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culture

Toronto Invents: The Sphynx Cat

This friendly, hairless breed of cat traces its beginnings to a Roncesvalles kitten.

We look at concepts and products that, for better and worse, were developed in Toronto.

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On the one hand, they’ve been called “the ugliest cats alive” because of the their angular, elongated, mostly hairless bodies. On the other, they’re known for their friendliness and suitability for cat lovers with hair allergies. Either way, the Sphynx cat is an animal Toronto played a major role in developing.

It began on January 31, 1966. While local headlines focused on a winter storm that snarled traffic in suburban Toronto and killed 30 people in the United States, a momentous event was happening on Roncesvalles Avenue: a black-and-white pet cat named Elizabeth gave birth to a hairless male kitten. Named “Prune” for his wrinkled appearance, rumours of the strange cat spread. University of Toronto science student Riyadh Bawa eventually acquired the kitten and his mother.

Bawa and his mother Yania, a Siamese cat breeder, realized they could turn Prune’s mutation—the result of a recessive gene—into a new breed. Joined by fellow breeders Keese and Rita Tenhove, they mated Prune with his mother, then crossed the resulting hairless kittens with American shorthair females. Before the monicker “Sphynx” came along, the early cats bore breed names like “Moonstone” and “Canadian Hairless.”

Attempts to register the Sphinx with the Cat Fanciers Association ran into opposition during the 1970s over fears of the long-term stability of the breeding stock. At that point in time, the flow of hairless kittens was still fairly uneven, because of lost litters or males uninterested in mating. While the last traceable direct descendants of Prune and the other Bawa/Tenhove cats appear to have vanished during the 1980s, the breed survived because of the discovery of other hairless cats in Minnesota and crosses with other breeds. By the 1990s, Sphynx cats were starting to become more commonplace. Around that same time, they got a publicity boost when a hairless cat (unfortunately named Ted Nude-Gent) played Dr. Evil’s pet Mr. Bigglesworth in the Austin Powers film series. The Cat Fanciers Association accepted the breed for championship-level competition in 2002.

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By 2000, there were an estimated 10,000 Sphynx cats around the world. They didn’t come cheap: prices ranged from $700 for pets to $2,500 for show-quality animals. The wait to own one could be as long as two years. Even though Sphynx cats are high-maintenance pets, in part because of their vulnerability to cold, breeders and owners vouched for their amiability. “You haven’t lived till you’ve had a whole bunch on the bed with you and they decide to groom you,” breeder Rob Horne told the Star in 2000. He also found that Sphynxs had little fear of bathing. His cats would follow him into the shower.

“As anyone who has encountered this cat in the flesh will testify,” British zoologist Desmond Morris noted in his guide to cat breeds, “its sensitivity and loving nature more than compensate for its bizarre appearance. It is unusually sociable and affectionate.”

Additional material from Cat Breeds of the World by Desmond Morris (Toronto: Viking, 1999), the May 25, 1999 edition of the National Post, and the August 27, 2000 edition of the Toronto Star. Hat tip to Marc Lostracco for inspiring this story.

Photos by Holly Nellis.

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