Feline independence would challenge the invincible petless president

  • 2011-05-18
  • Interview by Linas Jegelevicius

What is the relevance between cats, the high-tech century and the economic downturn? If your guess is that demand for cuddly, snuggly kitties is proportionate to the size of one’s wallet, you are mistaken. Quite to the contrary, in this burdensome economy, purring feline cuties remain on an unswayingly high demand, strongly preferred over more attention-demanding puppies. Are you still wondering what is the reason? In a post-crisis year, time-savvy employed Lithuanians opt for felines for one reason – your cat always forgives you your absence; your dog does not. For Jurgita Gustaitiene, president of Lithuania’s Felinology – study of cats – Association “Bubaste” and an acknowledged feline expert, cats have long been beyond little-lovely-cutie adorations. To her, cats combine politics, business and animal rights. She has long been judging people by their cats, and, most of the time, she gets it right. “When Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka got a cat, Belarusians scrambled to predict that Belarus’ policies towards Russia would become independent and that more liberalism was under way,” Gustaitiene grinned. She sat down with The Baltic Times to share her insights about the Lithuanian specifics of feline purring.

What trends are being observed in felinology, both in Lithuania and the world?
The trends differ considerably in Lithuania, Europe and the world. Twenty years ago, in Lithuania, we had practically three kinds of cats – Exotic shorthair cats, Siamese and Persian cats. However, later, British shorthair cats have outnumbered these. For a couple of the last years, longhair cats, like Main Coons, Norwegian and Siberian cats, have been hip. Honestly, I cannot even tell why these cats have become so trendy in Lithuania. I can just guess that Lithuania has been affected by the global trends in felinology, as, for example, Main Coons have been very popular worldwide.

Do our neighbor countries share the same trends?
Not really. For example, in [the Nordic countries], particularly in Finland, Ragdoll cats are the most sought-after now. We do not have any of this kind in Lithuania yet. Norwegians are very patriotic when it comes to cats – most of their population has longhair Norwegian cats. Interestingly, with our closest neighbor, Latvia, Burmese cats are very trendy. However, in Lithuania, we have very few of them.

Why so?
I cannot give a definite answer. Even before the recent cat show in Klaipeda, while discussing the different trends with the show’s judges, we could not conclusively infer on that. However, all agreed that most depend on local cat breeders – how they present new breeds, what feedback they receive from cat lovers. Likewise, a while ago, British shorthair cats were very much popularized in Lithuania by one breeder – Danute Pileniene. In Estonia, for example, felinology trends are being determined by trends in Scandinavia, particularly those in Finland.

How did the crisis affect breeders and their catteries?
A dozen years ago, when the Russian crisis hit Lithuania, most breeders neutered their cats and tried to get rid of them as soon as possible. When the recent crisis struck Lithuania, I spoke personally to most of the breeders, begging and convincing them not to do so. I am happy to say most of them listened to me - instead of getting rid of their catteries, they just decreased the number of their litter. The crisis has not affected kitten prices at all – cat lovers continued paying 2,000 to 3,000 litas per kitten. I want people to know that most breeders maintain catteries not for business reasons, but because breeding and growing cats has become their lifestyle.

Well, I have heard that some cat breeders manage to buy Mercedes and BMW cars. If it was only about loss, even the most devoted breeders would quit the activity.
Trust me, most breeders assume the activity out of sheer cat-adoration, not business. When some new cat breeders approach me and ask me bluntly which cat breed can bring the fastest profit, I always discourage them taking on this activity, as no breed can bring big money. Members of the Felinology Association must follow strict rules of the International Felinology Association, urging its members not to have more than three kitten litters over two years. Only those who sell pedigree kittens undocumented illegally may rake in thousands, and probably buy homes. These breeders manage to have three kitten litters a year, a horrible violation of the rules. Those people are heartless, and I do not even dare to call their activity ‘a business.’ Twenty years ago, in the beginning of the country’s independence, when felinology was just about to start off in Lithuania, the first Persian cat breeders, I admit, earned staggering amounts of money. I know one woman who, back then, bought a Persian kitten for as much as a new Russian car cost then. Most cat breeders who are members of Bubaste are satisfied if they can settle their hotel and traveling bills from kitten sales, while participating in numerous cat shows.

Do you know whether our top politicians, Seimas speaker, president and prime minister, have any cats?
I heard that PM Kubilius has a cat. I do not think that president Grybauskaite has any cats, or any other pet. I guess she is too busy.

What personal characteristics, do you believe, do cat owners share?
I am convinced that a pet at home tells a lot about his owner and his traits. There is a big difference in having a spider tarantula or a cat at home in regards to the characteristics of their owners. Did Hitler have a cat? No, he did not. Did Stalin have a cat? No, he did not. Historians claim that they had only dogs, who were unconditionally devoted, a feature attributive to all dogs. Interestingly, what I heard from my counterparts in Belarus, Belarusian President Lukashenko recently gave up his dog and obtained a Persian cat. When I was in a cat show in Belarus recently, she was swamped with onlookers whispering, ‘It is Lukashenko’s cat.’
What did the Belarusians say about the switch?
They did not talk about it loudly, as it was rumored that Belarus’ Secret Service guarded the cat (chuckles). Obviously, the switch from a dog to a cat speaks of the owner’s self-liberation, liberalism and striving for independence. Interestingly, I know numerous dog breeders who acquire kittens and seek membership in our association. However, as a rule, they cannot adapt themselves to the change and the rules, as cats are about liberalism and freedom. Dog breeding and raising is quite different. Canine devotion, the main characteristic of dogs, imprints the dog owners’ mentality as well. All dogs rejoice over seeing their master back home, but one has always to guess about his or her cat’s behavior – will she show up at the door, or will it stay away as if saying, ‘Are you here again? You are intruding into my privacy!’

Why do you not present some cuddly kitten to our President Grybauskaite? Being so determined, she obviously needs at least a feline creature to challenge her at home…
(Grins) I am not sure she would accept such a present. If the president showed such a will, we would do our best to choose for her the right kitten. Obviously, a cat would suit her better, as she is very busy. I am sure a cat would help her release the stress she experiences at work. I heard that the former President Valdas Adamkus had been presented with a German Shepherd by someone. I am not aware if Adamkus ever had a cat. A cat cannot be a present – she is family member.

Statistically, cats trail dogs in numbers in Lithuania. Do you believe the situation can change some day?
Cat numbers are on a steep rise. It is something that the economic hardships and the high-tech century prompted. People tend to work longer hours and are busier overall. Owning a dog may not let you squeeze in an extra errand in your busy schedule, as the canine four-legger may need a quick pee at the regular hour. Your cat will definitely forgive your being late! You can stay away three days, and the cat will not miss you.

Before, cats would be fine on their own, having for dinner what they managed to snatch. My late grandparents would not even think of letting the mongrel cats inside their living room and let them snuggle on their bed. Today the entire industry caters to the feline needs, accumulating large profits. Have we not become snobbish in the attitude towards cats? Is it not all about sheer vanity?

It is a very good question. It is not snobbism at all. We should be aware of feline history – how cats came into people’s households. I remember a popular Soviet cartoon, Mauglis, wherein the master says to his tomcat, ‘If I praise you three times, you can come in at any time.’ Do you remember what the cat from the cartoon answers? He says, ‘I will come in at any time I want.’ In the process of domestication, cats have been on the last rung of it, following hundreds of other animals. Some felinologists still argue that the cat has not been completely domesticated. From my observation of the last 20 years, substantial alterative characteristics supplement the known feline behavior, which means that cats are still evolving. For example, just 20 years ago, many cattery owners would complain that their cats could not get along with other cats, let alone with dogs, or other pets. The modern cat craves company – another two or three cats, or at least a dog. Thus, a behavioral evolution is taking places – both on the feline level and human level. You are right: just a few decades ago, my grandparents thought it to be unthinkable to let their cats inside for a cozy snuggle on their beds. However, after 20 years, my parents, who have moved into my grandparents’ house, do let their cats saunter wherever they want. For me, my cats are equal members of my family. Thus, the times have irreversibly changed, altering the behavioral patterns for good.

You mentioned about quite different feline trends in the same region.  Do they differ within the country?
Remarkably, they do. In our recent cat show in Klaipeda, we deliberately brought more Sphinx cats, as Klaipeda inhabitants have the most in the country. Besides, we have strong catteries of Main Coon and Bengalese cats in the port town. Kaunas is known for its abundance of British shorthair cats, as most catteries of the breed are located there.
Does anyone ever give estimates on the cat numbers in Lithuania?
It is very hard to come up with any number when speaking of cats. No one can tell how many cats are on the streets. Statistically, there are more registered dogs than cats. This is quite understandable – fines are imposed on those who have unregistered dogs. However, when it comes to cats, the orders are much more lenient, not requiring even registration in some municipalities. People living in apartments often find that three to five families take care of the same cat. So, which one is obliged to register the cat?

You also run animal shelter Nuaras in three major Lithuanian cities. Obviously, you cannot take care of all the abundant street cats. How can the problem be tackled?
Well, first, people’s mentality should be addressed. I often see cases when people pamper a kitten, but when he matures, instead of neutering him, they just throw it out. Some people get kittens for their children like simple toys, not giving a thought that responsibility with the live acquisition has to be taken. I do not see another way in how to regulate the street cat numbers other than neutering them. We have started doing this actively in Kaunas, and are looking forward to applying the same practice in other Lithuanian towns. Speaking generally, sometimes I am aghast at people’s cruelty, or crude misunderstandings about animal behavior. Nuaras often receives phone calls from garden owners on the town’s outskirts, demanding that we catch a nearby sighted fox, or to hinder a moose. Though, in such cases, we keep explaining that humans themselves intrude into the natural habitats of the animals, some callers apparently do not grasp this.

You are a lovely woman who is well known by the army of cat lovers in the country. Do you not think of capitalizing on it by seeking a seat in the upcoming Seimas election next year?
(chuckles) To be honest, before the last municipal elections, I had probably received four or five invitations to join lists of different political parties and movements. Some leaders of the parties even promised to put me as high in the parties’ electoral lists as second. I declined the offers politely, explaining that I am too busy with all my activities. I see a well-cut trend when politicians, seeing a political niche among pet lovers, try to flatter them, pledging to open up new animal shelters, seek more financing for these kinds of establishments, or, like in the last municipal election in Vilnius, to close down Grinda, the venture that is engaged in the extermination of street animals that cannot be put up for adoption. These kinds of bids remind me of the pre-election promises to take care of elderly people or orphan children. I do not believe in the good intentions of such people.