A Little Cat Feat : A Covina woman's efforts at cross-breeding wild and domestic felines are paying off handsomely.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imagine an animal that looks like a leopard but is the size of a domestic tabby.

It purrs and uses a litter box, but is swift and lithe like a wild animal.

Depending on the animal's temperament, it can display friendly curiosity or aloof grace.

Thirty years ago, Jean Mill envisioned just such a creature. Determined to realize her dream, Mill bred a leopard cat--a small, wild animal found in the jungles of Southeast Asia--to domestic felines.

Today, the results, which prowl and yowl in zoo-like habitats on her Covina acreage, are a new breed of cat called the Bengal.

Bengals weigh between 10 and 16 pounds and have silky pelts whose coloring ranges from black-on-orange leopard spots to swirled marbling. More rare are snow Bengals, which have ivory coloring with dark spots.

Mill said all the animals have black tail tips, get along well with other breeds of felis catus and are extremely active, with the quicksilver reflexes of their wild ancestors.

"These are majestic cats," she said. "They don't climb the drapes and get crazy, but they're very interested in what's going on."

So far, the breed has been accepted by one of the major cat groups--The International Cat Assn.--which recognized the brown spotted Bengal three years ago and plans to recognize the snow leopard and marbled cats this May.

Other associations say that registration rules prohibit their accepting Bengals because the animals have wild blood and might retain aggressive impulses.

Even so, "They're delightful cats, absolutely gorgeous," said Wini Keuler, executive director of the American Cat Fanciers Assn.

"This wild look appeals to a lot of people."

Mills plans to show off her cats when The International Cat Assn. hosts a show at the Masonic Lodge in Arcadia from April 29 to May 1.

Owning such a creature doesn't come cheap. Mill's pedigreed purrers start at about $500 for pet-quality animals and reach $2,000 for show-quality animals, which must possess a variety of characteristics, including a sharply contrasted coat, small ears and a wide muzzle with large whisker pads. Additionally, the cats must be friendly to strangers.

Despite the steep prices, their popularity is such that Mill has a two-month waiting list, with customers flying in from as far away as Australia and Germany.

A tall, gracious woman of 67, Mill has had many years to muse over what she has wrought and is adept at parrying criticism from animal rights activists who believe she should never have meddled with evolution.

"Early on, I had a lot of opposition from purists who felt I was playing with Mother Nature," Mill said. "But I don't see it that way. A lot of people would like to have wild animals, but I don't believe they should be allowed to have lions and tigers in their homes, and I thought that if I could breed a cat that looked wild but acted domestic, that would be a happy solution."

Glenn Stewart, a professor of zoology at Cal Poly Pomona, said he sees nothing wrong with Mill's work if it doesn't lead to a wild species being depleted solely to breed pets.

"It's something people have done for centuries, this is how we got a lot of our domestic animals--by taking a wild animal into captivity and breeding it selectively," Stewart said.

Michael Dee, a big-cat expert at the Los Angeles Zoo, which has a leopard cat on display, said he doesn't think people should mix wild and domestic cats because no one knows what might eventually develop or where such experimentation will lead. However, he added that most wild tendencies are probably bred out of the animal after five generations.

And even in their natural habitat, the 10- to 16-pound leopard cats are more like 'fraidy cats than aggressors, Dee said. "It's not going to go attack someone, it's not in their nature. This is a cat that's relatively secretive."

Cats have been domesticated for millennia, and at times were worshiped as gods. Archeologists have found mummified Abyssinian cats in tombs alongside kings and queens of ancient Egypt. But cat experts say abandoned cats can turn feral within one generation and conversely, feral kittens can be tamed if raised by hand.

At Mill's sprawling ranch house in the Covina hills, some cats roam in her wire-mesh enclosed front patio, trailed with ivy and carpeted perches where they can survey their world. Others live in 10-by-10-foot back-yard cages built around trees.

Each cage also contains a large exercise wheel that the cats use. Mill said she will occasionally find a severed possum head inside a cage, evidence that a young marsupial strayed too close for comfort the previous night.

Mill feeds her felines commercial cat food. She also worms the kittens and gives them inoculations and vitamins herself to keep down veterinary costs. And not every litter produces quality kittens. One group of tumbling youngsters in her back yard had the right spots but crooked tails. Mill said that because the cats are so unusual, even less-than-prize specimens will sell if she lowers the prices. She has placed others with friends and relatives and said she has never destroyed a cat or taken one to the pound.

A lifelong cat lover, Mill used to curl up around her favorite cat to take naps as a child. Her mother would then tiptoe in to pry the sleeping cat out of her daughter's arms, depositing it back in the back yard.

Cats have also been her best teachers.

"They taught me most of my lessons, like how to survive the death of someone you love, how to work with something that's very independent and how much further you get by purring than scratching," she said.

Originally from Des Moines, Mill came to California to attend Pomona College and earned a degree in psychology. Later, she took several graduate classes in genetics at UC Davis. By 1948, Mill was already one of three breeders working unknown to one another to develop the Himalayan cat, a longhaired breed of mixed Persian and Siamese ancestry.

Mill's strangest odyssey began in 1963, when she bought her first leopard cat. At the time, she and her first husband owned a cattle ranch in Yuma, Ariz. Mill soon realized that the wild cat was out of sorts away from its natural environment.

"She was lonely, so I put a black tomcat in there so she would have a little company," Mill recalled.

Although people said it couldn't happen, the animals mated and a litter ensued. After that, "I thought, wouldn't it be nice to have (an offspring) that's friendly."

The genetic pioneer found that the first generation male offspring of an Asian leopard/domestic cat cross were sterile but that a few of the females were fertile. She continued breeding and, eventually, showing her new breed.

When her husband died in 1965, Mill had to give up the ranch and move into an apartment. Heartbroken, she gave the original wild leopard cat to a zoo.

It wasn't until 1975, when Mill married engineer Bob Mill, a dapper, genial man who favors bolo ties, that the cat lady of Covina was able to take up her vocation again.

Bob Mill had a one-acre horse property in the Covina hills planted with fig, grapefruit, apricot and orange trees. Soon, the Bengal habitats sprouted alongside the fruit trees and Jean Mill was happily at work again, researching bloodlines and plotting pedigrees.

In 1980, while in India, the Mills ran across a domestic street cat whose coloring and patterns came close to her ideal Bengal look. Piles of red tape later, the couple succeeded in importing the feline to the United States, where Mill mated it with the female Asian leopard cat hybrids she had acquired.

Because of the difficulties in obtaining permits to keep exotic animals in California, Mill now keeps her leopard cats in Texas. She also said she doesn't use them for breeding anymore since the lines have progressed far enough for her to breed Bengal to Bengal.

Often she uses first-generation Bengals sired by the leopard cats. These felines, known as F1--the first filial generation--are not very friendly to humans. They do not like to be held but will let Mill, who has raised them from birth, pet them briefly.

Their offspring, the F2s, are a bit more outgoing. And by the fourth and fifth generations, the spotted and marbled Bengals are purring and rubbing themselves against a visitor's legs.

Marc Nochella, a New Yorker who bought a kitten from Mill last fall, is one satisfied customer.

"This is an exceptional cat; he's very intelligent and responsive, he has a good temperament and he loves to be held," said Nochella, an associate art director at the Ronald Feldman Gallery in Manhattan. "He's changed my life."

Out of several hundred cats she has sold--she declines to give precise numbers--Mill said only two have been returned to her because of temperament problems. But she still smarts from an unfortunate incident three years ago.

In 1991, at an American Cat Fanciers Assn. show in Michigan, a Bengal bit a judge. The cats had just been recognized as a breed by the group two days before; after the show, the recognition was revoked.

"Any breeder is going to have some cats that are going to be nasty," Mill said. "If a cat bites a judge at a cat show, the owner will make excuses like, 'Oh, it's upset from being on the airplane.' But if a Bengal bites a judge, then it's: 'Oh-oh, it's wild.' We're trying so hard to improve our reputation and that . . . set us back 10 years at least."

A well-known judge of cat shows, who didn't want to be quoted by name because of catty politics, agreed with Mill.

"I personally love them. I have not had a moment's problem with the 30 or 40 that I've handled at shows," the judge said. "But unfortunately, because of all the brouhaha, it will be a few years before they can be brought back" for admission to other cat associations.

The Cat Fancier's Assn., the oldest and most conservative of the cat groups, concedes the group will probably be the last to register the Bengal.

"It may be they're very domesticated and there's not a temperament problem, but rumors of the (biting) incident spread far and wide and it made our breeders very uncomfortable," said Thomas H. Dent, executive director of the group.

Often in the evenings, when she has completed making her cat rounds, Mill will bring one or two kittens in the house to play in her lap while the couple watches TV. But the husband of the woman who developed the striking breed of cat can't take much pleasure in his wife's hobby.

"He's allergic to cats," Mill said.

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