The Cornish Rex
The year 2000 is special in many ways. It heralds the start of a new millenium. It causes grave trouble for older computers and computer software. It makes your books of unused checks with the "19___" on the date line obsolete. And it's the Golden Anniversary of the Cornish Rex breed. That's right, those big-eared, curly little mutants have been making waves for 50 years! It was July 21, 1950, to be precise, at Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, England, when Nina Ennismore discovered an unusual kitten among her tortie and white cat "Serena's" latest litter. A little cream-colored male was covered with tight rows of tiny curls, giving him the appearance of a miniature lamb. As the kitten grew, his difference from his littermates became more dramatic; instead of the sturdy body and round head typical of the British domestic shorthair, Serena's kitten had a slender fine-boned body standing on long legs, a narrow head, enormous "bat ears," and a long whippy tail. Mrs. Ennismore didn't quite know what to make of this odd creature but decided he'd make a fine pet, so she took him to her veterinarian to be neutered. If not for the vet's realization that this cat was something truly special, the Cornish Rex might never have come to be.
Mrs. Ennismore's vet advised her to consult with noted British geneticist A.C. Jude about Kallibunker, as the odd little cat was called. Dr. Jude recognized that Kallibunker was a genuine mutation, and suggested that Kallibunker should be bred back to his mother to perpetuate the look. As expected, two curly kittens were produced in the litter of three. Since Mrs. Ennismore had bred and shown Rex rabbits and was familiar with a similar mutation in mice, she made the connection in the coat types and named the new cat breed Rex. Kallibunker was test bred to Burmese, Siamese, and other British domestic shorthairs, and the mutation was shown to be a recessive one. Further test breedings among Kallibunker's offspring confirmed that two curly-coated cats would produce only curly offspring.
When Life magazine published a short article and pictures of Kallibunker and one of his kittens in 1956, cat fanciers worldwide perked up in notice of this completely new breed. The following year, Frances Blancheri of California imported two Rex from Mrs. Ennismore: a red tabby son - Pendennis Castle - and a blue granddaughter - Lamorna Cove (who was bred to her father, "Poldhu," before being shipped from Britain). Although apparently healthy, Pendennis Castle never sired, but Lamorna Cove's first U.S. litter contained four kittens, two of whom became foundation cats in virtually every Cornish Rex line in the U.S. The blue and white male, "Marmaduke," was purchased by Helen and Walter Weiss, and he became the father of the entire Daz-Zling line. The blue and white female, Diamond Lil of Fan-T-Cee, was purchased by Peggy Galvin and bred to a blue point Siamese, establishing early the pointed gene in the color pool (which wouldn't be accepted for championship competition for another 27 years!).
While the Rex was being soundly propagated in the U.S., the story was somewhat different back in the U.K. Nina Ennismore was running short of funds and the Rex breeding program was a major financial sink for her. In 1956 she destroyed a number of cats, including Kallibunker (because he constantly fought with another male) and his dam Serena. The number of breeding male Rex in all of England was reduced to two - Poldhu (a fertile blue-cream) and Sham Pain Charlie. Because of Poldhu's unusual color (for a fertile male), a veterinarian was taking a tissue sample for research when the cat was accidentally castrated (ironically, not only was Poldhu's virility lost, but so was the tissue sample!). This left only a single breeding male in England to carry on the breed. Thus, when Helen Weiss of Daz-Zling contacted Mrs. Ennismore for breeding stock, there was none to be had. The Rex in the U.S. were outcrossed to Siamese, American Shorthairs, Burmese, and Havana Browns. Although this proved a short-term setback to type, it provided a broad genetic base upon which to build a breed.
In 1960, Beryl Cox of Devonshire, England discovered a male kitten with a curly coat and a pixie face among strays in a field near her home. Adopting the cat as a pet, she named it "Kirlee," and British cat fanciers believed another Rex outcross had been found to rejuvenate the breed. However, when Kirlee was bred to curly-coated descendants of Kallibunker, the kittens were all normal coated. Kirlee was recognized as a different Rex mutation, dubbed Gene II (and Kallibunker and his descendents were retroactively labeled as Gene I). While many of these normal coated kittens found their way into Gene I breeding programs, the Rex breeders agreed not to repeat a Gene I - Gene II cross. Kirlee went on to a distinguished career as the foundation cat in the Devon Rex breed.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S., an odd-eyed calico with a curly coat turned up in a California animal shelter. She wound up in the possession of Bob and Dell Smith of Rodell Cattery, who promptly named her Mystery Lady of Rodell. Mystery Lady was bred to Fan-T-Cee Blue Boy, a Rex hybrid son of Diamond Lil of Fan-T-Cee. When the resulting kittens were straight-coated it was initially assumed Mystery Lady was not a Gene I mutation. In fact, the litter simply defied the odds. Subsequent breedings with the kittens and with Mystery Lady proved she and her kittens were Gene I, and she became the foundation of the Rodell line behind many of today's Cornish Rex.
In 1962, CFA began registering the Rex cats and, fittingly, the first one registered was Marmaduke of Daz-Zling. They were advanced to championship status two years later, both Gene I (Cornish) and Gene II (Devon) competing in the same class and using a standard favoring the Gene I cat. The Gene I and Gene II cats were finally split into separate breeds in 1984 and renamed Cornish Rex and Devon Rex respectively. The first Rex grand champion was GC Fan-T-Cee Fangio of Rodell, a blue male. But the National Best of Breed that year was GC Daz-Zling Great White Father, a gold-eyed white male and another keystone in American Cornish Rex pedigrees. The first Rex national win came in the 1970-71 show season when a copper-eyed white female, GC KatzenReich's Bianka, was CFA's 4th Best Cat. No other Rex has since exceeded that mark.
The popularity of the Cornish Rex is mainly attributable to its unique appearance. The marcel wave in the coat attracts immediate attention and the breed's unusual appearance has great appeal for those individuals with avant garde tastes. But the wave of the coat is not its sole unique characteristic. The normal feline coat contains three distinct hair types: the long, course guard hairs, somewhat finer awn hairs, and a downy undercoat. The Cornish Rex coat should completely lack guard hairs. This gives the coat an incredibly soft and silky feel - contrary to appearances - that must be felt to be appreciated. In yet another breed irony, early breeders in Britain preferred to emphasize the feel of the coat to its wave, and actually selected for cats with close coats and little wave. Their initial breed standard placed no points at all on wave. It was the American breeders who took the opposite tack and placed emphasis on the wave of the coat.
This velvet coat covers a body so fine-boned it appears to be porcelain, but feels more like hard muscle wrapped around a steel frame. The small whippetlike body hints to the high activity level of this breed, and the fun-loving Rex loves to meet this expectation. This is a cat that truly lives in three dimensions, requiring lots of vertical space to play in addition to plenty of running room. When Cornish Rex pet sales don't work out, it's usually because the new owners were not prepared for the intensity of this cat's activity. This very activity level, however, endears them to most people.
Couple all this with the Cornish Rex personality and you have a winning combination. Cornish Rex owners frequently refer to them as "Velcro kitties," not because of their coats but because of their intense desire to snuggle up and cling to their owners. This breed loves to be where the action is, and that's usually where the people are; consequently, they tend to follow their owners like puppies and involve themselves (uninvited) in whatever is going on. They are extremely intelligent and one can watch them and almost hear the wheels turning in their little heads. This has prompted another description for the Cornish Rex - con artists in fur.
Belying its fragile appearance, the Cornish Rex is a very sturdy breed. Thanks to the wisdom of the first U.S. Rex breeders, the breed began with a sound genetic base, and there are no breed-related health problems. Breeders who have worked with other breeds find Cornish queens a joy. They generally require no assistance delivering kittens. Most are perfectly content to have their kittens on their own, but others will patiently wait for their owners to come home and monitor the proceedings. The kittens are tiny at birth, usually averaging about 100 grams, and as soon as they dry the little waves are evident. These often disappear in a week or so, but return anywhere from three to nine months of age. Kittens are precocious, usually opening their eyes by five days and standing on their wobbly little legs at 10 days. Their faces are usually in their mother's food bowl at the one-month mark.
The Cornish Rex appetite is legendary. Since their activity level is so high, they require a large amount of fuel to sustain them. Many breeders permit their Rex to free feed without the cats ever having a weight problem. Other Rex view a bowl of food as a personal challenge to be vanquished, and will not stop eating until every crumb is gone. A Texas breeder often relates an incident where one of her Rex managed to get into the closet where the bags of cat food were stored. The cat was later found unconscious and gorged in the top of a food bag, half-chewed and unswallowed food still in her mouth. Their appetites aren't limited to cat foods, either. Nearly all are omnivores, each having a favorite vegetable (usually beans, peas, corn, or broccoli) and many have a penchant for fruit (usually apples and bananas).
One might think the Cornish Rex high activity level and enormous appetite an indication that they burn out quickly, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Cornish Rex have long lifespans and are determined to crowd as much joy as possible into each moment. A Rex should live to 15 years and it isn't unusual at all for them to surpass 20. CH Blu Sprs Susannah lived to 23, and other Blu Sprs Rex have passed 20 years of age and are still going strong. The Cornish Rex may grow old, but they never seem to grow up. Cats well into their teens often play like kittens several times each week. They never lose their zest for life. Anything not nailed or glued down is likely to become a Rex toy, and you'll recover said objects far from their previous locations and in the most unusual places. Usually a Rex doesn't tire of a particular toy; they just find something else more interesting. They may go through several of your possessions before it's time for the afternoon nap. Living with a Cornish Rex means child-proofing your home...all the way to the ceiling!
The Cornish Rex may have started as a minority breed, but it has quickly become a significant breed in CFA. They have been the largest or second largest shorthair breed represented at the last few CFA International Cat Shows. Rex classes at shows around the country are generally quite competitive, and classes are larger than they were 10 years ago. There have been 12 National Winners and a large number of Distinguished Merit (DM) cats. Some of these DMs have gone "above and beyond the call of duty," producing well over the required number of grand and DM offspring to achieve that honored status. GC Keltys Kum Kashu of Ridgways has sired 24 grand offspring, more than any other Cornish Rex male to date. There is a tie for the lead among female DMs, with GC Heatwave's Vendetta and CH Milagro's Lady O' The Night each producing 10, but with the longevity of this breed and their successes on the show bench, it's unlikely these marks will remain unsurpassed for long.
Today's lifestyle suits the Cornish Rex to a "T" and is likely to increase its popularity. With life being "on the go" for so many people, a low-maintenance pet fits neatly into the picture. With the Cornish Rex lack of guard hairs there is virtually no shedding problem, and their superb constitutions mean sound health. They aren't shy about demanding attention, but they don't pine away when no one's around. They love to travel with the family, but are just as happy to be at home. In short, all the best qualities of a family pet are found in the Cornish Rex. Yes, the year 2000 looks very promising for this breed. One might even say it looks golden.
I'd like to take this time to pay a special tribute to all those Cornish Rex breeders who went before me. It was because of their hard work and sound judgement that this breed is the success it is today. Nina Ennismore and British cat fancier Brian Stirling-Webb were instrumental in founding the breed. Walter and Helen Weiss, Fran Blancheri, and Bob and Dell Smith were instrumental in saving it. Breeders too numerous to mention - but every bit as important - contributed to refining the breed to the magnificent animal it is today. Without the hard work and dedication of all of these people, this article would have been neither possible nor relevant. The Rex breeders of today owe them a debt we can never repay, so each Cornish Rex we put on the show bench will have to serve as that tribute.