RIVIERA BEACH, MD. -- They buzz around the ring. Owners, breeders, lovers. Cat People. They are sloppy-looking -- except for a few, like sphynx-owner Kathy Speed, the Mississippi glamour-blond in diaphanous purple. But the grooming for most, it seems, stopped with their pets. They wear cat T-shirts. They hold tuna fish sandwiches and cat toys. Sticks with pompoms and feathers are popular. Sometimes their cats look at them like, Why are you waving that stick with the pompoms in my face?

"Let me recommend the tuna fish," says judge Mark Coleman while moving from his sandwich to the longhair finals. Cats come. Cats go. He's got a Carson-style monologue running. He's been powering through Diet Cokes. Now he's powering through the longhairs. Ribbons are being handed out. They are called "rosettes" and seem very large. Horse-size. The cats have horse-size names too. Coleman holds the eighth best longhair, a black-smoke tabby named Bentley's King Edeward III. The seventh best longhair is a brown mackerel tabby called MtKittery Surry of MacSpurr.

At last, an enormous Maine coon gets pulled out of his cage, because he's won the competition. A cage! The humiliation! He's got huge paws. The face of a lion. The shoulders of a panther. Dignity. This cat could survive in the wilderness. This cat could defend himself against Mike Tyson or run for president. And he looks like he could kill his owners.

"Nice broad chin," Coleman says of him. "Ears well placed. Snowshoes for feet. Best Maine coon. Best Cat."

He's Coons' Kin's Tull Man.

"Hey!" says Coleman after all that excitement. "There's a cat hair in my drink!"

Cat Naps

Below this incredible scene onstage, fur is not flying. Nothing is flying. Nearly 200 felines from 15 states have assumed the Dead Cat Position. They are totally sacked out. Legs hang outside cages. Eyes have closed to crescent kitty slits. The only signs of cat-life in the Stoney Creek Democratic Club are the nearly 200 little tummies moving up and down. Up and down. At the two-day Southeast Regional Cat Show and Banquet of the International Cat Association (TICA) two weekends ago -- organized by its local chapter, the Potomac Area Cat Enthusiasts (PACE) -- the cats looked as alive as the stuffed Garfields stuck to windows in the parking lot.

Looking alive. A stately Norwegian forest cat, named Tord, sits up in the Thanksgiving Turkey Position. His eyes open, then close. A white Persian with a coffee filter around its neck (for damage control) flexes its paws. Frosty purrs -- he's a dark male calico, unusual, since calicos are supposed to be female. Frosty's sterile, though -- does this count for something? His tongue sticks out -- all the time -- and he's a Quadruple Grand Master in the exotic shorthair division. A couple Devon rex kittens have become fascinated by their ribbons. Rexes are genetically deformed and hypoallergenic. They look it. And they have a facial expression: Constant surprise, as though they can't believe anybody would buy them. They are trying to knock down their own ribbons. Their scrawny waiflike legs make it through the bars of their cages.

You don't see the Himalayans and Persians doing this. Their paws, for one thing, are way too fat. They also -- much like their owners -- don't seem interested in exercise.

"The Persians are like, Who cares? So what?" says breeder Janet Elton from Arbutus, Md. She's a staff nurse at St. Agnes Hospital who innocently went to a cat show three years ago with her daughter Wendy. Now they have 10 cats at home. "We got hooked," says Janet. "Nobody tells you, though, about the bad parts."

The bad parts for the Eltons have been laying out $3,000 for their cats, losing their first litter, maintenance on their three-bedroom row house. "I vacuum every day," says Janet, rolling her eyes. "Sometimes twice."

In a cage up front, there's a cat named Claude Monet. He's dead to the world, but the tummy moves. He's light brown and spotted. His cage has been decorated with a lovely cover -- as have many of these cages. He's also got an old blue nightgown in there with him. His owners, Isobel and Henry Frystak, drove him here from Clifton, N.J.

"We call him Claude Monet," Isobel says, "because of his markings. He's splattered like a painting."

Is that a nightgown?

"Oh, he got a habit," she says, "since the day I brought him home. He gets up on me in bed and kneads on my nightgown like a pillow. So when he does a show, we bring the nightgown as his security blanket."

She comes up a while later. "Listen. I make all my own cage covers," she says. "I have a 'Gone With the Wind' theme cover. I've got Fourth of July and Christmas. And there's one that I call 'Van Cliburn Cats.' "

Things to Know

The Pet Food Institute in Washington has discovered recently that cats outnumber dogs in American households. According to the institute's 1989 study, there are 57.9 million cats in this country and 50.5 million dogs.

"Dog people are the type who come right up to you," says Pat Shelton, one of 30 PACE club members and one of 2,000 TICA members internationally. "They say, 'What can I do for you?' Cat people are the kind who say, 'Get back to me later, or mail me a letter.' "

Shelton is wearing a blue T-shirt that says: "Some people own cats and go on to lead normal lives ..."

"You have to earn their respect," she says of Cat People. "And they don't need that what-can-I-do-for-you attitude."

Things to know:

Gray cats are called "blue" cats.

Orange cats are called "red."

Purebreds start around $300 and go up, depending.

Breeders don't often break even.

The Turkish vans can swim.

The rex cats are mutants.

The sphynx cats have no fur.

"Oh Lord, noooo," says Charles Michaels, at the beer tap selling drinks. He's the first VP of Stoney Creek Democratic Club in Riviera Beach. "I had no idea there were so many kinds of cats! And this lady over there," he says, pointing across the way, "she's got this ordinary little cat, and his cage is covered with ribbons. God Almighty."


Mikey is a chocolate Oriental -- imagine an all-brown Siamese. He never looks very happy. He produces a long, sustained meow when the judge picks him up. More than 30 seconds of meow. Mikey -- whose show name is Gad-a-bout's Amh Mikado of Cio-San -- is "famous on the judging circuit," says one regular. "Not just the meowing, but the biting and scratching."


"I got this cat to replace Pumpkin, a cat of mine who died," says Sharon Dyer, from Northern Virginia. She's hovercrafting around with a tuna fish sandwich. She's talking about Scamper -- her only cat. Scamper is a Siamese kitten who, according to a judge, has "a very good pointy head shape." Scamper also has ears big enough to hear sounds on Pluto, black paws as thin as sticks, crossed eyes the color of blue wall-to-wall carpets in Palm Beach.

Scamper gets Third Best Altered Shorthair. "I didn't think I was ready yet, to get a cat," says Dyer. "I wasn't really over Pumpkin. But I sat down and Scamper crawled up to my lap, and right to my shoulder -- just like this. ... The weird thing is that Pumpkin was a shoulder cat too, so it's like reincarnation."


In one ring, Don Koizumi's gray Chartreux cat -- named Escorte -- is snarling and hissing. The judge won't pick him up. "His hormones are kicking in," says Koizumi, in his baggy blue shirt and jeans. "Hormones are in the air."

Escorte is returned to his own cage. It has a French theme. They are French cats, these Chartreux (pronounced CHAR-true). There's a French blue, red and white checked cloth on it. There are tiny -- Barbie-doll-size -- cafe chairs around a little table on top. "We named him Escorte," says Koizumi, "because he's a breeder."

The Koizumi's have 10 cats in a 10-room house in Reston. "One of our neighbors called the Fairfax County police," says Luci Koizumi, in muu-muu, glasses and wild eyes. "They came to inspect -- to see if we had un-livable conditions -- but of course, everything was perfect."

Don continues. "When the inspector came," he says, "he sees this one room full of rosettes. Then he sees the next room. There's this cat, sitting alone on top of a bunch of pillows -- just staring out. The guy turns to me and says: 'Case closed.' "


My Sphynx

Lisa Bressler is a sphynx breeder from White Plains, N.Y. She wears a gold-necklace that says: "I

My Sphynx." Her cat -- she calls him "Roddy" -- is the color of dirty bubblegum. He has wrinkles all over his face. He has vestigial fragments of fur, orange and white, around his eyes and ears. Otherwise he has none. She holds him like a baby. He's got a belly and a rat tail.

"They are supposed to be pear-shaped," Bressler says, "like they've just had a good meal."

"A California raisin with ears," judge Coleman describes Roddy while holding him. "They feel like suede hot water bottles."

Nearby, there's Barbara Naame, from Atlantic City. Her two cages are an explosion of animal prints. There are also silver bowls for water and dry food. There's a sign posted: "WANT TO KNOW IF THERE'S LIFE AFTER DEATH? TOUCH MY CAT AND FIND OUT." She's brought a Maine coon and an Egyptian mau. At home, she has 12 cats -- "permanent residents" -- and nine kittens.

She's been as far as Alabama for a cat show. There's one every weekend -- somewhere. The next big one in this area will be held the weekend of Nov. 24-25, at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Naame has come with friend Cindy Lodovico. Lodovico has a small apartment, she says, so only one cat -- a flame-point Himalayan named Icy-You. It's his second show ever. His baby pictures rest in frames on top of his cage. There are also pictures of his parents. Lodovico's the superintendent of a homeless shelter in New Jersey, and used to show horses. This is cheaper. Easier. "You just throw the cat in the back of the car," says Lodovico.

Icy-You is a purebred Himalayan. But his nose, it's explained, is way too big for Himalayan standards (which is to say that his face does not look like a tuft on upholstered chair), so Lodovico shows him in the Household Pet category.

In the Household category, cats are judged for total condition and well-being, for friendliness and prettiness. Of the 200 cats in this show, 50 of them are competing in this division.

"You can't believe the personality of this cat," says Lodovico -- gesturing toward Icy-You, totally collapsed on two white fur pillows and a black rug. His eyes are slightly open. He's watching, but he's not caring.

She bought Icy-You from Barbara Naame for $350. "It was love at first sight," says Lodovico. "It was October 21, 1989. He was in a case just like this. I walked by. He looked up. And that was it."


Overpass is a Supreme Grand Master in the household pet division. His press clips are in his briefcase. He's got more of them than Arnold Schwarzenegger. He's got photos of himself too, kept in plastic. Gene Burns is his owner. He's from Quantico. But never mind him. Overpass! He has long, agile legs. He's sensitive. Gentle. He's black and white.

"He's Mr. Cool -- that's why he wins," says Burns. "The household category is the hardest to win. There aren't really standards. And you're up against purebreds all the time."

Cat Products

There's a wall of stuff to buy, things like cat eyewash, tear stain remover, creme shampoo, color enhancer shampoo, creme rinse, conditioner, urine remover, grooming chalk, ozium, no-scratch spray, lint brushes, metal combs, tiny nursing bottles, hairball remedy, skin and coat supplement, breath spray, flea powder and "Kitty Bloom," a high-concentrate vitamin and mineral dietary supplement for cats of all ages.

"That blue shampoo's for a black cat," says Wendy Elton. "If you put it on a white cat, you'd come out with a blue cat."

And there are cat toys: stick toys, sock toys, rabbit's foot toys, little soccer balls, foam balls, black fur spiders attached to elastic, fur balls attached to springs, mice on wheels, mice with bells, mice full of catnip, mice that squeak, mice that do nothing at all. And there are long peacock feathers for 50 cents each.

Taking Communion

Near the cat products and across from Claude Monet sits Dr. Flo Mitchell. She's got a mobile veterinary service in D.C., Md. and Va. She's here doing cat-show work -- not unlike the way ambulances are kept waiting outside black-tie galas. "That aloofness," she says of cats, "that's what I like."

One by one, owners bring their cats from their own cages to the cages directly behind the judge.

"Have you noticed how solemn the owners are when they bring their cats into the show ring?" asks Mitchell. "It's like they're taking Communion at the altar."

In front of her there's a table of brochures: "Pet Loss & Human Emotion," "Behavioral Urinary Problems," "Plants Poisonous to Cats."

Buddy and Ice

There are 16 rosettes covering Buddy and Ice's cage. They are both Supreme Grand Champions. They are white Orientals. In a judge's hands, they stretch out to unbelievable lengths. They belong to Todd Sutton, from Miramar, Fla. He's a soft-spoken Tom Hanks type with a mustache. He wears white shorts and tennis shoes. He flew here.

"You go to a cat show when you've got the money," he says. "First I breed for happy, healthy cats. And for the pleasure of having them around."

Buddy was altered a month ago. "Before," says Sutton, "I was showing him whole." Before, using his show name -- Jazzy's Reminiscence -- Buddy got TICA's Oriental of the Year in 1990. Ice also got Third Best Oriental Kitten of the Year.

Still. "You're never in the black. You're never making money," says Sutton. "I'm sometimes $10,000 in the hole a year with this." Sutton does it because he loves it. "My wife and I get the family -- five cats, suitcases, the three kids, everything -- into the family van and go for a show weekend. It's fun. It's a good time."

Her Orientals

Susan Ferguson is a Supreme Grand Champion, by Cat People standards. She's wearing a black jumpsuit one day, and a silk outfit the next. She's got a Louis Vuitton case strapped to a rolling cart like a stewardess.

"Have you seen her cage?" somebody asks. "It's got more silk than I've got at home."

Ferguson's a model back in Jackson, Miss. She's got a neat little black camera hanging around her neck. She photographs her winners. Sometimes she pulls out a video camera too.

Her two sleek black Orientals -- Rave and Legacy -- keep winning ribbons. Ferguson started this crazy hobby just a year ago. "I wanted to do it in a big way," she says. "I go every weekend. I'm a nut."

Best of Show

At the end of Sunday, a winner is chosen. Best of Show. It goes to sweet, shy, little Billmar's Lady of Class. She's a seal-point Himalayan, just 10 months old. She is also a complete beige fuzzball with blue eyes. When she sleeps, you can't even see her tummy move up and down. It's just her second adult show.

"She's got lots of Supremes and Grands in her background," says her owner, Mary Drugan of Devon, Pa. She and her husband, Bill, breed Himalayans at their cattery: BillMar's. They go to shows every weekend.

Mary Drugan is crying, by the way. And wiping, wiping, wiping. "She's such a sweet little girl," Mary says. She keeps picking up Lady of Class. A nearby Cat Person says, "How come when my cats win there are never reporters around?" Drugan shrugs. She keeps touching Lady of Class, petting her. "I can't put her down," she says.

How many cats does she have at home? "Over five," she says, "and under 100."