Step into Cynthia Gooding's enclosed garage and you might believe you wandered into an extraterrestrial petting zoo. But as your eyes adjust to the dimly lighted room, you realize that you're not mistaken at all. Outside of a sci-fi menagerie, where on Earth would you ever see the large-eared, nearly hairless creatures that are currently monitoring your every move with huge, lemon-shaped, gold-and-green eyes set into their deeply wrinkled faces? Imagine a mutant hybrid combining the most visually jarring elements of a rat, a bat, and a chihuahua, with Star Wars' Yoda lurking somewhere in the genealogical background. The result could not be any stranger than the extremely rare--and pricey--sphynx cats padding around Kiva Cattery, the name of the Scottsdale breeding business Gooding has operated with her husband for the past two years.

One of only two Arizona breeders currently selling the unique kittens, Gooding estimates there are probably no more than 30 breeders raising the species worldwide. As a result of the animals' scarceness (some enthusiasts believe that the world's sphynx population is still in the neighborhood of 700 cats), sphynx kittens currently fetch $1,000 to $3,500 apiece, depending on physical characteristics and future breeding potential.

Perhaps the exotic pet world's next flavor-of-the-month, the near-naked sphynx cats are admittedly an acquired taste. When Gooding's 10-year-old son Sam hauled one of the freakish felines to school for a recent show-and-tell session, classmates judged the cat to be "awesome." By contrast, Gooding's stockbroker husband Stewart reports that the curious mousers have inspired several frightened observers to holler "Devil cat!" and similar epithets.

"You get a very mixed reaction to them," says Gooding as she runs interference on several inquisitive kittens intent on scaling a nervous visitor's back. "Some people think they're really wonderful; other people don't want to even touch them." Of course, that reaction may depend on which sphynx someone happened to see. While some of the cats are almost pretty, other especially wrinkly varieties resemble a beanbag with a pulse. Generally barrel-chested and muscular, with large toe pads and a whiplike tail, the sphynx's pear-shaped body comes in a variety of colors, not all of them universally appealing. Those hues range from an attractive blackish-gray that tends to make the cat look simply sleek-coated to a loxlike shade of pink most closely associated with featherless baby birds freshly fallen from their nest.

The result of a spontaneous genetic mutation, the sphynx is believed to have popped in and out of history, Cheshire Cat-style, since ancient times. (Says one sphynx fancier, "I've got a copy of a statue that came out of one of the pharaohs' tombs, and if it's not [a replica of] a sphynx cat, I never saw one.") During the past century alone, reports of near-hairless cats have been recorded in North Carolina, Paris and Mexico. But it wasn't until several hairless kittens were born into a litter of house cats in Ontario, Canada, in 1966 that anyone in modern times tried to develop the breed. Nearly 30 years later, the breed is now recognized by a number of cat organizations, although Cat Fanciers of America (the cat world's answer to the American Kennel Club) will still not register the breed.

Hairless but surprisingly hardy (outside of the threat of sunburn and chills that forces them to be kept indoors, there are reportedly no health problems specific to the breed), the sphynx celebrates the latest of its nine lives with its greatest popularity in recorded history. Practically unknown even five years ago (when fewer than 25 sphynx were known to exist), the cats that have been likened to "suede hot-water bottles" are now being hailed in some quarters as the Shar-Pei of the Nineties. In fact, the breed proved its nascent hipness when one of the trendy critters cuddled up to David Letterman on television some months ago.

"When we started, you could count all of em on one hand and darn near not use any fingers," reports Joe Speed, a Benton, Mississippi, breeder who along with his ex-wife founded the International Sphynx Breeders & Fanciers Association (ISBFA) in the late Eighties. "Today, it's proliferating rather rapidly, almost on a geometric progression every day."
Cynthia Gooding, who has placed five kittens to date, chalks up a lot of the breed's popularity to the sphynx's lack of fur, a feature that particularly appeals to cat lovers who are allergic to their pet of choice. And even though most cat-related allergies are supposedly caused by the animal's saliva and dander, not its fur, Gooding claims that it's been her experience that sphynx cats rarely prompt allergy attacks.

"Maybe it's because you can keep them so much cleaner that you don't have the problems you do with regular cats," theorizes Gooding, noting the necessity of bathing the cats regularly to remove oil build-ups on their skin. "I do know that you don't have any fur floating in your house or sticking to your furniture."
But unlike Gooding, Speed believes that "the most unique thing about the sphynx is not the appearance, it's the personality." "I call em 'interactive' cats," says Speed. "If there's something going on in the house, those cats are either going to be right in the middle of it or just on the periphery. These cats do not know the meaning of the word 'aloof.' There's an old saying that a sphynx is 'part cat, part dog, part monkey and part child.' I think that's true. My Lord, I'm offering people a cat that has the personality of a good little house dog."

But every dog has its day, even when it's a hairless cat. Voicing a concern that crops up every time a new pet is in vogue, some sphynx fanciers fear the burgeoning popularity of the cat will be the breed's ruination.

"Due to the scarcity and the priciness of this cat, we've unfortunately attracted any number of--for lack of a better description--kitten mill' operators," claims Speed, whose contracts with buyers stipulate such things as which cats can be used for breeding--and how often they can be bred.

"Some of these people are in it pure and simple to see how much money they can make and how fast they can make it," reports Speed, stressing the importance of buying from "reputable" (i.e., ISBFA members) breeders like himself. "Some of these people will spring $2,000 for the male sphynx, then mate it to a Devon Rex female or whatever the hell else they feel like. You send the money, they send the 'hairless' cat, end of deal. And if the kitten happens to sprout a nice coat when it reaches sexual maturity? Too bad. The check cleared long ago."
Sherry Jordan, who operates the Jinjorbred Cattery in Pinetop, echoes Speed's concerns. "A lot of backyard breeders are getting into this, thinking that they are going to make a fast buck," explains Jordan, corresponding secretary for Speed's sphynx club. "A lot of them simply don't know--or don't care--what they're doing."

Jordan claims that a lesson can be learned--but probably won't--by looking at what happened to the Shar-Pei, the wrinkled Chinese dogs that were the novelty pet of the Eighties. "So many people jumped on the bandwagon that they flooded the market," says Jordan, who advertises that her sphynx are "lovingly raised underfoot and in bed." "People were breeding brother to sister and anything else just to produce a litter. It's sad because now they've produced a dog that has got a lot of health problems. Those people ruined the breed."

In the process, those same bandwagon-jumpers drastically drove down the price of Shar-Peis. Both Speed and Jordan point out that a breed of pups that once sold for $2,000 and more can currently be purchased for as little as $50.

And while the philosophical fur is flying elsewhere in the sphynx breeding circles, Cynthia Gooding--who is not an ISBFA member--refuses to join in that cat fight.

"As far as I'm concerned, the [International Sphynx Breeders & Fanciers Association] organization is set up to protect the Speeds and a couple of their friends," says Gooding. "If that's all it is, I don't want to be involved with it. I want to stay as far away from the politics of breeding animals as I can.

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Dewey Webb