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A Little Cat Feat : A Covina woman's efforts at cross-breeding wild and domestic felines are paying off handsomely.

March 10, 1994|DENISE HAMILTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imagine an animal that looks like a leopard but is the size of a domestic tabby.

It purrs and uses a litter box, but is swift and lithe like a wild animal.

Depending on the animal's temperament, it can display friendly curiosity or aloof grace.

Thirty years ago, Jean Mill envisioned just such a creature. Determined to realize her dream, Mill bred a leopard cat--a small, wild animal found in the jungles of Southeast Asia--to domestic felines.

Today, the results, which prowl and yowl in zoo-like habitats on her Covina acreage, are a new breed of cat called the Bengal.

Bengals weigh between 10 and 16 pounds and have silky pelts whose coloring ranges from black-on-orange leopard spots to swirled marbling. More rare are snow Bengals, which have ivory coloring with dark spots.

Mill said all the animals have black tail tips, get along well with other breeds of felis catus and are extremely active, with the quicksilver reflexes of their wild ancestors.

"These are majestic cats," she said. "They don't climb the drapes and get crazy, but they're very interested in what's going on."

So far, the breed has been accepted by one of the major cat groups--The International Cat Assn.--which recognized the brown spotted Bengal three years ago and plans to recognize the snow leopard and marbled cats this May.

Other associations say that registration rules prohibit their accepting Bengals because the animals have wild blood and might retain aggressive impulses.

Even so, "They're delightful cats, absolutely gorgeous," said Wini Keuler, executive director of the American Cat Fanciers Assn.

"This wild look appeals to a lot of people."

Mills plans to show off her cats when The International Cat Assn. hosts a show at the Masonic Lodge in Arcadia from April 29 to May 1.

Owning such a creature doesn't come cheap. Mill's pedigreed purrers start at about $500 for pet-quality animals and reach $2,000 for show-quality animals, which must possess a variety of characteristics, including a sharply contrasted coat, small ears and a wide muzzle with large whisker pads. Additionally, the cats must be friendly to strangers.

Despite the steep prices, their popularity is such that Mill has a two-month waiting list, with customers flying in from as far away as Australia and Germany.

A tall, gracious woman of 67, Mill has had many years to muse over what she has wrought and is adept at parrying criticism from animal rights activists who believe she should never have meddled with evolution.

"Early on, I had a lot of opposition from purists who felt I was playing with Mother Nature," Mill said. "But I don't see it that way. A lot of people would like to have wild animals, but I don't believe they should be allowed to have lions and tigers in their homes, and I thought that if I could breed a cat that looked wild but acted domestic, that would be a happy solution."

Glenn Stewart, a professor of zoology at Cal Poly Pomona, said he sees nothing wrong with Mill's work if it doesn't lead to a wild species being depleted solely to breed pets.

"It's something people have done for centuries, this is how we got a lot of our domestic animals--by taking a wild animal into captivity and breeding it selectively," Stewart said.

Michael Dee, a big-cat expert at the Los Angeles Zoo, which has a leopard cat on display, said he doesn't think people should mix wild and domestic cats because no one knows what might eventually develop or where such experimentation will lead. However, he added that most wild tendencies are probably bred out of the animal after five generations.

And even in their natural habitat, the 10- to 16-pound leopard cats are more like 'fraidy cats than aggressors, Dee said. "It's not going to go attack someone, it's not in their nature. This is a cat that's relatively secretive."

Cats have been domesticated for millennia, and at times were worshiped as gods. Archeologists have found mummified Abyssinian cats in tombs alongside kings and queens of ancient Egypt. But cat experts say abandoned cats can turn feral within one generation and conversely, feral kittens can be tamed if raised by hand.

At Mill's sprawling ranch house in the Covina hills, some cats roam in her wire-mesh enclosed front patio, trailed with ivy and carpeted perches where they can survey their world. Others live in 10-by-10-foot back-yard cages built around trees.

Each cage also contains a large exercise wheel that the cats use. Mill said she will occasionally find a severed possum head inside a cage, evidence that a young marsupial strayed too close for comfort the previous night.

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