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Wednesday, April 19, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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What makes a show cat? Try turning on the vacuum

Seattle Times desk editor

They're named after celebrities; they have their own rooms in the house, including a Honeymoon Suite; and they carry the championship ambitions of their owners.

Filmmaker Mark Lewis' "Show Cats" is a compelling mix of expressive close-ups from the giant show hall to the tiny playroom at home, plus revealing interviews with owners and judges, detailing why these cats consume their lives.

In one household after another, Lewis captures a buoyant, playful camaraderie as competitors get ready for the Cat Fanciers' Association 2004 international show in Houston, the so-called Westminster of catdom.

At the outset, veteran judge Walter Hutzler emphasizes, "Cats have gotten a bad rap, and cat people have a bad rap, too." Some of that he later points to frou-frou cage décor at shows as well as the confusing award system featuring a kaleidoscope of ribbons. He advocates keeping it simple like the Olympics with something akin to gold, silver and bronze awards.

"Show Cats" gets a silver for entertainment and education, while appearing a bit too formulaic, as one breeder after another greets the viewer at the front door and proceeds to introduce you to the nuances of her cat's breed. But their sharp-eyed analysis and wry wit offset that small quibble.

For instance, Chris Willingham describes one of her Oriental shorthairs, "We can all take lessons from our cats. ... They are very, very perceptual."

Betsy Gaither admits to being addicted to cat shows and is home only one weekend per month. Candidly, she adds, her cats are her most cherished friends and deserve the biggest room in her "three cattery, two-bedroom" house.

On TV

"The Standard of Perfection: Show Cats": 8 tonight, KCTS-TV.

One of her tests to determine if a young cat is ready for the clamor of the show hall: Turn on the vacuum and see if the animal is unnerved and doesn't flee the room. She demonstrates, and the results are akin to an emotional windstorm.

Himalayan breeder Teresa Schroeder holds her young show-candidate cats overhead in a different outstretched positions (like a show judge pointing out their attributes to the audience) to make certain they don't freak out. She later shows off a side of breeding that some might find totally hilarious — outfitting a male in "stud pants" while one of the females is in heat, to avoid him spraying or marking furniture.

The bubbly Schroeder emphasizes that the name you give an animal "says something about that cat and ... about you and your personality." Hers are Miss Lewinsky, Rumor Has It and Affair to Remember. You get the picture.

Maine Coon Cats receive plenty of attention in the hourlong documentary, particularly since they appeal to men.

"They're big and have the look of the wild," says 10-year breeder Donna Hinton. But they pose a giant grooming challenge. Her seven-step process includes soaking them with a degreaser used by car mechanics, then soaping them in a nontoxic dish detergent, texturing shampoo and vinegar. Then she adds, "If you think you've rinsed enough, rinse again."

With sober reality, Hinton draws the line on her resident cat population.

"I don't want a house overrun with cats, so I keep my numbers down to give them the individual attention they need. Plus, I have a human family, too."

While the cats' free-spirited presentation in the show hall is equated to a beauty contest, like dogs, they are judged against the breed standard, not fellow competitors. But as they advance and there's little edge between them, charisma often separates the winner from the others.

As anyone who has owned a cat knows, it can be highly unpredictable. Witness a contestant bolting from a judge's arms and fleeing into the audience as the announcer cautions anyone against picking it up "unless it knows you."

Ranny Green: rgreen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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