By TOM RAWSTORNE
Dawn breaks over a town in Lancashire and the early morning silence is shattered by a ringing phone in the home of Gail Potts. The 56-year-old grabs the receiver and listens carefully. “If you want to see your cat again, then you’d better do exactly what I tell you,” a voice growls.
Fast forward a couple of days and here’s Mrs Potts again. A distance from her house, along a deserted road, she stands alone, clutching a bulging brown envelope in her sweating palm.
A car screeches up and within seconds the exchange has taken place – one cat for £1,000. In notes. “I know it’s a lot of money,” Mrs Potts said, recalling her ordeal. “But this wasn’t any normal cat. This was Maximus. He’s special. He’s a Bengal cat.”
No run-of-the-mill moggy, the Bengal. Known as “living-room leopards”, these carefully bred felines are descended from wild Asian cats. Their most distinctive feature is their exotically marked coat – the sort of spots and stripes seen in the jungle. They are said to be highly intelligent, doglike in personality and to make great pets.
So it is that in these image-conscious times the Bengal cat has become the must-have pet of the 21st century. The first one arrived in Britain in 1991, but today there are more than 30,000 across the country. Costs vary according to their pedigree: the cheapest starts at £500, while the most expensive, a cat named Zeus, is said to have fetched a six-figure sum.
A lot of money for a mouse-catcher, but then the sort of people who own them are generally more interested in form than function and aren’t short of a bob – think Sophie Dahl, Jonathan Ross and the Sultan of Brunei.
With such a profile, it’s hardly surprising that Bengals are so highly coveted – by cat fanciers and catnappers. Such is their desirability that owners are being advised that they let them out of their sight (or, heaven forbid, outside at all) at their peril – something heiress Jemima Khan discovered recently.
Her two £900 Bengal cats, gifts from her on-off boyfriend Hugh Grant, vanished from her London home last week. Although one returned, there has been no sign of the other, prompting Miss Khan to call police to help with the hunt. She fears it may be dead.
To the surprise of many ordinary London residents (burglary victims, for example, who have waited days for a detective to visit them), the Metropolitan Police duly sent two female officers to her home. “Because of the high value of the missing property, we felt the response was perfectly normal and proportionate,” a Scotland Yard spokesman later explained.
But if police were always as quick off the mark as the Met when it came to dealing with missing moggies, then human crime would never get dealt with. Nationally, it is estimated that 3,200 cats disappear every week. Of these, 1,200 are involved in road accidents. And the rest?
Sheena Seagrave works for the Missing Pets Bureau, an organisation dedicated to reuniting owners with their animals. Most, she says, will have wandered off, got locked in a shed or found an alternative bed or bowl of milk for a night or two. Most, that is, but not all. Particularly when it comes to this new generation of exotic cats.
“We are searching for 120 Bengals in the UK,” says Mrs Seagrave. “It is impossible to say what has happened to all of them, but we are seeing an increase in the number of cats such as Bengals being stolen.
“We have had reports of these high-value cats being catnapped and have seen CCTV footage of them being bundled into the back of cars. We’ve also received reports of break-ins where the only thing taken has been the cat.
“On average, we manage to return to their owners 80per cent of animals that go missing. Yet for Bengals and other exotic cats, that figure is not so high. This suggests that once they are taken, something more sinister is going on.”
So, a black market in Bengals! Perhaps it was inevitable when these beasts fetch such handsome prices, but it means that owning one has become a hazardous business. To understand the desirability of Bengals, it is first necessary to understand something of the breed.
A modern creation as a pet, they were first seen in the U.S. in the Seventies when an Asian leopard cat was crossed with a normal shorthaired cat. The leopard cat (Felis Bengalensis) is slightly larger than a normal cat and is distinguished by its beautiful markings. The aim of the breeding programme was to produce an animal that combined these leopard-like characteristics with the sociability of a domestic cat.
A first generation cross is known as an F1. An F2 is the progeny of one F1 parent and one domestic parent (generally another Bengal cat), and so on. Only by the fourth generation are the cats considered domestic and are officially a Bengal, rather than an Asian leopard cat hybrid.
However, some of the most expensive Bengals tend to be found amid those early hybrids which, if they are female, will be used to breed from and are known as queens.
Pauline Turnock and her husband Frank run a farm near Peterhead in Aberdeenshire. They have been breeding Bengals for the past four years. As their record shows, if you get your genetic alchemy just right, without too much effort you can produce a walking furry fortune.
They recently raised a litter of four kittens whose value was reported as being between £60,000 and £80,000 each. The father was a pure Asian leopard cat. “They were what breeders call F1s,” says Mrs Turnock, 58.
“Most pet Bengals are F4s or F5s – they have very little wild blood. Most breeders would criticise us for breeding F1s – they say they are vicious, but it’s not true, in our experience.
“You have to put in a bit more work with them, handling them and getting them used to you, but anyone who’s lived with these early generations will know just how wonderful they are.” The importance of good breeding stock is essential, as Gail Potts from Heywood in Lancashire knows only too well.
She has two male stud cats and six queens, from whom she breeds once a year and who produce four or five kittens per litter. Her most important stud cat is Galkats Mighty Maximus, who is four years old.
“He’s won every show he’s entered,” says Mrs Potts. “He’s beautiful, like a miniature leopard. I’ve been offered £3,000 for him, but I refused it – he can easily produce 50 kittens a year.”
So valuable are the animals that her cattery is protected by CCTV and a fearsome-looking French mastiff guard dog. It may seem over the top, but it’s a case of once bitten, twice shy. Two years ago, Mrs Potts woke up to discover that Maximus was missing, presumed catnapped.
“Someone had climbed over the fence and taken him,” says Mrs Potts. “I was devastated.” She reported the theft to the police who, she says, were completely uninterested.
This was despite the fact that she believed the cat had been stolen by a rival breeder who would have an insider’s knowledge not only of the animals in her possession, but of their true value. (According to the Missing Pets Bureau, the reluctance of the police to get involved is normal.)
“In the eyes of the law, a cat is a wild animal, not a piece of property,” says Mrs Seagrave.
“A dog is different. If you report a dog stolen and you have proof, then the police will issue you with a crime reference number.
“Once you have that number, the crime becomes a statistic, so there is far more incentive for the police to sort it out.”
For two months, Maximus was missing. Then, out of the blue, Mrs Potts received a phone call from someone saying they could get him back. At a price.
“I was told that if I paid £1,000, I could have him back,” said Mrs Potts. “I didn’t particularly like having to pay a ransom for him, but what else could I do?
“We arranged to meet, the car screeched up, I handed the cash to a woman I’d never seen before and I got my gorgeous cat back. And at the end of the day that’s all I wanted – my cat, safe and sound.”
Her sentiment is echoed by 36-year-old legal secretary Janine Illingworth. Her one-year-old Bengal cat, Morpheus, went missing from the family home in Uttoxeter, Staffordshire, in January.
“We were very careful with him and used to let him out into our garden for only a few minutes in the morning and the evening,” she says.
The mother of three recalls: “On the morning in question, he went out and never came back, and not a single soul has seen him since. I’ve put up posters at the vet’s, in pet shops and all along the nearby streets.
“I’ve also posted his details on the internet, but there has been no sign of him. I’m pretty sure he has been stolen.
“He cost me £450 as a kitten and was absolutely stunning. Because Bengals are so expensive, people don’t want to pay for them, so they just steal them, or they are stolen to order by someone else. It’s a real problem.”
Given her experience, Janine’s advice to other Bengal owners is not to let out their cats at all.
“It is just too risky,” she says. “Losing a Bengal is a bit like losing a child – they are not like ordinary cats.”
Jemima Khan would have done well to heed such advice – and, indeed, she received a similar recommendation not so long ago from Barrie Alger-Street, a respected Bengal breeder and chairman of the Bengal Cat Club.
Miss Khan and Hugh Grant visited him on Boxing Day. They were looking for Bengal kittens to buy.
“They insisted on coming on that day which, obviously, wasn’t very convenient,” says Mr Alger-Smith.
“But they were in a hurry because they had to go off to North Africa to do some filming and wanted it sorted before they went.
“Generally, we are dubious about letting our cats go to celebrities as many of them lead unsuitable lifestyles for keeping pets.
“Jemima seemed very keen on the breed. She was taken by them and knew exactly what she wanted.
“But I wasn’t convinced that Hugh Grant wanted a cat at all. He looked as if he was there under sufferance and I thought he was a bit miffed.”
Although, in the end, the couple chose not to buy any of the kittens on offer, Mr Alger-Street took the opportunity to give them advice on looking after Bengals.
He suggested they buy a product called a Freedom Fence. A wire is placed around a lawn or property and the cat is fitted with a collar. If the animal approaches the wire, a transmitter sends a signal to a receiver in the collar which beeps.
If the animal gets closer still, it receives a small jolt, like a static electricity shock, teaching it to steer clear of the boundary.
“Research has shown that if a cat, any cat, is kept in, is restricted, then its average life expectancy will be 15 years,” says Mr Alger-Street. “If it’s allowed to roam, then it’s just two and half.”
And if that cat’s a Bengal cat – not just any cat – as we have seen, the dangers it faces when out and about are that much greater still.
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