The Bengal (by Jean Mill)

Magnificent and cuddly, this breed is a domestic reproduction of a leopard.
from the February 1991 issue of CAT FANCY)
Jean Mills

Jean Mill, the first Queen of the Bengal.

HAVE YOU EVER visited the zoo and longed to caress and cuddle the magnificent wild cats? The dream of owning one clashes with reality: It is impractical, unwise and illegal to keep a tiger or a leopard as a pet, but an approximation of their beauty in miniature, can be privately owned.

The best domestic reproductions of leopards are called Bengals. They are hybrid descendants of crosses between the domestic cat (felis catus) and the 10-pound wild leopard cat (felis bengalensis) indigenous to the jungles of Southeast Asia.

Hybridizations between different species of animals is controversial. Due to environmental pressures, species are being added to threatened and endangered lists at a frightening rate, so those who argue that existing gene pools must be kept pure have a valid point, especially in regard to certain species. In the plant kingdom, however, we owe many of our most useful products to deliberate crosses. Genetic pioneers such as Luther Burbank have given us nectarines, tangelos and disease-resistant grains.

The oldest animal hybrid is the mule (donkey x horse). Natural crosses between dogs and wolves, cattle and bison also have occurred but are less well known. Most animals prefer to mate with their own species, but when separated from herds or packs, they may choose unexpected mates. Remember the moose that formed a much-publicized bond with a cow in New England? In Malaysia, leopard cats are more common than bobcats are in this country, so it seems reasonably safe to assume that hybridization between wild and domestic cats occurs there naturally from time to time, just as it does here.

A Little History
In 1963 I deliberately crossed leopard cats with domestic cats for several important reasons. At that time, wild cats were being exploited for the fur market. Nursing female leopard cats defending their nests were shot for their pelts, and the cubs were shipped off to pet stores worldwide. Unsuspecting cat lovers bought them, unaware of the danger, their unpleasant elimination habits and the unsuitability of keeping wild cats as pets.

Most of the wild kittens from this era ended up in zoos or escaped onto city streets. I hoped that by putting a leopard coat on a domestic cat, the pet trade could be safely satisfied. If fashionable women could be dissuaded from wearing furs that look like friends’ pets, the diminished demand would result in less poaching of wild species.

A Dream Come True
Today Bengals are about the size of American Shorthairs. They are known for their beautifully spotted or marbled coats with high contrast between the pattern and background colors. Their colors come from the wild–black, brown or rust on bright shades of tan, gold or mahogany. Like its wild counterpart, an ivory version of the Bengal is called a snow leopard. The preferred pattern is leopard spots, not tabby stripes, on legs and ribs. Ivory-to-white undersides and small, rounded ears also are desirable.

Temperament is of primary concern, both to breeders and to pet buyers. Modern-day, carefully bred kittens have loving, outgoing personalities. The instinctive suspicion of the wild cat has been bred out through careful selection. The two main things breeders look for are sweet temperament and beautiful, wild appearance.

First-cross (F1) hybrids tend to be shy, nervous, untouchable cats, much like their wild fathers. Like mules and bison/cow hybrids, first-generation hybrid Bengal males are infertile, but their F1 sisters can reproduce. In subsequent generations, males are fertile so outcrosses to domestic cats are no longer needed. In fact, they are undesirable because breeding back to domestics dilutes the precious wild inheritance.

Personality Traits
Well-bred Bengals are affectionate, purr enthusiastically and are exceedingly intelligent, a trait probably inherited from the wild cat’s natural selection for jungle survival. They use the litter box, like to climb and run, and are quick and curious about everything. Bengal owners report that their cats retrieve, learn parlor tricks and love water, sometimes coming right into the tub to play with human toes.

Even as adults, Bengals are entertaining and playful, but as in other breeds of domestic cats, they vary greatly in appearance and behavior. For example, most Abyssinians are loving and calm, but a few are independent and aloof. Some Abys are born with the perfect agouti coat, while others show tabby markings. So it is with Bengals. In general, skittish, fearful kittens seldom become affectionate pets, but they may bond to certain family members.

Bengal kittens often go through an ugly stage of grayness between 2 and 6 months of age in which the clearly contrasted markings are spoiled and blurry. This muting is probably nature’s way of protecting the young; baby cheetahs go through a similar fuzzy stage. Then, depending on the seasons, the gray ticked coat falls out and the rufous coloration returns, unless, of course, the kitten was gray (tawny) at birth. All Bengals must have a black tail tip, regardless of body color. Blue, red and dilute colors are not recognized Bengal colors, although Bengals with Ocicat blood often produce them.

Two beautiful but rare coat types not described in the standard are the snow leopard and the marbled. Much like its wild cousin, the real snow leopard, the Bengal color/pattern is ivory with subtle, dark markings of equal intensity all over the cat. The marbled has no counterpart in the wild, and in captivity it no two marbled Bengals are alike. The pattern may be sharply defined patches of color; reminiscent of a stained glass windows, or flowing, twisting streams of clear color. Both of these patterns are breathtaking and exciting because they have never before been seen on domestic cats. Fewer than 50 snow leopard and marbled Bengals have been produced to date.

Buyer Beware
Anyone considering purchasing a Bengal from a cattery beyond driving distance should request photos of available cats and kittens to confirm their beauty and uniqueness. Look beyond the unusual markings for correct conformation. Bengals should have heavy whisker pads, full chins and rounded nostrils. Small ears complete the “wild look” of the head. A good Bengal body is deep and heavily muscled. The legs are sturdy and the feet are large.

Prospective buyers should be aware of some of the pitfalls that accompany skyrocketing popularity: Unscrupulous breeders seeking to cash in on high prices and the snob appeal of owning a rare breed buy one Bengal male and mate him to various domestic queens. The resulting kittens are called Bengals but, aside from being spotted, bear little resemblance to the standard. In fact, some outcrossed kittens touted as Bengals have nothing more than the domestic classic tabby or pointed appearance, much like kittens available at any animal shelter.

The best place to see a Bengal is at a cat show affiliated with The International Cat Association. At this time, the Cat Fanciers’ Association and the American Car Fanciers’ Association exclude cats with wild blood from their shows.

Before you buy a Bengal, request a pedigree showing several generations of registered Bengals without other breeds. In general, the more TICA registered Bengals on the pedigree, the better.

To Bengal breeders and owners, hybridization is not a black and white issue. Many give generous financial support to breeding programs dedicated to establishing and maintaining viable, pure gene pools of wild cats. Yet they take the position that Bengals do not compromise the magnificence of their Wild ancestors. Instead, they allow cat lovers to own something similar, just as people buy prints of great museum paintings they admire but could never own. If it were not for reproductions, most people wouldn’t know what Mona Lisa looks like. Zoos are the galleries of living fine art; Bengal breeders are the leopard’s printmakers, the copy artists for public consumption.

If as the World Wildlife Fund predicts, wild spotted cats become extinct in the next 100 years, their breathtakingly beautiful coats will still be alive and well on much-loved domestic Bengals in homes and high rises all over the world.

CAT FANCY February 1991

The following letter made my day one cold October evening 🙂

Sent: Friday, October 25, 2013 5:40 PM
To: thewhites@#########.##
Subject: New request from Jean
First name:Jean
Last name:Mill
Email: jsmill1@######.###
Your interest in us is:To thank you so very much for putting my long ago essay on the Bengals on the web. I seldom reference Bengals any more and this would be lost but for your thoughtfulness. I am deeply appreciative.There are no Bengals in my life now. I am 87 years old and moved to a retirement community in 2007. But I’m still active and mobile (I ride a Segway to meals); and I have wonderful memories…!JEAN