Rowan Pelling: Nine out of 10 cat-owners are snobs

It's harder to adopt a pedigree cat than a child. Especially when your last one got run over
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The Independent Online

It was announced last week that Martha Fiennes is to direct a million pound advertisement for Sheba cat food, aimed specifically at affluent professional women. Now I don't deny there's a lot of truth behind this particular social stereotype; several highflying women of my acquaintance sign Christmas cards with their cats' names. Some add paw prints. What's much less discussed are the significant numbers of men (more than a million) who own cats. Perhaps because they never sign Christmas cards "love from Tibbles". There's a tendency to think cat men are in some way effete. But I have had several boyfriends who owned cats and they were all able to fire a gun, skin a rabbit, change spark plugs, unblock drains and drone on about Spitfires and cricket.

When I met my husband he was the doting owner of black and white CoCo and tabby Emma, who were half Burmese. He'd had them since they were kittens and while Coco was dotty and soft, Emma was a sulky, jealous beast with a fishwife's yowl you could hear from 800 yards. I would catch her staring at me with such naked malevolence my blood would freeze. When she sat purring on my husband's knee she would be giving me a sly look of triumph and she always tried to inveigle her way between us in bed. On one occasion when we had been asked to a glamorous party in London, my husband informed me at the last minute that he couldn't go because, "Emma was unwell."

I was furious. It was in the early days when such slights cut to the quick. At the party I bumped into one of his previous girlfriends and shared my woes. She told me the same thing had happened to her at a smart bash two years previously. She said, "I often used to think that he loved those two cats more than he loved me." I laughed nervously.

Around that time I came across "Le Chat", a short story by the French writer Colette about handsome Alain and his possessive Russian Blue, Saha. When he becomes engaged to Camille, the two females struggle for mastery of Alain and the climax comes when the woman pushes her rival from a high window. I knew just how she felt. I don't think the scenario is that unusual. When Coco died at age 18 I finally turned the tables on Emma by buying a boisterous male kitten. You might have presumed from the previous paragraphs that I don't like cats. That's not so; it's just I know the female is the more divisive of the species. Most homes feel to me as though they're not properly inhabited without a purring house god. But in my ideal world that cat should be a magnificent ginger tom. Probably as a result of reading Katherine Hale's books when I was a child.

My search for the perfect cat was intensified after I first saw pictures of Maine coons - huge long-haired felines bred from American wild cats, with fierce, owly faces and lynx ears. I read articles by besotted owners, which praised their size, beauty and eccentricity of character. The author John Keegan wrote a paean to his coons, and I thought any cat butch enough to enthral a military historian was the cat for me. But how to justify spending £300 on, of all things, a pedigree cat? I did what I always do in such tricky circumstances; I gave the kitten to my husband as his birthday present.

Wavell, as he was named, after the Second World War desert general, became the jewel of our heart. Never, we agreed, did any beast walk the earth which was so handsome, charismatic or generally superb. He slept on our pillows and rode on our shoulders as we walked around the garden. When we went to Kent to visit relatives he would travel on my knee and I even cycled across Cambridge with him in my bike basket. He was extraordinarily gregarious and would pay morning calls on all the neighbours, allowing children to hug him like a stuffed toy. I frequently overheard passers-by say, "That's Wavell's house." And a cab driver once told me that he'd just seen, "a cat like a blooming lion!"

The birth of my son did not affect his primacy in the house. Wavell remained top cat. There was just one problem. Whenever there was a high wind and a full moon Wavell would raise his bushy tail in the air and trot off looking for adventure. It was not unusual to pick him up seven or eight miles from the house. I once collected him from Robinson College's porter's lodge at 3am, where he was canoodling shamelessly with the staff. Although he'd been spayed, the wanderlust remained. In February this year the inevitable happened. We were woken by a caller who had found a ginger cat dead by the side of the road.

And so began my long and exhaustive search for Wavell's successor. As the months passed I began to feel rather like one of those Tibetan monks seeking the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. Many breeders were incredibly snooty, reacting with outraged incredulity when I explained my last cat had been run over: "You mean you let it out!" Many in the breeding fraternity think that allowing a pedigree cat to roam free is tantamount to cat abuse. Others wouldn't sell to homes with small children. Some were ruled out because the kittens were £800 plus.

Finally I discovered Jacawaca Maine Coons near Colchester; where lovely nurse Jackie didn't think "pet" was a dirty word. Last week we brought home golden-red Aubrey, named after the sea captain hero of Patrick O'Brian's novels. "Lo!" I said to my husband. "Our god has returned from distant shores."