Clutching a cup of coffee, I perched on the edge of a couch in the Portland International Airport between the baggage claim and the Continental Airlines ticket desk. The clock on the arrivals board crept toward 11 p.m. My driver looked groggy as he slumped in the seat beside me.
Passengers drifted down the escalator. The flight had arrived. Long minutes passed until a woman appeared to lift a crate onto the baggage scale. On the side of the crate was a sticker of a turtle, a dog and a rabbit.
I hurried forward to meet her.
“I hope this is yours,” she said.
I assured her I was the owner as I squatted down to peer through the barred crate door. Golden eyes stared back at me from the dim interior of the crate. Large, pale, pointed ears hovered over his trembling front legs, lanky and banded with black stripes.
His name is Bengal Bo.
Papers signed, we headed for the parking garage on a Maine winter night.
Bengal cats have extremely short fur, which means they dislike cold weather and barely shed. I held the door of the crate against my chest to block out the cold the best I could.
In my Jeep, we cut the plastic ties away from the door so I could hold the fragile, 9-week-old kitten in the passenger seat for the three-hour drive home. In the glow of the overhead light, distinct black markings jumped out from his light tan fur. An intricate network of marble patterns along his back gave way to large dark spots on the sides of his body. Spots speckled his white belly. His tail was banded. Red, iridescent fur raised along his spine.
Wrapped in my merino wool shirt, he stopped trembling and slept.
It had been a long flight from Destiny Bengals cattery in Florida.
It had been a long journey for me as well. The search for a playmate for my 2-year-old domestic cat, Arrow, was over.
Months before, I had stumbled across Savannah cats, the hottest new breed in domestic cats. These spotted cats, descendants of the wild serval cat, grow to be enormous — 25-30 pounds — if you want to pay about $10,000 for an early generation and you’re not looking to have it sit in your lap.
In my research, I looked at a lot of pictures of spotted cats before I realized that I wasn’t looking at Savannah cats anymore — I was looking at Bengal cats.
Bengals have larger spots or marble patterns. They’re stockier but don’t weigh as much as Savannahs, usually 12-15 pounds. And they do like to cuddle. In fact, they are known as “lap leopards.”
If Bengal Bo seems exotic, that’s because he is, partially. A wild Asian Leopard plus a domestic cat equals a Bengal cat. And his parents are big, so Destiny Bengals predicted Bo just might grow to be 20 pounds.
Bo slept for the entire ride back home, waking only for a moment to stretch and look out the window at the gas station lights. That night he crawled under the covers and laid against my stomach until I got up the next morning — and from that point on, it’s been all exploration and growing for Bo.
Bengal cats have gained popularity not only because of their exotic coats, but also for their intellectual qualities.
“They’re intelligent and inquisitive. Everything about them is so different,” said Debbie Digloria, owner of MomDukes Bengal Cats in Manchester, N.H. “They like water [and] like to be walked on a leash.”
Bo purrs when I place his kitten harness on him. He also plays in whatever water he can find (there’s one obvious choice), watches the television and begs for my dinner like a dog.
He sounds like an awesome pet, but there’s one thing that people need to watch out for — Bengal cats are bursting with energy.
“I don’t think a person in their 60s or 70s would have the patience for one,” said Digloria. “I say that because I gave my aunt one — she’s now in her late 80s — and she had to give it back to me. It wasn’t right for her. I think you’ve got to be a young and willing to put away those breakables. I thought I was done kid-proofing, but then I started breeding.”
My other cat, Arrow, already had forced me to kitten-proof my apartment. I place his cat food in the metal drawer under the oven because he can open all of the cupboards. He also can open every door by jumping onto the lever handles and hanging on until his weight pulls it down. The night before picking up Bo at the airport, I had to change my bedroom door lever to a doorknob so I could separate the two cats for the first few days.
The two cats now sleep curled up together, Arrow’s front leg wrapped around Bo. They tackle each other, play chase and team up on me when it’s dinnertime. Bo produces the most unearthly screeching meow when he’s hungry.
My friend pointed out that I should know I’d become a “cat lady” when every other post on my Facebook page is about my cats. But it makes sense to invest myself in my investment.
The cost of a Bengal cat ranges from $600-$3,000, depending on the breeder and their line of ancestry. I purchased Bo within that range. If I were to justify the purchase: Bo is from a cattery that has bred Bengal cats from champion lines for 12 years (and Glenn Mustapick, owner of Destiny Bengals, kept sending me cute pictures that I couldn’t ignore.)
The Bengal cat is among the 57 championship breeds recognized by The International Cat Association. Ragdolls, Russian Blues, Maine Coons and Persians all have shared glory at the TICA cat shows, but in recent years, Bengals have become one of the most frequently exhibited breeds, according to the TICA website.
“It would be very strange to go to a TICA cat show and not see a Bengal,” said Francine Hicks, TICA Northeast regional director. “Obviously here in Maine, Maine Coons are the most prevalent, but there are still a lot of Bengals out there. It’s a fairly new breed, but it’s still popular.”
Bengal cats first became a TICA-approved breed in 1986.
Because Bengals are an expensive new breed, they aren’t common in Maine. The majority of Bengal catteries are in southern and western states. Snow Tundra Bengals of Lisbon Falls is one of the two Bengal catteries I found in the state.
Snow Tundra Bengals owner Hermia Hart, specializes in the breed of cats her cattery names. Snow Tundra Bengals have a much lighter base coat and markings than Bo. She encourages people to visit her home cattery to meet her cat queens and studs (mothers and fathers), which she shows in TICA competitions several times a year to keep up with the new traits and standards of the breed.
Competing cats receive points for aspects of their heads, bodies and coats. For example, TICA standards state that the overall look of the Bengal’s head should be as distinct from the domestic cat as possible ,and it should be longer than it is wide, which explains Bo’s long nose. His ears wouldn’t gain him many points. They’re supposed to be medium to small — his are large and tall, like the ears of his cat dad Outlaw.
As far as his coat goes, I’m confident Bo would stand out in a crowd of TICA cats. His unusually soft fur sports distinct spots, marble patterns and stripes in rich, red-tinged colors. I looked up photos of his ancestor, the Asian Leopard, and Bo has the same intricate markings on his forehead. His feet are supposed to be large and round with prominent knuckles — check.
Bengal bones are “sturdy, firm; never delicate” and they are “very muscular, especially in the males, one of the most distinguishing features.”
Bo will have to grow into that. Now at 11 weeks old, he’s just a little guy.
For information on Bengal cats, visit www.tica.org.