A new rare breed of American feline that looks like a dachshund, scurries like a ferret and banks like a high-priced sports car has cat aficionados across the country engaged in a hissing fit.
The munchkin, which will be exhibited this weekend in Anaheim at the International Cat Show, has stubby front and hind legs about half the length of a normal cat's legs.
Though it may look less odd to some cat fanciers than, for example, the hairless, Yoda-like sphynx or the sheep-furred Selkirk rex, breeders, judges and registry officials say the furor over the cat has become almost frightening.
One international cat show judge who opposes the cat has gotten calls from munchkin supporters threatening to burn her house down. Munchkin exhibitors say they have been tossed out of competitions. The cat itself has been called everything from a freak to a mutant sausage.
"I've never seen it get this heated before," said cat show organizer and munchkin supporter Vicky Markstein of Woodside. "The people who are opposing it are from the higher stratum of cat intellectuals, and the people who own the cats have really fought back."
This weekend, the public will get a chance to judge for itself when Charlotte Hoar of Wildomar puts two of her three munchkins, including her prize stud, Low-Rider, on exhibit at the Anaheim show.
The show, which begins at 9 a.m. each day, is expected to draw 35,000 cat lovers to the Anaheim Convention Center. Besides the munchkins, there will be 800 other cats representing 40 breeds, including the Scottish fold, with ears that flop forward, and the American curl, which has scrunched-up ears with big tufts of hair.
Markstein believes the exposure that the munchkin will get in the show will make the controversial animal as acceptable in the cat world as the dachshund or the short-legged Welsh corgi are in the dog world.
"When Stravinksy's new piece 'The Rites of Spring' came out, the Parisian audience threw tomatoes at him," Markstein said. "They were ready to string him up by his beard. Now it's a classic."
But Wayne Parker, one of the show's judges, isn't so sure.
"They're sort of a freak, aren't they?" Parker said. "They always look like they're walking downhill."
Outspoken munchkin opponent Katherine Crawford, an International Cat Assn. judge for the past 10 years, calls the cat an "abomination" and a "mutant" and says it is wrong to breed for the short-legged trait. While other cats have been bred for admittedly odd traits, she said, never before has a cat's basic structure been so altered.
"It's a dwarf," Crawford said. "I'm absolutely horrified by this."
Crawford said she has gotten calls from munchkin supporters threatening to burn her house, a first in her 10-year career as a judge. She said she is resigning over her association's decision in February to recognize the munchkin as a new provisional breed. She is judging her last contest for the association this November in Long Beach, she said.
Supporters say the cat, while not elegant-looking, is perfectly normal and even has some advantages.
"They have no problems doing mouse work because they're closer to their prey than other kitties," Hoar said. "They have very cocky personalities and they can do anything that a regular cat can do except jump directly onto counters."
Because their center of gravity is lower, they can turn corners better than regular cats. They also have the habit of sitting up on their haunches to look around like a quizzical rabbit, she said.
"I'm totally head over heels in love with them."
Two of her munchkin cats, Low-Retta and Sweet-and-Low, soon will have litters, she said.
The original American munchkin was found in Rayville, La., by a music teacher, Sandra Hochenedel, in the early 1980s. The short-haired black cat, which she later named Blackberry, was hiding from a bulldog under an old pickup truck. Hochenedel said she took the cat home and discovered it had short legs and was pregnant.
From Blackberry, the known American line of the breed has grown to about 300 cats. Because the munchkin gene pool is still relatively small, the cat is generally bred with regular domestic cats and so comes in all colors and with short and long hair. Usually about half of a litter is munchkin.
Hochenedel said her interest in the breed led her to send two of her munchkin cats to Dr. Solfelg Pfleuger, a physician and geneticist in Springfield, Mass. Pfleuger has X-rayed the cats and has found no deformities in their leg joints or backbones. She also discovered that the cat may not be new but a lost breed believed to have been wiped out in Germany during World War II.
Hochenedel said Pfleuger has found a 1944 reference by a German veterinarian who called it a "kangaroo cat," as well as an early 1950s reference by a Russian veterinarian. So far, critics are not convinced, and the debate has led to sometimes humorous and sometimes heated exchanges.
Quipsters joke that if you crossed a munchkin with an American wirehair, which has rough, crimped hair, you'd have a cat that could clean pipes. Munchkin exhibitors were thrown out of a Boston cat show two years ago by a show manager who was outraged by the cat, and a judge in another contest called the munchkin a "nasty little beast."
"The pipe thing doesn't really bother us," said Laurie Bobskill, president of the International Munchkin Society in West Springfield, Mass., and owner of 13 of the cats. "The rest is very childish."
But this year the controversy over the cat grew from a few snarls to a chorus of angry howls after the International Cat Assn., based in Harlingen, Tex., allowed Munchkins to compete in a limited category called "New Breed and Color" in a May show in Fall River, Mass.
"I was just furious when they accepted it," said Crawford, who after judging a Paris contest in March wrote a letter complaining that she had been humiliated by her group's decision.
"The [French] traditionalists were very upset," she said. "They could not understand how a deformed cat had been accepted."
Crawford predicts that the munchkin will develop back, hip and leg problems and diseases such as arthritis because of its shape.
"It's got to show up," she said. "It's shown up in dachshunds and look what's happened to them. Some are so crippled their owners have to put them on a kind of skateboard so they can get around."
But Paul McSorley, secretary for the International Munchkin Society, said several of the oldest munchkins, ages 13 and 14, are regularly checked and X-rayed and so far there is no sign of any crippling.
As for the cat's future, the possibilities are endless. Cat judge Parker said the animals are in big demand. Munchkin breeders, most of whom are on the East Coast, are getting calls every day for the cats, which sell for as much as $2,500. Parker has gotten requests from Japanese and Taiwanese cat collectors who have bought them for $1,000 each, he said.
Hochenedel said she is breeding for big, round eyes and perky ears. And, of course, the cats could take matters into their own paws--some munchkin somewhere could decide to breed with a Persian and produce a pug-nosed, stubby-legged cat, or with a sphynx and produce a hairless stubby-legged cat.
"The cat has changed already," Hoar said. "It's already coming in all different colors and lengths of hair. Only Mother Nature knows what she is going to throw at us next."