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Tuesday, 11 September 2012

What I Hate About Cat Judges

Let me preface these remarks by first stating that the heading of this article is hyperbole – it is an attention-getter. It is also part of a larger exposition considering thoughts around why the cat fancy is getting smaller each year : this section deals specifically with judges and the perception of these people from the point of view of the exhibitor.

I neither “hate” nor do I “love” any cat judge. “Love” and “Hate” are too strong and emotive words to bring into the subject of cat judging. I do however have the greatest respect for a certain few judges who do a stirling and sometimes thankless task, and who stick to their guns through thick and thin. In fact cat judging seems to be an occupation which is fraught with danger from all sides – show management, breeders, exhibitors – the lot! The judges I respect are those who manage to courteously and firmly undertake the task assigned them, judges who manage time and again to accomplish their assignment with aplomb, AND although they may attain a reputation of being uncompromising and “as tough as nails”, they always maintain their reputation for integrity and consistency. You sometimes may not like the decision they make when it comes down to your cat, but in the cold hard light of day, you cannot in all conscience argue with it. These folk are never too busy to give a well-considered word of advice or encouragement when asked, and they obviously eat up any and all information dealing with their fancy – from history to present day, folklore and scientific. In short they are authorities, and it’s not hard to give them respect.

And then I have a measure of both distain and dislike for many other judges who by their conduct show themselves to be vacillating, ill-prepared and willing to “bend with the breeze” to accommodate certain people at cat shows, to the detriment of the other exhibitors, and who thereby fail in the task of imparting accurate input as to goodness of breed. These are the judges who one moment are fêting and fussing over a cat, giving it judges special awards and waxing lyrical – and the next they are ignoring the cat completely. These are the judges who are playing along to a separate song-sheet – one that is not primarily based on the goodness of the cat, but the expediency of ensuring so-and-so is promoted in their breeding program, and whatshername gets to qualify for cat of the year (again) – regardless of how many times it’s already happened, and regardless of who else may have a very good cat, but is good only for providing an endless stream of entry fees. These judges confide to you their thoughts about other exhibitors, and then go and do the same thing with everyone else. These are the judges who quickly lose the respect of all except the few in the gallery to whom they are playing – and they who cause many good folk who perceive the futility of trying to play on a tilted playing field, to close the door and turn out the light on the cat fancy. And then we wonder why the Fancy continues to shrink….

Let’s look at some of the likes and dislikes in a bit more detail.  

1. I love “hard and uncompromising, but consistent”. Ow! Sounds a little masochistic. It hurts when you don’t have a cat that is up to scratch (no pun intended) on the bench. But at least you know where you stand – and you know this every single time. When that judge takes your cat in hand you know you’re going to hear God’s Honest Truth, come hell or high water. And when that judge nominates your cat, you know you have finally got a good cat. You can look anyone straight in the eye and say “So and So gave this cat a nomination, and that means this is a VERY good cat” - undeniably. When your cat is faulted, you know you can ask why and immediately receive a factual object lesson straight as an arrow, given and received in a non-threatening and informative manner. You don’t mind in the long run, because this judge is straight down the line – their input is always factual, never biased and can always be trusted 100%. They have no need to mislead you – what they have said about your cat is the gospel truth. And you don’t waste time and money trying to win with a cat that’s never going to make it. Of course if you have a “good-to-mediocre” cat which needs to obtain titles and the cat is good enough do this, you are perfectly able to do so, but at least you know up front you’re never going to have a show winner. And there’s nothing wrong with that. No surprises.

2. When we came into the fancy, we were “befriended” by a local breeder from whom we received a few cats. For better or worse, we noted that when we were showing this breeder’s cats, they received awards including judge’s favourites, and sometimes nominations for finals etc. A particular cat of ours received multiple nominations almost as a routine. However at some later stage we were advised by the breeder to decline to have a certain local judge judging our cats (“because they don’t like our breeding, so there’s no point in letting them judge the cats”), and of course, being inexperienced in the fancy, this we did. And that was the last time any of our cats received nominations from any of the judge members of the local provincial panel of judges. We found out later that regardless of what the breeder said to others about the judge in question, on a personal basis she made sure she stayed on friendly terms with the judge – who is a leading light in the local fancy. The objective of course was to ensure that none of the other cats we subsequently put on show from other breeders, ever received nominations at local shows, and that our cats never out-competed this breeder’s own cats.

Of course from an ethical point of view, this type of incident should never occur, since judges should concern themselves only with the cat on the bench in front of them. The politics of the exhibitor and/or breeder (if different) should be irrelevant, but alas, they are not. It is also my prerogative not to like or want a particular judge judging my cat if I choose not to, as long as I remain civil this is as far as it should go. The issue here is professionalism. Judges are there to do a job of work – and they are getting paid for it – so they should be focusing only on the cats and not on the personalities in the room. The professional approach can accommodate the fact that they may indeed not like a particular exhibitor, but their call to duty is to ensure that they correctly and meticulously judge the cats before them. And only that.

3. Judge preference. This one irks me. “That judge doesn’t like bicolours, so they won’t nominate that cat”. Duh! Is a bicolour described in the SoP? If it is, then the task of the judge is to judge the cat unequivocally according to the SoP. Personal “likes” should be irrelevant! If this cat is a very good and pretty bicolour with the required amounts of white, and if it has all its other “bits&pieces” in the right places, then it should receive the same consideration as the selfs, vans, smokes etc. And it’s OK for the cat not to win – that’s not the issue here. The issue here is that personal colour (or whatever other) bias, should not be allowed to become a factor in the mind of the judge.

4.  The “regionality of the winning” is another interesting trend. This appears to be the cat fancy equivalent of the “home town advantage” in football games. Briefly it is the trend noted where certain cats owned and bred by certain breeders have a tendency to win specifically only in a certain province or club. Here, one looks to the relationship between the show managers, judges routinely invited to officiate and exhibitors, and “who owns who’s cat” / who is in a breeding program with who etc. Inspection reveals that most often the selfsame judges are officiating at these shows.  The name of the game here for judges should be “come without any encumbrances or hidden agendas. Do not carry baggage that will interfere with your integrity or freedom to act. And don’t set unfortunate precedents”. My message to judges here might be “personal integrity is hard-won and easily lost. Once gone, it’s gone forever. Don’t give yours away – cheaply or even at all”.

5. I cannot relate how irritating it is to have a judge deciding to withhold on my cat, and then hopping around from one foot to the other while they get 2nd (3rd, 4th) opinions from whichever judge they can find in the room, merely because they lack the courage of their convictions. Of course, this has the delightful consequence of alerting everyone in the room that your cat has been declined, and therefore all the other judges that are still to judge you (sorry - Freudian slip - should read "your cat") know what to fault you on. It was a matter of wonderment to me that the last time this happened, the judge withheld (in ring 1 mind you) and although the other judges "agreed" on the withhold, none of them saw fit to penalise the same fault. Maybe they were trying to be nice so I continued to support the shows... 

On a different occasion, a judge decided to withhold on one of our cats because of a pattern dispute. This judge also cast about the room looking for “some backup” for the decision. She got her backup, but it was really rather amusing and ironic. The one judge who agreed with the withhold for incorrect pattern, had written on a previous report on this cat “Excellent coat … pattern evident and correct”  and the 2nd judge called on to support the withhold had herself judged the same cat some 4 weeks before and had written a one-word judge report "outstanding"!  Of course she didn't remember the previous judging, but the inconsistency made me smile. How can one trust the judgement of such people to guide a breeding program?  You’d be better off asking a vet – at least they’d give you a sound assessment of the health of the animal, which should be more important than merely the outward appearance.

If you in your discretion decide that for whatever reason, you need to withhold, then do so, but be prepared to be able to look the exhibitor (and breeder) straight in the eye and tell them exactly why. And don’t change your mind next time.

6. As far as going to shows to get a heads-up on whether the breeding program is still on track and no cattery-blindness is creeping in, I applaud anyone who really is doing this nowadays - and there may well be one or two (or a few). Originally, if one looks back to people like Harrison Weir and Francis Simpson, it will be recalled that this was one of the most important reasons for showing cats. Knowledgeable judges gave guidance and input – “a nudge here and a tip there” to ensure the well-planned and executed breeding program stayed nicely on track – and to nip in the bud any nasty little extremes of type that tended to creep in from time to time, as well as to arrest the misguided novice in their tracks, if indeed they got off to a poor start.

It is perfectly true that a breeder will never give away their best bloodstock – they’d be silly to do so. Correctly, the best kitten should be retained to continue the line, and if they are truly as good as the breeder thinks, they will have their share of many awards. The corollary to this is “the show home will never get the best cat, and neither will another breeder”. And exactly because you cannot keep all the cats you breed, you will pass down the line kittens and sometimes studs and queens who are not up to scratch. This of course is not “bettering the breed” – how can you better the breed by passing on your own cast-offs? But it does mean that most start-up breeders, (unless they have sufficient capital and a very good eye for talent so they can import their own bloodlines), will not begin by breeding very good kittens. There could be the odd fluke, but generally speaking the “enthusiastic novice” is going to fail to score. And this is where the judge comes in, because those kittens are going to be on show, as well as subsequent breedings. And if judges are not playing their part to provide a voice of reason for new and inexperienced breeders (and there are many of these – it doesn’t take much skill to start “putting cats together”) – then the most important reason for the very existence of the cat show has been missed. 

Sadly nowadays, I think most of what goes on at cat shows is more to do with ego and awards to embellish the shop-window and pave the way for more sales (many of them international exports in nice strong currency). More awards and more wins = “more to put on my website and facebook” and more to attract buyers - after all the little devils just carry on popping out kittens, don't they, and we have to sell them somehow?

7. And then we come to ordinary old-fashioned good manners and decency. No - it is neither permissible nor is it professional for a judge to shout, raise their voice, or even to get upset with a breeder (or anyone else) because the cat in front of them has a fault. To what end is this even worth getting upset about? Surely it is more beneficial to quietly note the problem to the exhibitor and/or breeder, and if it is of a sufficiently serious nature and may appear that the breeder is missing a few tricks, that the judge then meet with the breeder discreetly to make their observations as to how the lines might be improved? After all, most of us agree at the outset that the real intent of the shows is to try to improve the breed. Or is it too threatening to have a judge tell you that you might actually not be hitting the mark? Do we all have to have our egos mollycoddled and stroked in order to feel good about ourselves, all the time?

In all walks of business we have the “rank and file” – the large clerical group of employees, and then we have the “middle and upper management” – those with an operational vision for the business who are positioned to be able to provide guidance and input to the troops, to conduct disciplinary and performance reviews, to remunerate and to coach and motivate. And then there are those few top administrators – the executive management with the strategic vision who conduct their affairs at a high level and who lead frequently hurried and stressed lives rushing from meeting to meeting. In the context of the cat fancy, perhaps the “rank and file” are the everyday breeders and exhibitors, the “mid to upper management” are maybe the show management, stewards and club committees, and the “executive management” are the governing council and the judges. Just about everyone on the governing council (and I’m not including club-representatives here, I’m referring to permanent GC membership) is a judge anyway. So let’s say “judges” are the Executive Management of the cat fancy. And why not? To be a (proper) judge you have a sense of history. You know the forerunners to current day bloodlines, you know what worked and what didn’t in the past, you know who did what, when and why, you have great insights into the legendary cats of the past and the heritages they spawned. And you know – or know of – the great breeders and judges of the past who have gone about their trade in a sober, unassuming way and have grown in stature and wisdom to become legends of the cat fancy. To be a “proper” judge – like any executive manager – you need to have helicopter vision and an eye for the strategic. You need to have a long term high level view, and you need to unerringly be able to choose the right path under all circumstances, in the interests of the long term health and prosperity of the cat fancy. The cat judge is (or rather, “should be”) someone special. “A leader” who understands the wisdom of keeping the mailed fist in the velvet glove and in maintaining calm control. Someone whose discretion is beyond reproach and who will never be party to cheap secondhand gossip.  A person in whose decision great store is placed – whose comments are always both sincere and accurate, and who strives to never deliver inconsistent judgments on a cat, especially when nominating and placing them.   

8. “Flip-flop Judges”. Have a look through any set of judge reports from the shows you have attended. Bet you a penny to a pound you will not take long to find a set where you wonder if the judges are looking at the same cat? And then, if or when my cat is nominated, do I have a good cat? One moment you get a judgement where a judge appears to love your cat, and the next they are withholding. Or you sense that they “kind-of love” your cat, but clearly they don’t love your cat enough to actually nominate it for best of group/ BIS etc. At this point you wonder if they are loving your cat merely enough to keep you supporting the shows? Take the judge who recently wrote in their judge report that a particular Maine Coon’s muzzle was too small. The cat went on to win a side-class at the same show for best muzzle. Huh? Are we on the same page here? Somebody speak with forked-tongue. (The same cat has been doing very well at a number of recent shows, even once winning best kitten).

There is a saying “There’s no such thing as a perfect cat”. This is of course perfectly true. But the unspoken part of this truism is “and we will ruthlessly point out the bits that are not perfect if we dislike you or your politics, or you don’t fit in with our little clique, or it’s not your turn to win”. Any judge can find anything they like wrong with your cat, if they have a mind to. Amusingly, occasionally this all comes home to roost when something is arbitrarily chosen as a fault and the cat is awarded for it nonetheless!

But what’s the problem? “We need to ensure certain cats do well at certain shows so their owners/breeders get to COTY this year again, and we will use the harmless side classes to make sure everyone else gets to feel good occasionally. Everyone gets a turn”.

We recently noted a comment from a judge, noting to the effect that they felt bad disappointing exhibitors. They needed to feel that they were being “nice” to people. Fair enough. I can understand that people can feel bad about crushing the world of an aspirant starry-eyed exhibitor. But is being nice better than telling the truth? In the realm of personal relationships we know that sometimes it can be downright cruel telling the hard truth to a friend or loved one – it’s just sometimes better for people’s feelings to not be told, or to give them a little palliative white lie. But when you come to the cat show arena, this is plainly not the forum to be playing around with amateur psychologist feelgood placebos. The judge is there to do a job of work, and do it they must, in as honest a manner as possible. No giving sideclass awards to make people feel better about missing out on the main prize. And no deliberate nominating of an inferior cat which the judge knows must lose in a final to a cat they themselves may be linked to.

It’s perfectly acceptable to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth as humanely, compassionately and empathetically as possible. The cat judge is only the messenger. They are not responsible for the goodness or otherwise of the cat in front of them (if they are, then they shouldn’t be judging it!).

And they shouldn’t feel guilty for the emotional reaction if there is one. After all, if the owner wants to believe their cat is the best in the world (and of course we all know our own cats are the best in the world don’t we?), they don’t have to bring them to cat shows, do they?  The problem in all of the above is of course credibility. Once credibility is sacrificed on the altar of expediency, it’s gone permanently. Is my cat good? Who knows – and I’m not about to find out at a cat show, am I? Unless I have a set of judges in the class I like, as in 1. above.

A judge should not merely be someone who stuck around the cat fancy for a few years and then decided to write the exams – or who “schmoozed” a person of power and influence in the cat fancy and became their sidekick judge. I cannot say to what extent judge exams in the different fancies are or are not difficult to pass, but I can observe some of the characters who assume the role of judge. And I can think to myself “if even university degree qualifications are becoming less demanding these days (and they are), I can suppose that everything else is too – including cat judging. And with the decline in difficulty, the doors swing wide to admit those who ordinarily should not be there.”  I might also be tempted to think this might not be the most difficult thing to accomplish for myself. But I have a sneaking suspicion I might not be getting too many judging assignments if I did….

And is showing worth it? Ah! Clearly this depends on everyone's personal outlook and how much the organisation makes it “fun” for them to continue coming to shows. For us, when it became manifestly obvious that there were few ethics, the rules such as they existed were not applied in any sense consistently, that the very people to whom complaints should be escalated were playing the same grimy little game, then neither was there a point in kidding oneself that anything meritorious had been achieved even if our cats "did well" (occasionally and inconsistently). That was the time to withdraw from showing completely, and we’re not about to change our minds any time soon.  


  1. I got here from pictures of cats - loved your comment on cat jargon. I know nothing about showing cats other than the odd youtube video so having reasd this entire post as well as your one on gobbledygook I fell like I've learned rather a lot in a short hour. I've put you in my reader for future posts - thanks - Marc

  2. Thanks for the comment Marc!

    Best advice we can give with hindsight is - "good for you". If we'd realised the nasty political little cesspit that is the cat fancy at the time, we would never have even purchased pedigree cats from breeders. It would have been kinder to cats to go and get them from the rescue shelters.

    Glad you found the blogs interesting and informative - welcome aboard!