November 6, 2006
“Originality,” said that great sage, Benjamin Franklin, “is the art of concealing your sources.”
Last month, San Diego-based Allerca announced that its long-awaited hypoallergenic cats would be available next year – to the tune of $4,000 each (plus $1,000 in “processing and transportation” fees). Soon after, breeders of Siberian cats raised a fuss, noting that their former Moscow street urchins have essentially the same low- allergy qualities, at a fraction of the price.
And now, the Savannah-cat people are lining up with a yowl of their own: They say Allerca’s next “lifestyle cat,” the Ashera, whose trademarked name harkens to an ancient Canaanite goddess, is simply a slick repackaging of their fledgling breed – with a $6,000 price tag. (Here’s an extra decimel point for you: Allerca plans to sell Ashera franchises next year at $45,000 a pop.)
What both the Savannah and Ashera have in common is the African serval, a long-necked, elaborately marked wild cat with a small head and oversized ears. Like the Asian leopard cat, which is the basis for the popular Bengal breed, the serval can be crossed with domestic cats to create an exotic, leopard-looking hybrid.
Allerca founder Simon Brodie says the Ashera is a serval crossed with a purebred cat, the identity of which he declines to name. Subsequent females are then bred to another top-secret purebred (like most hybrids, first-generation males are sterile), and poof – you have an Ashera.
“The Ashera is primarily focusing on people who are not cat people, who have never thought of owning a cat. Our market research proves they would be interested in something large and unusual,” Brodie says, adding that Asheras will reach 25 pounds. “Everybody likes the idea of a cat that has the size and markings of a little leopard.”
Although Brodie acknowledges approaching Savannah breeders to buy breeding pairs (an undercover overture that was unsuccessful), “we’re not breeding Savannahs, so I don’t know what’s irritating them so much.”
Brigitte Cowell of Kirembo Cattery in San Francisco, who is the secretary and rescue coordinator of the Savannah Cat Club, says her peers come by their displeasure honestly.
“Crossing a serval with anything is a Savannah – it doesn’t matter what kind of cat you’ve crossed it with,” she says. “It’s quite obvious that all this guy is doing is breeding Savannahs and calling them by a different name.”
Brodie counters that Allerca is revolutionizing the “cottage industry” of cat breeding. “We provide the customer with much higher level of service, and we have the resources to ensure that any animal that we produce is consistent. That’s the big difference.”
Brodie says Allerca uses genetic markers to scientifically predict a kitten’s size and markings in adulthood, something breeders can only guess at. He adds that he is able to cut corners with breeding to servals – which must be raised with their prospective domesticated mates in order to accept them – by using artificial insemination, ensuring “they never have to physically meet.”
Cowell, who has a degree in microbiology, says Brodie “seems to have remarkable luck” in first locating genes for hypoallergenic qualities in the Allerca cats, then finding markers for genes controlling patterning and size in Asheras. She also points to the fact that Allerca has published none of its findings in peer-reviewed journals, and notes recently published accounts of Brodie’s business dealings, which included lawsuits for defaulting on loans and eviction this year from Allerca’s downtown headquarters, where Brodie also resided. (In response to questions about his past business difficulties, Brodie – who sold Allerca to an investment group and is now operating as a consultant – compared himself to thrice-bankrupt Henry Ford.)
As for artificial insemination, Brodie’s success with it “is fascinating to the rest of us because not many people have achieved kittens,” Cowell says. “He’s doing a lot of firsts, I guess.”
Although volumized breeding might carry with it associations of “kittymilling,” Brodie says Allerca and Ashera kittens are tended to by full-time staff vets, are intensely socialized, and spayed and neutered before going to their new homes (arguably as much to control “copycats” as out of any concern for animal overpopulation). Brodie says franchisees will turn down customers who “don’t sound right,” and will accept unwanted cats back and place them in adoptive homes.
Concerns about McKitties aside, Cowell notes that a developing breed like the high-energy Savannah doesn’t need anyone muddying the waters. As hybrid cat breeds continue to evolve, and new ones debut – keep an eye out for the Safari cat, based on the wild South American Geoffroy cat – she stresses that breeders need to focus on what differentiates these “wild-blooded” cousins, not on market share.
As for Allerca, stay tuned to see if the company is as adept at actually putting kittens on the ground as it is about hyping them.
WRITE TO Denise Flaim, c/o Newsday, 235 Pinelawn Rd., Melville, NY 11747-4250, or e-mail email@example.com . For previous columns, www.newsday.com/animalhouse