Company’s new pet project: $6,000 exotic cats
Hybrid already exists, puzzled breeders say
By Penni Crabtree
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
October 25, 2006
Allerca, which entered the spotlight this year with its claim to have created the world’s first hypoallergenic cat, is following up with a new designer feline billed as “The Cat of the Century.”
It’s described as a new breed of exotic that weighs up to 25 pounds and sports leopardlike markings. And with a price tag of $6,000, the yet-to-be-unveiled kitty has a lot to live up to.
Allerca has such high hopes for its trademarked “Ashera” cat that the San Diego company is already offering franchises to begin selling it in March – well ahead of the franchised release of its initial, $3,950 sneeze-free cats.
But a cat fight over the Ashera may be brewing. Traditional cat breeders who have viewed Allerca’s Ashera franchise promotional materials expressed doubt about the company’s latest breeding accomplishment.
Some breeders said the company appears to be serving up a rehash of an existing breed known as a Savannah, a cross between a wild African serval and a domestic cat whose successive offspring sell for between $2,500 and $4,500.
One Chicago-based Savannah cat breeder and broker, Cynthia King, said she was contacted in mid-August by a San Diego man with a British accent, who identified himself as Campbell Francis and his firm as Monsenco Capital. The man asked to buy five to seven first-generation female Savannahs that were proven breeders.
The contracts were drawn up, listing the address for Campbell Francis and Monsenco Capital in downtown San Diego. One of those addresses is also listed on a U.S. Patent and Trademark Office application this month to trademark the word “Ashera” as the address of the applicant, Allerca founder Simon Brodie. Brodie is a native of the United Kingdom.
King said she asked the San Diego buyer where the cats would be housed, and how they’d be cared for. The man told King that his partner, Megan Young, whom he identified as a veterinarian, would be caring for the animals.
Megan Young is also the name of Allerca’s chief executive officer, although she is not a veterinarian.
“It was all very fishy,” said King, who said the deal never went through because the San Diego buyer, despite numerous promises that a check was in the mail, didn’t deliver the $7,000 per breeder cat. “It’s real rare you get someone who wants that many cats.”
Brodie, when asked last week about King’s story and the identical company addresses, acknowledged that he contacted King about buying the Savannahs. Brodie said subterfuge was necessary to keep the breeder from knowing that the potential buyer was Allerca so the company wouldn’t be “gouged” on the price.
As to identifying Allerca CEO Young as a veterinarian, Brodie said it was a “mistake.” Brodie said he meant to say that Young would be “managing” the care of the animals, including getting them housed in the proper facilities.
“I didn’t mean to say she was a veterinarian,” said Brodie, who explained his lapse with the remark: “I work very late at night.”
Brodie said Allerca’s “cat breeding experts” asked him to acquire three Savannahs, for the purpose of devising “the right formula” for the Ashera. In the end, Allerca didn’t close the Chicago deal because the cats weren’t needed, he said.
Brodie said the company, using unspecified “genetic techniques” and artificial insemination, has combined components of three breeds to create the Ashera. He said that, while the Ashera will look similar to a Savannah and will have serval in its mix, it is not a Savannah – a notion that several traditional cat breeders dismissed.
“Whatever name he’s dubbed it, it’s a crock – anything that comes out of a serval that is hybrid of any kind is basically a Savannah. Period.” said King, who operates the Kasbah Cattery, one of the larger Savannah breeding firms in the United States.
Lorre Smith, author of “The Savannah Cat Book” and the first Savannah breed chairman of The International Cat Association, agreed.
“Any cat that is bred to a serval is called a Savannah,” Smith said. “And about anyone can get a serval – they are in abundance in this country – then get a few domestic cats and make a first-generation hybrid.”
The cat association, which registered the Savannah as a breed in 2001, and some cat breeders said they doubt that there is enough of a market for any serval hybrid to support a national franchise.
“Why would anyone buy a franchise when there are plenty of hybrid serval cats out there?” said Leslie Bowern, business manager for the cat association.
U.S. and Canadian pet owners have registered approximately 677 Savannah cats since 2001, although not all pet owners register their cats. Breeders estimate there are no more than a few thousand Savannahs in the world, a testament to both their cost and the difficulty in breeding them.
In addition, hybrid cats like Savannahs are illegal in some U.S. states and counties, and many communities are considering regulations to ban or curb exotic wild/domestic cat hybrids, making a franchise an even trickier proposition, some cat breeders said.
“You have to be a special kind of crazy to want a $6,000 pet,” said King, who sells about 50 Savannahs each year. “I don’t see how the parent company or the franchisee can make money; the numbers don’t work.”
Brodie said that Allerca, using genetic techniques, intends to transform the “cottage industry” of cat breeding into a sound business with excellent customer service and guaranteed products.”
“The vision here is we are trying to make something that is consistent … the next level of cat,” he said.
For now, Allerca is keeping its latest creation under wraps. In promotional material e-mailed by Allerca to people who expressed an interest in an Ashera franchise, Allerca provides a Web link to view photos of what it describes as an Ashera kitten and an Ashera youngster.
Once on the Web photo page, Allerca adds a disclaimer, noting that the Ashera “has an almost exact likeness to the cats in the photos.” But the Web page says that for “commercial reasons,” the company can’t provide exact images until the franchise is launched.
Nowhere in the franchise information does Allerca acknowledge that the cats depicted are actually wild servals.
But Tim Knight, the photographer who took the photos and displays them on his Web site, said two of the pictures are copyright photos of servals in a zoo in Seattle, used by Allerca without permission.
Penni Crabtree: (619) 293-1237; firstname.lastname@example.org