Valley of the Ragdolls
Valley of the Ragdolls
Cats and humans have had an uneasy détente for the past few millennia. We provide cats with safe, warm places to sleep; they provide us with entertainment. We watch them chase after lasers, threaten birds, catch mice, stare out windows, sleep 18 hours a day, and sit on any box that’s left out—and if we’re lucky, occasionally, they will let us pet their fur and risk bloody scratches to the forearms if we stray near their bellies.
None of the inherent qualities of the cat make it a good candidate for breeding, at least by the standards of animal husbandry, which uses breeding to produce animals that are useful to humans. (Compared to pure dog breeds, which number in the hundreds, there are relatively few pure cat breeds. TICA, or The International Cat Association, recognizes 71 breeds. The Cat Fanciers’ Association, first established in 1906, counts 42.)
We’ve used dogs over the years as hunters, herders, and general helpmates. Cats are hunters, but only when they want to be—nipping, attacking, and pouncing. Otherwise, their disinterest can be profound. As one of the cat philosophers of Istanbul put it in 2017’s feral cat documentary Kedi, “Dogs think people are God, but cats don’t. Cats know that people act as middlemen to God’s will. They’re not ungrateful.” This makes their kindness, when they offer it, truly valuable.
But might it be possible to create a cat that’s less wild, less inclined to hunt? Could they be bred to be more dog-like, more loyal and responsive? Is the cat’s personality a case of nature or nurture? In 1964, a breeder in Riverside, California, began a grand experiment to find out.
Ann Baker was hard at work trying to breed the perfect house cat for the modern American family. It was not going well—until the accident.
As Baker tells it, a neighbor’s cat named Josephine was hit by a car and taken to a nearby university for treatment. The white “Angora-type cat” had until that point enjoyed a wild life outdoors. In order to save the cat’s life, the veterinarians used state-of-the-art “genetical engineering,” a mysterious process that Baker would never explain or elaborate on.
Josephine survived, but when she returned to the neighborhood she was a changed creature. She was relaxed when you picked her up; her legs dangled in the air. Baker began to breed Josephine with Burmese-like tomcats, and the resulting litters included kittens that were also relaxed, docile, seemingly unable to feel pain. One of these kittens, Daddy Warbucks, would become the founding father of a new line of floppy, fluffy, cuddly cats, and Josephine would be considered the matriarch. Baker would call them “Ragdolls,” and her cattery, the “Raggedy Ann.”
What makes the Ragdoll cat different from other cats is a matter of temperament. Stripped of a desire for hunting, the Ragdoll has a languid, friendly personality. It is large and less agile than other cats, and has a regal feline elegance: its fur is silky, and long; it has piercing, ocean-blue eyes; and its personality could be called dog-like. This is a cat that greets you at the door and follows you from room to room, providing something like unconditional love.
Baker was a cat breeder with a salesman’s spirit and she carefully crafted the Ragdoll’s origin story. A Raggedy Ann cattery ad from Cats Magazine in 1971 listed the cats at $150 each (about $930 today); an ad from 1977 had stud males selling for $1,000. Today, a breeder-certified Ragdoll will cost between $1,000 to $3,000, depending on what the customer is looking for; show cats and breeder cats are more expensive, “pets” are less so.
At the time, no one could confirm Ann Baker’s story about the creation of the Ragdoll cat as a happy accident of genetics, but the breeding had already begun.
Cats have a storied history that stretches back beyond the Egyptian pyramids, but the Ragdoll cat has existed for just over 50 years. One of the more famous Ragdoll cats belonged to the singer Dusty Springfield, who died in 1999 at her home in Henley-on-Thames in England; her 13-year-old cat Nicholas was provided for in her will, which stipulated that he be fed “baby food imported from the U.S.,” provided with bed linens made from Dusty’s pillowcase and nightgown, and “married” to a friend’s female cat. “It’s what Dusty wanted,” her friend told the press.
Ragdolls inspire a certain sort of obsession among owners and breeders, who marvel at their pliability and goofball behavior. In Ragdoll cat videos on YouTube, the animal world is suddenly turned upside down. Here, cats act like dogs; they are sweet, attentive, and loving. In one video, whose title tells us that “Richard the Ragdoll cat loves sliding on the floor,” giggles can be heard off-screen as the cat is lobbed across the parquet and then trots dutifully back toward his owner for more manhandling, like a floppy, fluffy broom. In another, chatty YouTuber Emilia Panesar answers questions about her new Ragdoll kitten, Mr. Fitz. In one of her most popular videos, the cat leans over her arm as she talks, silent and completely relaxed.
A Kansas City-based business owner and “cat product influencer” named Jenny Dean has developed a blog and YouTube channel called “Floppycats,” and the site, she claims, has been “Uniting Ragdoll Cat Lovers Worldwide Since 2008.” Dean has uploaded hundreds of videos with titles in English and Japanese. In one, “How to Do Airplane with Your Ragdoll Cat,” she takes her cat Charlie, lies down, and perches his body on her feet before lifting him up to the sky so that he’s balancing, airplane-style, as she moves her legs back and forth. “It’s a really good ab workout,” she promises. The cat remains remarkably still, with his tail mildly twitching for balance.
This is a cat that greets you at the door and follows you from room to room, providing something like unconditional love.
Ragdoll provenance begins with Ann Baker’s brood. Daddy Warbucks, one of Josephine’s kittens, a male who would father many a Ragdoll, was one of the initial four cats registered by Baker in the Cat Fanciers’ Association in 1966. (Baker would commonly inbreed her cats.) The others were Fugianna, the daughter of Josephine and Daddy Warbucks; Kyoto, a male, seal-mitted, with white markings on his mitts and chin; and Tiki, a female, seal-colored, with color markings on her points, legs, and face. The latter two were the offspring of Daddy Warbucks and Buckwheat, another daughter of Josephine’s. Every Ragdoll cat in the world can be traced back to these first four cats, and what Baker did was breed litters stemming from Fugianna, whom she considered the “light side,” and Buckwheat, whom she considered the “dark side.”
The Ragdoll first made the papers on November 24, 1968. In the Los Angeles Times’ weekly “Pet Parade” column, which featured local pet news, there was a small mention of the Ragdoll as a new breed available for purchase, along with a drawing. Created by crossing “Sable Burmese” and “Blue-eyed White Longhairs,” the column explains, the Ragdoll is a large-breed cat that “has such a trusting temperament it must be guarded from other animals.” It likes to “be carried and loved,” and will “flop around” and “respond to its name.” The ad credits Ann Baker with developing the breed, and notes that while the cat did not yet have championship recognition, “it should come.”
The 1991 BBC documentary Cat and Supercat shows Ann Baker at her cattery, literally tossing a Ragdoll in the air to a visitor, as in a father-and-son game of catch. The presenter asks in a plummy voice-over, “Is this the ultimate docile cat? A cushion cat? Are we in danger of losing the spirit of the cat in exchange for a soft living toy?” (The question is never actually answered in the film.) A gray-haired Baker, then in her 70s, wearing a Hawaiian-print shirt and seafoam-green pants, motions for a visitor to toss the cat back her way. She catches it, and starts swinging the animal in front of her, left to right, like a pendulum. The cat’s legs are splayed out in surrender. “See what a pretty kitty he is?” she says, rubbing its belly.
Baker would give regular tours of her cattery—the price of entry was $1 for adults and 50 cents for children—and in the lecture portion of her tour, she would explain how she bred her famous cats. A surviving video made by a visitor in 1993 can be found on YouTube and is not an easy watch: it includes 40 minutes of Baker sitting at her desk, expounding upon her theories and ideas about breeding. (She would die four years later, in 1997.)
The lecture shown in the video is full of myths, which Baker scatters among various facts. It’s hard to sort the truth from her particular form of showmanship: a rambling monologue with nonsensical digressions. (On one side of a terrible metaphor about breeding one-armed humans together to create a one-armed human race, she mentions, in what is basically an aside, that she worked for seven generations at putting different breeds and temperaments of cats together.)
“By the time I got ready to sell cats, I had 250,” the 74-year-old says, wearing her signature Hawaiian shirt and large-framed glasses. “It’s not what mother is, it’s not what daddy is, it’s what they have programmed her to produce.”
Can you breed an animal for behavior that’s more appealing to humans when that behavior seems fundamentally against their nature? Possibly the closest analogy to what Baker did with cats is the story of Dmitri K. Belyaev, a geneticist who worked on animal physiology in the 1950s and hypothesized that one could breed for tameness. Working with foxes for over 40 generations, he developed an arguably domesticated fox that, physiologically, had far less fear and fewer adrenaline surges than a “wild” fox. I asked Leslie Lyons, a professor of comparative medicine at the University of Missouri-Columbia whose research includes the Feline Genome Project, whether the Ragdoll’s atypical behavior was the result of “genetical modifications.” She responded that the Ragdoll “just has the typical cat genes.”
Ann Baker’s stories gave her cats something like the shape of a legend, something that lent itself well to her next goal: to franchise Ragdoll breeding.
In 1969, she sold a pair of breeder cats to Denny and Laura Dayton of Newbury Park, California, who opened their own cattery, Blossom Time, later that year. Initially, Baker and the Daytons worked together to promote Ragdolls. But they ultimately split over notions of legitimacy. The Daytons were building a breed: they wanted to show their cats in cat shows, and they needed the animals to be registered in several associations. (In 1973 they began showing in Cat Fanciers’ Association events, and Denny has noted that his lasting legacy was “establishing the legacy of the ragdolls in the cat fancy.”) Baker was building a brand: she was most interested in selling and franchising the cats and only wanted to have them registered in one association, as the original Ragdolls. She started her own registry for Ragdoll cats, the International Ragdoll Cat Association, in 1971, and she then franchised catteries that purchased Ragdolls from her own Raggedy Ann.
Baker starts swinging the animal in front of her, left to right, like a pendulum. The cat’s legs are splayed out in surrender. “See what a pretty kitty he is?” she says, rubbing its belly.
Baker also was trying to figure out whether the Ragdoll’s floppiness and warmth were the result of a genetic abnormality. She sent several of her cats to several California research universities, including Stanford and Loma Linda. In 1974, a geneticist at Loma Linda wrote in a letter to Baker, “We examined one Ragdoll cat in early 1973 ... and we found no significant abnormalities.”
I spoke with Dr. Merrill Mitler of the Stanford University Sleep Laboratory, who was studying narcolepsy in his lab at that time, specifically, what causes narcolepsy in animals. The lab primarily studied horses, but Baker’s Ragdolls were brought to their attention because of their legendary floppiness. Were they relaxed because they were partly asleep? Were Ragdoll cats narcoleptics?
Mitler drove down to Riverside to meet Ann Baker’s cats, which he would then test at his lab in Palo Alto. He described Baker as a woman who was very invested in learning why her cats behaved the way that they did, and whether there was scientific causation. The testing that Mitler remembers involved using removable electrodes to record brain waves, eye movement, and the muscle activity of the neck. A letter from Mitler to Baker from 1973 reads: “We could not find physiological underpinnings for the behavioral characteristics reported for the Ragdoll breed,” and he repeated these findings to me over the phone.
“At the end of the day,” Mitler said, “the story remains curious.”
On August 26, 1974, Baker applied for a trademark with the US Patent Office for the word “Ragdoll” in relation to the sale of “live cats.” The word was registered on December 9, 1975. As the holder of the trademark, Baker forbade anyone from selling a cat under the breed name “Ragdoll.” She had a brand to protect.
But in the 15 months between Baker filing her trademark and its registration by the patent office, the Daytons made their move. In January 1975, the couple called a meeting of all Ragdoll breeders, who numbered about nine at the time, to discuss the future of promoting Ragdolls. Baker was invited, but she didn’t attend, perhaps sensing mutiny. The Ragdoll Society, led by the Daytons, was formed the following month, in February, with the goal of getting Ragdolls recognized by various cat associations for shows.
Baker considered these actions a violation of her pending trademark. Her IRCA was the arbiter of what was and wasn’t a Ragdoll, not a cat association. The Daytons, however, believed that their organization had a right to call their cats and their cats’ descendants Ragdolls, whether they were registered with the IRCA or not, since the former were purchased prior to the trademark. The Daytons were looking for legitimacy for the Ragdoll within the cat breeding community, and they formed their own standards and registries. Things escalated from there. In an ad in the June 1977 issue of Cats Magazine—an “Ann Baker exclusive”—she announced that her Ragdoll was trademarked with the US Patent Office and that Ragdoll owners could send her a letter for an official pedigree crest from the IRCA.
There was also a rumor from another breeder that the Daytons had tested the proprietary food Baker insisted her Ragdoll cats eat to maintain a healthy diet and found a secret ingredient: phenobarbital, a barbiturate used to treat epilepsy and sleeping problems. (I wasn’t able to find confirmation of this test, and a scientist I spoke with said the cats tested fine in other studies and did not appear drugged.)
In a preemptive legal attack, the Daytons sued. They and the RFC claimed that Baker had for years been making constant threats to sue over their unauthorized use of the name “Ragdoll” in relation to their cat. (She had also called the City Council of Thousand Oaks in 1974 to say that the Daytons were running a cattery in their home without a license.) Seeking relief from these threats, they filed a preliminary injuction. On September 12, 1977, after Baker failed to show up in her own defense or send legal representation, the Daytons won their injunction. The court ruled that Baker wasn’t allowed to claim that her cats were the original Ragdoll cats, or that the Daytons’ cats, and the descendants that came from other breeders, were not Ragdolls. She lost control over the Ragdoll name and brand. The trademark name was abandoned in 2006 and the IRCA trademark lapsed in 2009.
Today, the Ragdoll is a thriving cat breed. There’s a particular demand from China, and Chinese college students studying in the US often try to bring Ragdolls home, where they can sell for 5,000 yuan (about $780). In a recent article in an agricultural newspaper, a Ragdoll breeder in Wisconsin, who has also sold overseas to Italy and Saudi Arabia, claims that the blue bicolor Ragdoll is a “status symbol” in China at the moment.
Still, even after hearing so much about them, I didn’t quite understand the magic of Ragdoll cats. As the owner of a decidedly unchill cat, a mackerel tabby mouser with sharp claws and a short fuse, I didn’t get what it meant to encounter a “cat that thinks it’s a dog.” I had to see one for myself.
One Sunday evening, my husband and I drove from Brooklyn into the Long Island suburbs and met Denise, owner of the cattery New York Ragdolls. Relatively new to cat breeding, Denise told me that she had only been pursuing it in earnest for about a year, although she had previously owned Ragdolls. She told me that some of her Ragdolls have been awarded champion titles in shows; others are studs in heat, running around in navy-blue diapers so they don’t spray their scent everywhere. Denise has one non-Ragdoll cat, and it gets along well with her Ragdolls. “There’s not an animal in the world that won’t love a Ragdoll,” she said. A Roomba-like vacuum rolled through the room and some of the roaming cats played with it, gently, treating it like a friend. They were dopily unafraid.
My favorite Ragdoll at the cattery was Falcon, a descendant from Ann Baker’s original line. He was a beauty. There was something about the size of his eyes in relation to his face that sparked an intense desire inside of me to take care of him. There’s a culture of cute, and this cat hit every point: it had fur that felt like a hug, and big blue eyes, round like blueberries, that bore into your soul. I tried to ask Denise questions, but was frankly struck dumb by the Ragdolls’ overwhelming cuteness.
I looked at Denise’s arms, expecting them to resemble mine—scratched up, courtesy of my own mouser. She had 17 cats in various stages of breeding, 17 cats with claws, 17 cats that couldn’t go outside because they wouldn’t survive if they got lost in the wild suburbs of Long Island. But her forearms were as smooth as a baby’s.
I felt a primal urge to take one of these cats home. It was the very moment that I understood the urge to create something perfect, a creature that can actually provide unconditional love, a cat that can render humans awestruck on a primordial level.
But we returned empty-handed to our Brooklyn apartment with its shredded sofa. My cat sauntered out as I opened the door, curious and a bit disdainful. I picked her up, thinking she might, just this once, go limp and look lovingly into my eyes.
She yowled and sunk her teeth into my wrist.
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