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Cat fanciers unite to give an image boost to beloved felines


Lisa-Maria Padilla, who coordinates the breed competition at the National Capital Cat Show, poses with mother-and-daughter duo, Twyla, left, and Racy, right. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

With 72 hours to go before the start of the National Capital Cat Show, Racy Mooner still isn’t ready for the big day. Sitting in the living room of her Reston home Wednesday morning, she surveys her surroundings quizzically, trying to figure out what she’s supposed to be doing next.

“C’mon Racy, roll!”

Lisa-Maria Padilla waves a freeze-dried chicken treat in front of the bewildered cat to draw her attention. Racy merely stares back at her.

“She’s not the brightest,” Padilla says, laughing.

Maybe not, but Racy has a reputation to live up to. The 6-year-old Abyssinian blue is a grand champion and grand premier winner, meaning she has racked up enough points at various shows to have placed among the world’s top 25 cats. And though Racy won’t be competing at National Capital, she has an even weightier task for the weekend’s event: being an unofficial “roving ambassador cat.” She’ll do tricks, let people pet her and generally show off — for the good of the species.

Racy, a 6-year-old Abyssinian, crawls around Lisa-Maria Padilla's neck September 3, 2014 in Reston, VA. Lisa-Maria Padilla shows her cats at the National Capital Cat Show. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

It’s all part of a larger effort on the part of Padilla, her friend and show manager Deborah Curtis and other cat fanciers. For too long, Curtis says, cats have been the victim of ill-informed stereotypes — the manipulative Cheshire Cat, the prissy, white-furred gourmands from Fancy Feast commercials, the lazy and disdainful Garfield. And the stigma associated with owning cats is just as persistent — no one wants to be a Dr. Evil or an Eleanor Abernathy (that crazy cat lady from “The Simpsons”).

Cat shows offer one way to change that. This weekend’s event at the Dulles Expo Center, which will draw about 5,000 spectators, includes breed competitions (coordinated by Padilla), info sessions with local veterinarians and several “pet-me” cats posted around the showroom to win over the skeptics. There’s even an agility contest, in which cats jump over hurdles and race through tubes.

The National Capital show, in its 35th year, is the “Westminster of the cat world,” Curtis says. That she compares it to the 137-year-old dog show held annually in New York City is telling — if there’s one message she wants visitors to come away with this weekend, it’s that cats can be just as accomplished, affectionate and fun as dogs are.

“But it’s not a dog versus cat thing,” Padilla is quick to clarify. “We just want to show that cats can be as good a companion, they can do anything dogs can do.”

Jump through hoops? Racy does that. Run to the door when you come home? Check. Roll over? Well, almost.

Padilla is on the right track with her agility training, though, according to certified dog and cat behavior consultant Steve Dale. If cats’ general standoffishness is anyone’s fault, Dale says, it’s that of humans — cat owners need to spend more time teaching their cats tricks if they want to earn their pets’ affection.

“So much depends on what people have asked of an animal,” Dale says. “If you’re teaching your cat things, even if it’s something as simple as sitting and giving a ‘high four,’ it’ll connect you as a pet owner with your cat.”

Lulu, a 6-year-old Abyssinian, begins to run on a cat wheel enticed with treats September 3, 2014 in Reston, VA. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Dale would know: He taught his cat to play the piano.

Meanwhile, Padilla is trying to even the score with dog lovers by making cat-walking a trend. In conjunction with the pet goods retailer Sturdi Products, Padilla designed a Velcro-less feline walking vest (which she’ll be selling at the show this weekend, with Racy modeling) aimed at getting cat owners to spend more time engaging with their pets.

“We’re not really active with them,” Padilla says. “We expect cats to play on their own and be their own best friends.”

But isn’t the position of man’s best friend already occupied?

Padilla gestures toward her neighbor’s house, from which a dog has been barking all morning.

“Cats are more accessible,” she replies, diplomatically.

Curtis and Padilla have their own cliches to counter — as breeders, they never have fewer than five cats at each of their homes. But both are eager to demonstrate that they are not crazy cat ladies. Padilla is a graphic designer and writer, while Curtis works at a gun shop. And though Padilla has done her part to keep cat figurine manufacturers in business, her sofa is free of fur and the air inside her home doesn’t contain even the faintest whiff of a litter box.

“People always say, ‘Five cats? How can you live with that?’” Padilla says. “But it’s not like I’m overrun.”

Recently, Curtis and Padilla gained an unexpected ally in their pro-cat campaign: the Internet.

“Social media has done so much more than years and years of magazines and cat shows,” Padilla says.

Curtis nods emphatically. She’s a particular fan of Grumpy Cat, the squashed-faced millionaire feline who Curtis says has “done wonders” to improve perceptions of the species, and Tara the Hero Cat, who saved her 4-year-old owner from a dog attack this year (and now has her name emblazoned on a line of yoga pants, among other things).

“With these video clips, people are finally seeing the real cats,” Curtis says.

Maybe. Or maybe it’s all just part of cats’ genius plan to manipulate humans and take over the world.

“Well, yeah,” Padilla says, stroking the cat in her lap. The animal flexes its paws ever so slightly and leans its head into Padilla’s palm. It looks thoroughly satisfied.

National Capital Cat Show

At the Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly. Saturday 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Adults, $10; children and seniors, $6. www.nationalcapitalcatshow.com.

Sarah Kaplan is a reporter for Morning Mix.
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