In 1963, a California cat breeder named Jean Mill created a breed of domestic cat called the Bengal that combined an impeccable leopardlike coat with an indoor-cat size and demeanor.
Mill’s daughter, Judy Sugden, carried on her legacy. In the 1980s, Sugden envisioned a domestic cat with a glistening orange and black striped coat, reminiscent of a tiger. It had tiny, round ears, a wide nose and a white belly like a tiger. It weighed just 10 pounds, but it could move across the living room as though it could take down a gazelle.
She called it a toyger. And in 2007, the International Cat Association (TICA) declared it a championship cat breed. A toyger made the cover of Life magazine. “There’s going to be toyger fever,” TICA’s then-president, Kay DeVilbiss, told the magazine.
And indeed, the designer cat market is a thriving one where supply rarely meets demand. In its service, more than 40,000 registered house cat breeders around the world are devoted to supplying pet owners with Ragdoll, Sphynx and other prized breeds. (PETA has argued this clientele should instead adopt cats from a shelter.)
“I find people want the things that make them think ‘wild’ right away,” Anthony Hutcherson, a former protégé of Mill, said from his cattery, Jungletrax, in Maryland. “High-contrast patterns, dramatic overall color, and a look and proportions of a leopard or an ocelot would have.”
He recalled that there used to be “tons” of ads for Persian cats in the back of Cat Fancy magazine. But the Persian’s prim, manicured aesthetic is no longer in vogue.
“That look doesn’t say, ‘I can survive in the jungle,’ ” Hutcherson said. “It says, ‘I need somebody to open this can of cat food because there’s no way this cat is catching a mouse.’ ”
For centuries, humans have been combining the favorable characteristics of one living thing with another, yielding creations from the Honeycrisp apple to the Siberian husky.
Such creative efforts have begotten — with no small amount of objection from animal welfare activists — hybrid animals like the beefalo, liger, even the grolar bear (half-grizzly, half-polar bear).
Today, toyger kittens can cost as much as $5,000 — a price comparable to that of an actual tiger.
Breeders at this level tend to vet their potential buyers as stringently as the buyers evaluate the sellers. Contracts often stipulate that the buyer must spay and neuter their cat, and that no cat will end up in a shelter. The cats even come with a lifelong unconditional return policy.
Sugden put her cat breeding on hold in 2018 to care for her mother, who died shortly thereafter at 92. For now, Sugden has a new litter of big-eyed toyger kittens at her cattery, EEYAA, and feels her charge is “to support the other breeders around the world and to continue to do what I’m doing.”
Breaking new ground always requires grunt work, she said, and together, they are “squinching” toward the perfect toyger.
“There are a lot of people in this world that don’t care if there’s a toyger,” Sugden said. “There are a lot of things in this world no one cares about. But no one cared if there was a Mona Lisa until we had a Mona Lisa.”