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Birmans: The Sacred Cats of Burma


Welcome to the wonderful world of Birmans!
by Paula Boroff

Origin

Unlike some of the breeds CFA recognizes for championship competition who can trace their origins back to a spontaneous mutation (such as American Wirehairs and Scottish Folds) or an intentional cross of other breeds to create a new breed or color (such as Bombays, Colorpoint Shorthairs and Ocicats), there is no clear record behind the origin of Birmans. There is, however, a delightful legend surrounding our breed, and I will begin by relating this legend. As might be expected with a legend, there are several versions; a somewhat shortened variation of the version in The Birman Cat by Vivienne Smith has been selected for inclusion here.

The Legend

In a temple built on the sides of Mount Lugh, lived in prayer the very holy Kittah Mun-Ha, great Lama holy of holies, the one of which the God, Song Hio himself, has braided his golden beard. Not a minute, not a glance, not a thought of his life was not dedicated to the adoration, contemplation, and holy service of Tsun Kyan-Kse, the Goddess with the sapphire eyes, the one who presided over the transmigration of souls, the one who permits the Kittahs to live again in a holy animal for the duration of its animal existence, before taking again a haloed body with the full and holy perfection of the great priests. Near him was meditating Sinh, his dear oracle, an all-white cat whose eyes were yellow from the reflection of the golden whiskers of his master and from the golden body of the Goddess with the heavenly eyes; Sinh, the cat to advise, whose ears, nose, tail and extremities of his legs were dark like the color of the earth, mark of the stain and impurity of all that touches or can touch the ground.

One night raiders attacked the temple and Mun-Ha was mortally wounded. At the moment of the Mun-Ha's ath, Sinh placed his feet on his master, and faced the goddess. That is when the miraculous transformation took place. Sinh's white fur took on a golden glow, reflecting the golden goddess. His eyes became as blue as hers. His face, ears, legs and tail remained the brown of the earth, but his four paws, touching the white hair of his beloved master became pure white - as a symbol of purity. The other priests watched the transformation in awe and were inspired to fend off the attackers.

Seven days later, Sinh died, taking the soul of Mun-Ha to paradise. And when seven days later, the assembled priests consulted before the statue to decide on the succession of Mun-Ha, all the cats of the temple ran up. All were dressed in gold with white gloves and all had eye color changed from yellow to deep sapphire. In complete silence they surrounded the youngest of the Kittahs, thus the reincarnated ancestors were designated by the will of the Goddess. The legend states that each Sacred Cat carries the soul of a priest on its final journey to paradise.

Other Possibilities

There are several variations on the possible origin of Birmans. The oldest (and most widely held) is that Birmans did, indeed, originate in Burma, where they were considered sacred companions to the priests of the temple. Several years ago a geologist friend of ours saw pictures of one of our cats and told us that when he had been in Burma on a field trip, he had seen cats in temples who looked very much like those photos.

One version is that in 1919 a pair of Birmans was sent to two Englishmen living in France, Major Gordon Russell and Mr. August Pavie, as thanks for help in defending the temple in an invasion. Another version is that an American millionaire traveling in the far east, Mr. Vanderbilt, obtained two cats smuggled from the temple by an unfaithful servant of the priests. Mr. Vanderbilt sent those cats to Mme. Thadde Hadisch in France.

However our wonderful cats came into being, it is generally accepted that there was a pair of Birmans sent to France. En route the male, Madalpour, died. The pregnant female, Sita, survived the voyage and produced kittens. One kitten, a female named Poupee was bred to a cat of another breed, perhaps a Siamese, to preserve the breed.

There is yet another version that has our Birmans originating in France. Well, stories are stories, so you can pick your favorite. We do know for certain that Birmans were officially recognized in France in 1925. After World War II it is commonly held that there may have been only one breeding pair of Birmans remaining. To ensure that the breed did not become extinct, outcrosses were necessary. Other breeds of cats, almost certainly Persians and possibly other breeds as well, were recruited as outcrosses.

Birmans were exported around Europe, and many can trace their ancestry to England and France. They received championship status in England in 1966 and from CFA in 1967. Although several other organizations around the world recognize red and lynx factor Birmans, CFA currently recognizes only seal, chocolate, blue and lilac in the show ring.

Birmans in Europe

The earliest breeders of Birmans in France were Mme. Marcelle Adams, Madalpour Cattery, and Monsieur Baudoin-Crevosier, da Kaabaa Cattery. Madames Simone Poirier (owner of Nouky de Mon Reve), Yvonne Drosier (breeder of Osaka de Lugh) and Anne Marie Moulin (breeder or Orlamonde de Khlaramour, Opale de Khlaramour and Nadine de Khlaramour) also made significant early contributions to our breed in France. In 1965 Mrs. Elsie Fisher and Mrs. Margaret Richards of England imported three cats from these French catteries and those cats were the foundation stock for Praha and Paranjoti catteries. Many of these cats can be found on the pedigrees of today's winning Birmans.

Birmans in the United States

I hesitate to begin naming names of the pioneers of Birmans in the United States, fearing that I will unintentionally omit someone. Nevertheless, the first Birmans of record arrived in the U.S. in 1959, imported by Dr. and Mrs. John Seipel. In 1961 two seal point cats were sent to Mrs. Gertrude Griswold of Tacoma, Washington, as a gift. It was later discovered that these cats were Sacred Cats of Burma. Correspondence with breeders in France resulted in the exchange of kittens and Mrs. Griswold's cattery, originally called Clover Creek, but later changed to Griswold, was established. One of her cats, Korrigan of Clover Creek, sired CFA's first Birman grand champion. Another early breeder was Mrs. Verner Clum, Gaylands Cattery. Both Mrs. Griswold and Mrs. Clum have since passed away.

Frances Price, Tai Ming Cattery, is the oldest living Birman breeder in the U.S. She had the good fortune to receive cats from Mrs. Griswold and Mrs. Clum, as well as from Mrs. Fisher's Praha Cattery to form the foundation of her cattery. Her breeding program has been very successful over the course of the past 30 years, and she is a faithful follower of Birmans at the breed shows as well as in her region. Following in her pioneering ways, in 1995 she added two seal lynx point females to her cattery.

Ed and the late Harriet Rindfleisch, Rindy's Haven Cattery, imported their first Birman from England in 1970. Harriet left as a part of her legacy a number of letters and articles regarding Birmans that may be found on the Sacred Cat of Burma Fanciers website (http://www.scbf.com). Melanie Kreidl (Tarazed Cattery), who passed away within the past year, made a major contribution to our breed, especially in the propagation and improvement of chocolates and lilacs. Maureen Escalette and her late husband Joseph (Celtic Cattery) as well as Walter and Betty Cowles (Oxdowne Cattery) were also early Birman breeders who have had an indelible impact on our breed.

Living with Birmans

I have often heard Birmans referred to as "middle of the road" cats. After sharing our me with several different breeds of cats over the years, I am inclined to agree. Of course, there are variations among the breed, but they tend to be neither as active as their shorthaired brethren nor as laid back as some of their other longhaired counterparts.

Birmans are loving animals who may prefer to sit beside their human, lay upon their human's lap, or sit on their human's head at 4 o'clock in the morning! Generally a soft spoken cat, a Birman will let you know when attention is needed, N-O-O-O-O-W. After a brief scratch behind the ears or a major hug, they are ready to go upon their way until the next time attention is required - it may be a few minutes, a few hours or a day or two, but they will let you know if they think you are paying insufficient attention to them. Our foundation queen was notorious for helping to read the newspaper - the kind of help where a cat has to lay in the middle of the paper until you pick it up. Birmans are usually not fussy eaters, are healthy and live relatively long lives. A Birman of 15 or more years of age is not unusual, and I have heard of them dying peacefully in their sleep at ages of 20 and more.

The research done in preparation for writing this article confirmed something we have noticed over the years in placing Birman kittens in their new homes: Birmans usually don't like to be the only animal in a home. This is because they are social in nature and if their human companions are gone a good deal during the day, they become lonely. They usually aren't fussy about whether the animal companion is another Birman, another pedigreed cat, a moggy or a dog. Several people have adopted a Birman from us, only to return a few months later to add another kitten to their household.

Birmans have semi-long silky hair, not as thick as that of a Persian, and of a texture that it is not inclined to mat; consequently, frequent grooming is not necessary. We have made a little combing a part of the individual attention each cat receives on a regular basis.

Although the same genetic factor is responsible for the restriction of coloring to the points as with other colorpointed breeds of cats, Birmans differ considerably in appearance. A Birman's body is longer than that of pointed Persians, as is the length of its nose and tail. By comparison, a Birman's body is stockier and more heavily boned than that of a Colorpoint Shorthair or a Siamese. A Birman's head is much broader and more rounded than the triangular structure of these latter two breeds as well. However, like other colorpointed breeds of cats, Birmans are born white. When they are a few days old, their color will begin to appear if they are going to be seal points, with other colors taking a few more days to appear. The white on the feet and up the back of the hocks, known as gloves and laces, will begin to appear within a few days on darker colors, sometimes taking several weeks to appear on the lighter colors. I have heard that you can tell where gloves and laces will be when kittens are newborn if you put them in shadows. I'm hopeful it works for some, but we've found that time is the factor revealing markings.

In the Show Ring

It took five years from their initial acceptance into championship competition in CFA for the first Birman to earn the title of Grand Champion: Griswold's Romar of Bybee. This may have been largely because initially there weren't a lot of Birmans being shown. Although they may have gotten off to a less than stellar start, Birmans are now quite able to "hold their own" in the show ring. Even though their popularity has increased over the thirty plus years since their recognition for championship competition by CFA, it is unusual to see a large entry of Birmans at a show unless you happen to pick the shows sponsored by Birman breed clubs. The largest entry (usually over 100 Birmans) may be found at the Sacred Cat of Burma Fanciers (SCBF) show held each summer in Medina, Ohio. National Birman Fanciers (NBF) holds two shows each year, one in the North Atlantic Region and another in the Gulf Shore Region, and the Birman entry at these shows has grown significantly over the past few years. There is also a regional Birman breed club, the White Glove Society, that holds an annual show in the Northwest Region, sometimes with a Birman specialty ring.

The first Birman to receive a national win was a kitten, GC, NW Pleasantview Lalique of Windflower, CFA's 9th Best Kitten in the 1988-89 show season. This seal point female was bred by Julie Collin and owned by Julie Collin and Carolyn Bullotta. The only Birman to achieve a national win in championship so far is GC, NW Shadowsnlace Nitro of Junsui, CFA's 1992 18th Best Cat, a seal point male bred by Stacey Smith and owned by David and Judy Bennet. There have subsequently been two national winning kittens, GC, NW Pleasantview Qati, CFA's 8th Best Kitten in 1994, and GC, NW Pleasantview's Risky Business, CFA's 12th Best Kitten in 1995, both bred by Julie Collin. There has not been a national winning cat in premiership yet, although one came very close during the most recent show season.

The unique gloving of Birmans is probably the factor that draws the most attention from spectators at a cat show. Although it is the major attention-getter, gloving carries only 20 points in our standard, not the entire 100. The distinctive head ideally includes a skull that is strong, broad and rounded with a medium length Roman nose, full cheeks, a heavy jaw and a strong, well-developed chin. The blue almost-round eyes, set well apart with the outer corner tilted slightly upward, will steal your heart. The Birman's body should be long and stocky, with medium length, heavy legs, large, round paws and a medium length tail. The coat is medium to long and silken in texture. Our standard calls for penalizing for Persian or Siamese head types or for delicate bone structure.

In addition to the SCBF website I mentioned earlier, National Birman Fanciers (NBF) also has an excellent presentation of our breed on the web. The address is http://www.vcnet.com.valkat/nbf/nbf.htm. If you happen to attend one of the national breed shows or the, be sure to stop by and see the lovely new Birman breed booth. Karen Helmold and Jan Gabbard did an outstanding job in designing our booth and deserve the thanks of Birman breeders everywhere.

The Naming Convention

No story about Birmans would be complete without a few words regarding our naming convention. Most Birman breeders in the United States follow the French tradition of naming all of our kittens born in a given year with names which begin with the same letter of the alphabet. This year (1998) is a "V" year; 1999 will see Birman kittens given names that begin with "W," and the year 2000 will bring us to "X." We don't skip any letters of the alphabet, recycling back to "A" every 26 years when we reach the end of the alphabet. It can be a real challenge - "Q's" made us so crazy that we named a cat Qsmakemecrazy! It is, however, handy when someone asks you how old one of your cats is; all you need to do is count.

Sources Sources used in writing this article include: The Birman Cat/The Sacred Cat of Burma, a book written by Vivienne Smith (Creasey); "Birmans in North America," a 1989-90 CFA Yearbook article written by Walter Cowles; "BIRMAN - Sacred Cat of Burma," an article written by Hilde Schone appearing in the October 1991 issue of The Cat Fanciers' Almanac; The World Encyclopedia of Cats, a book edited by Angela Sayer; and conversations both online and in person with Birman breeders too numerous to mention individually. My thanks go to each and every one of you and I apologize in advance for any errors (especially spelling errors on names) or omissions.