Northwoods woman’s hobby is judging cats
It all started with a little “Magic” for Debbi Wich. That Magic was in the form of a beautiful, multi-colored cat that would help Debbi learn just how fascinating the feline species really is. In fact, it was Magic the Cat that played a part in Debbi becoming a certified and licensed cat judge, one of 40 all breed judges associated throughout the country with the American Cat Fanciers Association.
“I would have to say it was Magic that got me interested in becoming a cat judge,” she said. “She was such a beautiful cat I decided to show her and that’s when I attended my first cat show.”
It was a desire to touch, hold and play with each contestant that made Debbi determined to further her knowledge of the feline world. “When I saw those cats at that show I just wanted to hold them all,” she said. “I realized the only one at a cat show that got to do that was the judge and so I decided to become one.”
But becoming a cat judge takes years of study, testing and dedication. That didn’t deter this amiable women though, who considers her own five pedigreed cats a big part of her family. “Becoming a judge isn’t something you learn over night,” she said. “You really have to have a dedication for the job and a desire to learn all you can about this animal.”
That was no problem for Debbi. But at the time she decided to pursue this endeavor she was living in an apartment in Wausau, and working as a broadcast journalist for a television station. Her lease agreement did not allow for more than one cat. “One of the requirements to become a judge is you have to be a cat breeder for a number of years,” she said. “Then you have to show three different cats of your breeding to grand champion status at three separate shows.”
A breeder of Himalayan cats provided a chance for Debbi to pursue her dream. “I helped him at his cattery and he gave me a queen which produced the grand champions I needed to fulfill this requirement to become a judge,” she said.
Then there were years when she clerked cat shows which is also part of the duties of becoming a cat show judge. There’s plenty of studying, and testing, to learn all the breeds of cats and the characteristics that make them the particular animals they are. Since Debbi is qualified as an all breed judge, she has had to learn the characteristics of close to 50 breeds of cats-everything from the relatively rare Havana Brown to the popular Maine Coon. “You don’t judge a cat against other cats,” she explained. “You judge a cat against a set standard. The cats that come closest to that standard are the ones that are going to be grand champions. The challenge is learning all about those standards.”
Debbi has a special book that outlines all the requirements and standards of cat breeds she is qualified to judge, and she considers this her bible. “I always take my book with me when I judge a show,” she said. “Sometimes I need to refer to it especially if I get a cat that is rare.”
There are many factors that make up a grand champion kitty. Cat judges must rank a cat in several categories using a system consisting of 100 points, but point distribution is different for every breed. For instance a Selkirk Rex cat may have 35 points determined for its head alone. The way its ears are attached to its head, the slope of its nose from its forehead and even the eye placement is a factor when considering how many points a judge is going to award a cat. Some cats have more points slotted for fur consistency or eye color. And sometimes one little flaw can make a cat not even eligible for a prize. “If a cat has a kink in its tail, it is disqualified,” she said. “And to make matters even more complicated sometimes a cat will get what’s called ‘nervous kink’ which means it gets a kink simply because its uptight about being shown and when it gets back into familiar surroundings the kink goes away. That can be aggravating.”
Of course Debbi can’t show cats while performing as a judge, but over the years she has had plenty of experience being in the show ring with her felines. And that’s a skill all its own. “You can’t really train a cat like a dog because their motivation is different,” she said. “A dog wants to please its owner but a cat only wants to please itself. And about the only thing that motivates a cat is food, but finding the right food can be tricky.”
There are four categories cats can be entered into in a show including kitten, cats, altered and household cat. “Almost all the cats shown can be neutered and spayed,” she said. “In fact we highly recommend it. There are just too many cats that need homes today.”
In all these categories, cats are shown from the confines of a cage. They aren’t pranced around a ring like a dog, horse or even a cow. “Cats are placed in a judging cage,” said Debbi. “Then the judge takes them from the cage and handles them to feel their body to determine how close they are to the standard. Sometimes we take a toy and try and engage the cat in play to watch how its ears stand up or it moves.”
A cat that is destined for the show ring, in a lot of ways, has to have a penchant for it. “A cat is going to appeal to a judge if it likes being in the show ring,” Debbi said. “If it struts out of its cage with an attitude of ‘look at me, I’m beautiful’ that’s a cat that’s really going to impress a judge.”
Training cats to either like the show ring, or even just tolerate it, takes lots of training which starts in kittenhood. “If you have a show cat you have to expose it to a lot of different scenarios as a young kitten,” said Debbi. “You have to make sure it’s used to a cage and that it gets accustomed to different people handling it.” And she admits some cats which meet all the requirements of being a champion, never get used to being in the show ring. “Some cats just can’t adjust to it,” she said. “For instance, if a cat bites a judge twice during two different shows it is disqualified from ever being shown. So you really have to prepare your animal before you bring to a show.”
Debbi gave up her journalism career several years ago and moved to the Northwoods, becoming office manager for D&J Auto Repair, her family’s business in Rhinelander. While not working there she travels throughout the country, and even Canada, judging cat shows. “I love every show I am honored to judge,” she said “and it also gives me a chance to travel which I also enjoy.”
But perhaps her favorite way to spend time is to just chill out with her own menagerie of pets including her own cats which include two Selkirk Rex, a Havana Brown, an American Shorthair and a Birman. “Cats are just wonderful creatures and they will always fascinate me,” she said. “That’s why I like being a judge. It allows me to see all these different animals, but best of all I get to hold and play with them, and that’s exactly what my goal was so many years ago. I’m glad I made that happen.”
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