"Toygers" Breed Conservation Awareness, Animal-Rescue Concerns

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Kranz said she often visits cat shows, where she reminds all breeders about the growing problem of unwanted purebreds.

"I don't know if a lot of breeders, quite honestly, are really aware of how bad it is," she said. "I think a lot of them are in tremendous denial."

For Santee, breeding toygers is a way to pursue a passion while supporting her family. She first decided to breed the cats last year while her husband served in Iraq.

"I quit my [previous] job to stay home with the kids to get them through this difficult time," she said.

"I very much raise these kittens as part of my family, and they get very babied and spoiled," she added.

Toyger creator Judy Sudgen said one reason she decided to develop the new breed was to encourage owners to take more of an interest in wild tiger conservation.

She and other affiliated breeders already contribute financially to the cause.

"We use part of the price of the kittens to help the conservation of tigers, since that's our inspiration," she said.

(Related news: "Tiger Habitat Plummeted 40 Percent in 10 Years, Survey Finds" [July 20, 2006].)

Perfecting the toyger's physical characteristics to match wild tigers' is a challenging work in progress, said Pam Rohan of Lake Mountain Cattery in Eagle Mountain, Utah.

"The look is definitely there, but it's not fine tuned yet," she said.

Today's toygers have rusty colored fur and dark tigerlike stripes. The best examples of the breed also have white-furred bellies like their wild cousins.

Fanciers are striving to eventually produce cats with shorter, rounded ears as well as ropy tails, wider noses, and thicker chins.

Temperament is also a defining part of the breed.

Sudgen wrote on the Web site for her cattery, EEYAA Cats, that the toyger was "designed and bred with the demands of modern apartment life as a human companion foremost in mind."

The athletic felines can jump unusually high, will go for walks, play fetch, and come when called.

The cats also display an affinity for water. One of Santee's females has webbed paws like the Sumatran tiger and often puts them to good use (watch video of a wild tiger caught taking a "bath").

"She loves water," Santee said. "She'll come in the shower with me."

Sudgen thinks that toygers will be perfected by 2010, a date that she believes will coincide with the last of their big-cat relatives living in zoos.

"The results [of toyger breeding] could be the last chance for humans to make up for the loss of these species on Earth due to our stupidity," she said.

Health and Homes

Still, critics note that genetic tinkering to achieve such exacting physical attributes can wind up causing abnormalities and inherited health problems in purebred cats.

"We have seen, and are weeding out, the occasional health concern as it crops up" in new toygers, Sugden wrote in a letter to TICA.

Some of the problems seen so far include cleft palate, flattened ribcage, and heart irregularities.

Meanwhile Kranz, the cat rescue expert, said her facility is "overwhelmed" right now with Bengals—the spotted housecat first used to create the toyger.

Last year alone, Kranz and her team of volunteers rescued 500 purebred felines representing a variety of breeds and spent more than $60,000 (U.S.) in veterinary bills for them.

And that's just one rescue operation. Petfinder.com, a national database of animals for adoption, shows thousands of available purebreds ranging from fluffy Persians to hairless Sphinxes.

For their part, breeders Rohan and Santee make sure the kittens they sell as pets are spayed or neutered before they arrive at their new homes.

"I do not want to contribute to unwanted cats in the world or my cats being put into shelters or rescues," Rohan said.

According to Kranz, "people are going to develop new breeds one way or another. The important thing is that it's done responsibly."

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