowable outcross - non-pedigreed domestic cats. With a modified wedge head that is moderately longer than wide and a semi-foreign rectangular body type, it is clear that an American Curl should in no way resemble the American Shorthair who has a rounded head and semi-cobby body or an Oriental breed which has a wedge-shaped head and long, tubular body. On a similar note, it has been reported that breeders have been contemplating the idea of introducing the Turkish Angora into the Curl breeding program. A quick review of the Turkish Angora breed standard dissuades any further thoughts on this issue as Turkish Angoras contain numerous features that are in direct opposition to American Curl features such as head shape, boning and musculature.

As the American Curl progresses towards the closing of its stud books in the year 2010, when outcrosses will be disallowed and Curl-to-Curl breedings will be required, consistency in type will most likely improve. Due to the efforts of some current breeders, though, this desired consistency may arrive sooner, as these breeders have begun intricate programs with each other to share their cats across regional boundaries in order to interweave bloodlines, maintain a large gene pool and preserve consistency in type.

EVERYWHERE DOING EVERYTHING

Nancy Kiester (Patriot Cattery), one of the earliest Curl breeders, describes the American Curl Prime Directive in the following way: "To seek out new and interesting ways of making things happen." A truer statement has never been professed. Joe and Grace Ruga (Curlniques Cattery), founders of this extraordinary breed, add that "American Curls are not just 'decorator' cats; they are 'designer' cats - signed masterpieces of a humor-loving Creator." American Curls have a reputation for never growing up and retain their playful, inquisitive personalities well into adulthood. At one cattery, the ages of the Curls range from eight months to over eight years. However, when certain cat toys are produced, the entire feline population appears to be roughly six months old, as they all play and cavort to the point of exhaustion.

A popular illustration describing the personality differences between the American Curl and the Scottish Fold is the following: a Scottish Fold will sit on the couch and wait while you make dinner - the American Curl will help you make it! Anyone who has lived with American Curls for any length of time knows that this illustration is strongly rooted in fact.

Deb Karasik (Beleriand Cattery) found that American Curls can not only adapt to any situation, but often change lives in the process. Deb was contacted by a woman with an unusual situation; she had a ten year old autistic son by the name of Christopher who did not respond to any external stimuli - except for pictures of cats! Christopher's mother thought that a kitten might be very therapeutic for Christopher and set up a meeting with Deb Karasik at a cat show so that Christopher could see Deb's American Curls for himself.

Upon arrival, the ten year old boy pulled a chair up close to the cage, put his face up to the bars and smiled. Under normal circumstances this would not be unusual, but Christopher had not smiled in over a year! Deb took one of the male kittens, named Bob, and handed him to Christopher. The kitten cuddled up and started purring immediately.

The bonding between the boy and the kitten was instantaneous. Deb hears from the family from time to time, and has learned that Christopher and Bob became inseparable companions from that day forward. Deb attributes the uniquely affectionate and loving personalities of American Curls as a key reason that this special relationship was able to form.

Recently, a new Curl owner learned first hand of the American Curl's creative, playful and social nature. American Curls are known for greeting both human and feline companions with light head bumps, but some are more diligent about this practice than others. One night while the owner was asleep, he felt a light tapping on his forehead and opened his eyes to see the eyes of Zachary, a three year old male, at very close proximity. Zachary had decided that a few head bumps were in order, even at that late hour. He then curled up by the owner and went to sleep, satisfied that he had greeted this human appropriately.

Due to their unique appearance and personality, American Curls have been featured frequently in regional, national and international media. Deb Karasik appeared on the television show "Pet Department" on the FX Network in February 1995, educating viewers worldwide about the fascinating and endearing qualities of American Curls. One of her cats was also featured on the front cover of a French publication, Pas si Bete, France's magazine of companion animals. Several of SouthernCurl Cattery's American Curls were recently filmed for Walt Disney's "That Darn Cat II," scheduled for release in the Fall of 1996. American Curls were also mentioned recently with other "mutant" breeds in a rather unlikely publication: The Wall Street Journal. Caroline Scott (Procurl Harem Cattery), breeder/owner of CFA's 1995 best of breed longhair American Curl, GC Procurlharem Sandy Hooks, recently had an article written in TimeOut/New York about her feline aerobics programs and her upcoming participation at a cat show. To continue the upward momentum of the Curl's popularity, key public relations efforts such as these will "cat"apult the Curls to superstar status while also educating cat fanciers worldwide about this exciting breed!

To go along with an unusual breed, what better way to enhance the uniqueness than with special names? Paula Van Derven (Suncurl Cattery) is one of the many breeders who enjoy utilizing the word "curl" in their cats' names. Some of Paula's entertaining examples are: Curl Me Up Scottie, Helen Curly Brown, Curlton Heston, Lucy McCurlicudy, Minnie Curl, Alexis Curlby, Doc Curladay, Eddie Van Curlen, and Annie Oakcurl to name a few. Other breeders have coined such names as: Ear Jordan, Winchester Curlthedral, Pepsi Curla, Axcurl Rose, Lauren Bacurll, Lt. Commandcurl Data, Apocurlypse Meow, Christofurr Curlumbus, Curlamity Jane, and more.

Thanks to the efforts of dedicated breeders and fanciers who have been working tirelessly since 1981, American Curls are bringing their infectious personality, intelligence and beauty into the limelight of the cat fancy. More people are getting involved with this exciting breed every day, in countries around the globe. Whether your interest is in showing, breeding or simply sharing your life with a companion that can make you realize just how enjoyable, intelligent and intuitive cats can really be, get to know an American Curl. You'll be glad you did.

Contributors: Joe and Grace Ruga, Paula Van Derven, Mary Anne Dutton, Deb Karasik, Nancy Kiester, Patricia Speciale Krook, Caroline Scott, Susan Smith.