It's a cats' world Show features tricks and competitions
by : Al Sullivan Reporter senior staff writer
Jul 27, 2001 | 721 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Who says cats can't do tricks like dogs?

For anyone who believes that, Karen Thomas, an animal trainer at the Garden State Cat Club competitions held at the Meadowlands Convention Center in Secaucus on July 21-22, can prove them wrong.

Cats can do anything, Thomas said, but often with an attitude.

"The first thing is, you have to convince the cat that the trick was its idea," she said last week. "Cats require more rewards, and although very smart, needed constant rewards. A cat often needs more time to understand what it is the trainer wants done. This requires a significant amount of patience."

She said cats, unlike dogs, won't sit or do other tricks just to make their master happy. Thomas uses a feed spoon with a clicker. The clicker tells the cat that a reward is coming. She gives them food from the spoon once the trick is complete.

"It is wise to start by making the clicking sound while the pet is eating," she said. "And you should start training pets around meal times. You need to know the personality of the cat. Certain personalities will perform certain kinds of tricks and not others. Each cat is an individual."

Thomas was among the two animal trainers who put on a display at last weekend's event. Over the last decade, she has helped train some of the entertainment industry's most famous animal celebrities - although her appearance at the Garden State show was as a member of the Friskies Cat Team, a feline performance group trained to do some of the particularly difficult tricks such as jumping over each other, climbing ladders or walking a tight rope. Animals Thomas trained have been featured in films such as Star Trek Generations and Poetic Justice and a number of TV shows such as Murphy Brown and Murder, She Wrote.

"I started in 1989," said Thomas, a native of Southern California, whose love of animals made her volunteer as a zookeeper and later obtain a degree in Zoology. "I was still in college when I started as a trainer."

Thomas said the biggest challenge is getting cats to perform on cue in the middle of all the distractions, whether this is in the movies or on the stage.

"I start with the basics," she said "I teach the cat to sit, lay down and stay."

Training for cats can help owners in other ways, not just with tricks. Cats can be trained to endure basic grooming such as teeth brushing and combing. Thomas also trains dogs, birds, reptiles, chickens and even cockroaches for roles in commercials and movies.

Thomas said part of the purpose of the show is educate cat owners on how to train their animals to deal with more mundane situations, such a grooming and teeth brushing - although she has trained cats to do a remarkable number of things for television and movies, such as playing basketball or retrieving fake dead birds.

"All the tricks the cats to do are safe," she said, " and none require silly costumes or anything else that might be considered humiliating."

Other inspirations

Lauren Lamkia beamed with pride as she pulled her cat Howie from his carrier - she and the Scottish Fold breed cat had traveled to Secaucus from New Rochelle, joining cat owners from across the nation and the world in one of the most prestigious feline events in the state.

"We've come to the competition for years," she said during a lull in judging on July 22, the second day of the event held at Meadowlands Convention Center. "But this is the first time we've been in Secaucus."

In the previous years, the Garden State Cat Club competitions were held in communities further to the south, but according to show manager Kevin Sheehan, the growing number of people interested was part of the reason the organizers, Friskies Cat Food Company, sought a larger venue.

Howie, a black and white cat who was grand champion during last year's competition in his class, is of a breed that seems to have no ears.

"The ears are folded back," Lamkia said. "Which is where the name comes from."

While as many as 450 cats were part of the competition, some cats came as part of the entertainment, proving to the general public - so cat lovers here claim - that cats can be trained as well as dogs: to sit, fetch, and even walk a tight rope.

Joan O'Hara came to the event from nearby Cedar Grove. Her three-and-a-half year old cat Rosie O'Donnell was among the large contingent of Persian cats there for the competition.

"We've been doing competition since 1963," she said. "We started out just wanting a pet and then got involved in a cat show. We just went to a show one day and got hooked."

Dee Jumper came to the show from Philadelphia, and was selling a four-month old Persian kitten for $400. "They usually cost a lot more in pet shops," she said, noting that she and her husband Elmer had been involved in cat shows for more than 25 years.

"Persians are known to be laid-back, and [if treated right] will never scratch or bite," she said.

Jumper said she has cut back on competitions and mostly attends only local shows like this.

"We just to fly all over the country," she said. "But that got to be too much."

Pat Marengo of New York City brought a seven and half year old Persian named Maggie.

Marengo and her husband Ernie have been doing competitions for about nine years, have won best cat of North East Region in the year 2000 for one of their cats, and the Fourth Best International cat at another competition. "I always liked Persians as a pet," she said. "But then got involved. Cat shows are a lot of fun and you get to meet nice people."

She and her husband have traveled all over, from the East Coast to the West and from Canada to Texas.

New show to Secaucus

Although new to Secaucus this year, the Garden State Cat Club has existed since 1936, and is affiliated with the Cat Fancier's Association Inc. This is one of the oldest and most prestigious cat clubs in the country, with a membership of about 108, making it among the largest cat clubs in the country as well.

The club has been active in introducing new formats and educational features, and has made a point of offering support for local animal charities.

Most of the members are involved in local community service organizations such as schools and civic clubs, and seek to educate the public on responsible pet ownership and feline care.

The annual show is the largest fund raiser of the year from the club and proceeds from the show - after deducting show expenses and funds needed for the operation of the club - are donated to feline research and local animal welfare organizations.

"We hold a show one a year," said the show manager Kevin Sheehan. "The show has numerous elements, from vendors advertising various products to cat competitions. The trick cat team is one of the attractions. There are about 450 cats from all over the United States as well as overseas. We even have cats from as far away as Japan." Sheehan said cats compete in two general categories, pedigree and house cats. For pedigree in particular, each judge has a checklist of criteria a particular breed must meet.

A Persian cat, for instance, would be graded on size of head, shape of eyes and ears, shape and size of body, and length of tale. The cat would also be judged on its coat, its balance, and its sense of refinement.

House cats are judged on color, physical shape and other attributes.

Cat shows generally have six or eight rings, or judging areas. The Secaucus show had eight. Cats are judged in each, numbers are tallied and the cat that comes up with the highest average is named grand champion.

Sheehan said the event is a great opportunity to learn how proper cat training and feline nutrition, and to strengthen the bond between cat and owner to help keep a cat healthy and full of life.

"Funds are donated to feline health organizations," Sheehan said.

Among the animal welfare groups at the show were Common Sense for Animals, Animal Life Savers, and St. Hubert's Animal Welfare group out of Madison and North Brunswick.

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