Bengal Breed History

The Bengal is the result of a hybrid breeding of the ALC and a domestic house cat. Natural crosses between ALCs and domestic cats while not well documented are known to occur. The very first documented cross of a domestic short hair cat and an ALC was reportedly in 1871 though little first hand documentation of that breeding appears to exist. The Cat Fancy publication once reported that the first successful cross of an ALC and a domestic cat to produce a pet was done in Japan in 1941. There are no records of similar attempts in the United States until the 1960s.

In 1961 a young American woman named Jean Sugden acquired an Asian Leopard Cat she named Malasia. Jean also owned a black tomcat she placed with Malasia to keep her company. As stated earlier the Asian Leopard Cat is the same size as a domestic house cat and has the same number of gene pairs found in a domestic house cat.

Jean was surprised when Malasia produced two kittens sired by her black, domestic tom cat companion, there was one male and one female. The male was mauled by the mother and died but the female was removed and placed with one of Jean's Himalayan females that had just given birth. (It should be noted that Jean also helped develop the breed we now know as Himalayans. The Persian / Siamese cross that produced Himalayans was actually the subject of Jean's college term paper in 1946 on cat genetics.)

Jean named the young female Bengal KinKin. She was one of the first F1s (Foundation Generation 1) of what would one day become the Bengal breed. Her birth changed the nature of our understanding about hybridization between Asian Leopard Cats and domestic house cats in the United States. Just as many scientific discoveries occur by accident, Jean changed the face of American cat genetics opening the way for the development of the Bengal breed in this country.

The young kitten knew from infancy that she was different. She slept several inches apart from the pile of Himalayan kittens. She played differently than they did as they grew older; she looked and sounded foreign. She rarely played or roughhoused with the other kittens, but would climb high on the sofa arm and jump on them, then tear off for another attack and run adventure. She insisted on eating alone, growling and snarling to keep the others from the food dish, or hiding with a tidbit to eat it privately. Later, she toiletted into the commode, slept in high places, and disdained other cats, but was loving and affectionate with Jean. Researchers at Cornell University whom she contacted were incredulous, but gave her little hope that KinKin would ever breed or become pregnant.

KinKin had other ideas. To everyone's surprise, her father bred her. She produced a solid black daughter (Little Panther) and a spotted son (Leopardette). Jean fantasized about putting the male with domestic queens and making many little leopards like him to start a new breed. Unfortunately he died after a fall from a shelf onto concrete before Jean could learn that 98% of F2 males are sterile. It was the first of many tragedies, which plagued Jean's early efforts. His black (melanistic) sister produced a kitten, but ate it at two days of age. When her husband died Jean gave Malasia to the San Diego zoo, and moved to Southern California to an apartment. In this new home KinKin and Pantherette contracted pneumonitus before there were vaccines for it and died. Thus ended her early project.

In the 1970's Dr. Willard Centerwall of Riverside, California was doing research on Feline Leukemia under the auspices of the National Institute of Health (NIH). His goal was to attempt to transfer the Asian Leopard Cat's natural immunity to Feline Leukemia into the domestic cat. His work at Loma Linda University hoped to have practical applications fighting Leukemia in humans. Dr. Centerwall owned a small number of ALCs but he is best known for two littermate brothers that shared the same pen (Comet and Spitz). Dr. Centerwall place domestic female cats with the ALCs and bred them. Because they were always housed together no one actually knows which male bred the females in the program. Pictures of the two males together are commonly distributed among Bengal breeders. Two other ALCs used were Cyclone and Happy. A picture of Cyclone exists but not of Happy. Happy died of heart disease according to Dr. Leslie Lyons. The resulting kittens were tested to see if they had had acquired their parent's immunity to Feline Leukemia at which point Dr. Centerwall was done with them and they needed homes.

In 1980, now remarried to Bob Mill, Jean decided to restart her work. She tried to obtain another Asian Leopard Cat and was referred to Dr. Willard Centerwall and his hybrid breeding research program.. Jean Mill provided a perfect solution to the needs of his program while also creating a visionary new breed of domestic cat.

Another enthusiast for these exotic beauties was Gordon Meridith. He had obtained some of Dr. Centerwall's stock earlier for his little zoo in the Mojave Desert, but in 1980, he was in the hospital, struck down with cancer. He asked Dr. Centerwall to place his cats for him. Jean rescued five of those original F1s. Jean named them Praline, Pennybank, Rorschach, Raisin Sunday, and Wine Vinegar. Gordon's records were lost, but from his deathbed he described the cats to Jean and what he could recall about their history.

During this same time period Doctors Greg and Elizabeth Kent of Kansas were creating their own line of Bengal cats by crossing their Egyptian Mau's with their leopard cat, Baghara Khan (sometimes incorrectly called Segura Khan). Later Jean Mill also bred two female cats to Baghara Khan of Kent. The Kent's contributed an intense understanding of the genetic ethics involved in producing a purebred strain of domestic cats. Their contributions to the early days of the breed are above and beyond the call of duty. Their lines are still highly sought after among Bengal breeders.

Returning to the Meridith F1s, Jean found herself in need of the proper domestic studs with the fortitude to stand up to the strong willed girls. While on a trip to India in 1982 she made a visit to the New Dehli Zoo where she saw a beautifully spotted domestic cat with a shiny orange coat. He was shipped from India to California where Millwood Tory of Dehli took his place as one of the foundation domestic males in the Bengal breed. His shiny coat is attributed to be the source of the shiny glittered coats found in many Bangal lines.

In 1985 Jean began showing her new breed of cats called Bengals in the new breed catefory with TICA. In 1986 her F2 Queen Penny Ante toured the country stealing every show not only for her beauty but her friendly outgoing temperment. In 1992 Bengals were approved for championship status in TICA and over the next decade became the fastest growing breed in the registry.

The "Bristol" breed, was allegedly derived from margay x domestic crosses and predated the Bengal breed, but died out due to infertility problems. Around 1991, the last fertile Bristols were absorbed into the early Bengal breed to augment the Bengal's limited gene pool (due to inbreeding). In 1991,Solveig Pflueger, TICA's geneticist, heard of some cats housed at a private residence in Texas. These were registered with TICA as "Bristol Cats" - a breed believed to be extinct through infertility. The colony numbered about 10 cats and its sire was Cajun (then quite old Click for Picture); he was not very fertile, averaging 2 litters per year. Cajun's rosettes resembled those of an ocelot or margay and he was believed to be an ocelot, margay or oncilla (tiger cat) hybrid. Breed books and articles of the 1980s reported the Bristol as a margay hybrid. Cajun had a very white ground color on his chest and belly, very small and rounded ears, and a voice like that of an ocelot. Was Cajun a result of Margay genes? We will never truly know. I do however off this, we know that the breeder working with Cajun had some early generation Bengals. I have seen one ALC with markings remarkably like those that Cajun displays (Click for Pic). That said when you look at a comparison of a Cajun descendant named Starbengal DiCaprio compared to a Margay the resemblance is striking (Click for Pic). Though less striking, the other cats were also clearly hybrids. Some had the black smoky charcoal color that sometimes appears in F1 and F2 Bengals. Investigation unearthed photos of an ocelot-type cat mating with a domestic shorthair. We will probably never know the actual truth of the genetic heritage. To read an article on Bristols by Von Pilcher Click Here.

The two Bristol females young enough to be used in breeding were placed in Bengal breeding programms, one with Gogees, one with Belltown. Belltown Sugarfoot produced several Bengal/Bristol litters and one of the kittens was incorporated into the Gogees line. The cats bearing Bristol blood inherited a more robust type, small ears and good rosetting. The problem of infertility was bred out and the Bengal gene pool was enhanced. Several Bengal breeders have lines that go back to Bristol/Bengal crosses, though others dispute the ability of South American wild cats to hybridize with domestic cats. This latter view is mistaken, the modern "Safari" breed is a Geoffroy's cat hybrid. Oncilla/domestic hybrids have been bred in the 1950s or 1960s by Mme Falken-Rohrle. DNA tests may determine the identity of the Bristol's wild species ancestor, but the genes are so dilute that genetic markers may have undoubtedly been bred out.


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