`ATTENTION,'' says the voice on the loudspeaker over the buzzing crowd, ``If you want to touch any of the cats, please ask the owners first.''
Ah, show cats. They lounge in padded splendor, all well-fed and pampered. And on a recent weekend in a big and noisy hotel convention room here, 150 of the beauties were watched by thousands of admiring humans, but held by only a few.
This is the world of finicky owners and show cats at the 16th annual Cats - Plain and Fancy All-Breed Cat Show, where the humans are as intense as the cats are aloof. ``Oh, I just love this,'' a woman says to her husband as they move from one curtained cat cage to the next, each cage decorated differently, some even made of oak framing with glass windows and ventilation.
Inside the 2-by-4-foot cages are exotic Abyssinians, Persians, Balinese, Korats, Sinagpuras, Ocicats, Turkish Angoras, Russian Blues, Birmans, and plain old American Shorthairs. One cage is draped in purple satin, another in tartan cloth and lined with small rugs. Another is bathed in blue velour and pink feathers. One cage has two tawny and sleek Abyssinians curled together in a miniature baby's crib.
Attached to the modest cage belonging to breeders Terri and Chip Blaney of Nashua, N.H., are five big red, white, and blue show ribbons. Inside the cage are two reddish Abyssinians. Alexandra and Ariana are semi-asleep, each cat opening and closing one eye now and then as the crowds pass.
``When we came here,'' says an excited Terri, ``we had only two points toward Alexandra becoming a grand champion. But in two days of judging she's won 98 points.''
By accumulating 200 points during judging, a nearly perfect cat or kitten (under eight months) can become a grand champion, a coveted designation for many cat breeders.
Jean Grimm of Concord, Calif., has been a judge for about 10 years with the Cat Fanciers Association (CFA), the world's largest register of pedigreed cats. ``Judges follow a book of standards for each breed,'' she says, ``and we judge the condition and health, the color, bone structure, alertness, and other features.''
She judges about 40 shows a year, and says a good show cat is shown only for a year. ``It's a very competitive sport,'' she says, remembering one of the most perfect cats she ever judged. ``He was called `Jovan, The Legend,' '' she says, ``and he met all the standards perfectly. I first judged him in the US, and then later in France. My heart was really thumping.''
SHE guessed that Jovan probably sold for around $10,000, going from American owners to French owners. But Melinda Webster, president of Cats Plain and Fancy, said the growing popularity of cat shows does not hinge on the unusually high price for some cats. ``For instance, a large percentage of the money raised at this show,'' she says, ``goes to providing veterinarian scholarships at Tufts University, and for supporting homeless shelters for cats.'' (The Boston Alliance for Animals says that some 18 million dogs, cats, puppies, and kittens are put to death in pounds and shelters every year. The Alliance promotes spayed or neutered pets to prevent unwanted animals.)
``I don't believe that cats should have to adjust and readjust to new owners all the time,'' says breeder Deirde O'Neil of Bevery Farms, Mass. While she brushes Dallas, an award-winning Persian brown mackeral tabby, and a crowd gathers around the table. ``To me, it's like signing away your children. I won't sell my cats to anyone I'm not absolutely sure of.''
Dallas clearly loves the grooming and the attention as smiling people watch a preening, purring cat. ``A breeder wants a cat with an outgoing temperament,'' Ms. O'Neil says. ``In many ways, cats are just like people.''
The CFA and its affiliate clubs hold more than 360 shows a year around the United States for pedigreed and non-pedigreed cats. The CFA recognizes 31 breeds of cat for championship competition.