PUR-R-RSONAL BEST

ABOUT 160 meowing contestants, accompanied by their human beings, gathered here recently for two days of furry competition. In a scene repeated in other towns across the country almost every weekend, the felines compete for points to achieve titles like Champion, Grand Champion, and Supreme Grand Champion. In two days, each cat will see and be seen by eight judges. Between judgings, the felines rest in luxurious cages. After all, it's an exhausting life.

Meanwhile, doting owners hover over their cats like pit crews around race cars. These felines require recoiffing between judges, or at least touch-ups, especially after eating. And because there are four judges working simultaneously, the logistics of getting the right cat to the right judge at the right time is no small feat.

There are no financial awards for the winners; it's all done for fun. Even if a cat owner breeds cats, any extra income from offering trysts with a prizewinning feline is put back into showing it.

``It's a fun and expensive hobby, and you meet lots of nice people,'' says Penny Eger of Syracuse, N.Y., as her four-month-old Persian kitten Ode to Joy snuggles on her shoulder. ``Can you pet a lion? I can, right here, and it purrs.''

Larry Diamond of Howell, N.J., and his Norwegian Forest cat, Freyja, put 20,000 miles on his car last year just going to cat shows from Quebec to Tennessee.

The shows are divided into four classes: kitten, championship, alter, and household pets. The championship class, or purebreds, is the highest level. Within each class are two major categories, longhair and shorthair. Except for the household-pet class, the other classes are further divided into breeds, and breeds are split into divisions according to patterns of fur, such as solid color or tabby.

Because there is no overall winner in a cat show, a different cat could win highest honors from each judge.

A judge chooses the feline that comes closest, in his or her estimation, to the ideal standards of a breed -- no easy task, because the International Cat Association recognizes 30 breeds for championship competition. Standards of each breed are spelled out down to the length of fur between paw pads. Judging is a licensed specialty complete with schools, written tests, and refresher courses.

The household-pet class is perhaps easiest to judge, because no specific standards exist except that the cats be clean and healthy. Whatever pleases the judge wins, whether it be a cute trick or patterned fur.

``The household-pet ring is the only ring where the judge can be bought,'' says judge Jim Becknell as a purring tabby puts its arms around his neck and nuzzles his face during judging.

Mr. Becknell, from El Paso, Texas, whose full-time job is in computers, has been judging for seven years. Last year he figures he judged about 30 shows all over the country. He is paid a small fee and expenses. ``How many people get their hands on all these beautiful cats? That's my pay,'' he says.

And what do the cats think about all this? ``Most of the time she sleeps through everything,'' says Doris Hemling of Pleasantville, N.J., about her kitten, My Little Princess. ``She could care less.''

It's a tough life striving for pur-r-rfection, but someone's got to do it.

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