If you watched Cats 101 on Animal Planet, chances are, you've seen her face at least in passing. A savvy felinologist, Iris Zinck (also credited as Iris Tanner), is more than just a pretty face with green eyes - she's also an authoritative voice in Cat Fancier Association. She and her husband Bob operate a Boston-based cattery Folie a Deux featuring show-quality Siberian and Turkish Angora cats. A sought-after judge, she has traveled all over the world.
MJN: You wear many hats: breeder, judge, educator and just plain cat Mom. How do you compartmentalize those roles? When you are at home with your cats, how do you keep yourself from scrutinizing them with a judge's eye?
IZ: I don't. Especially if they are kittens and I am trying to assess their future show potential, I DO look at them from my judging purrspective. But the judge's eye turns off when one of my forever kitties jumps into my lap or onto my shoulders . . . then I just focus on interacting with them and loving them.
MJN: I remember the expression you used "judging with your hands" when evaluating long-haired cats at shows, to get a sense of the bone structure.
IZ: Yes, I actually use that phrase often. Cat shows are a beauty contest, but part of the written standard that defines "beauty"(i.e. the ideal for each breed) refers to the shape and feel of the cat's body. In most cases you are looking for solid muscularity and lots of substance underneath those long, luxurious coats and it isn't always there. Looks can deceive. You don't know what you have until you get your hands on a cat and feel it.
MJN: What is your history with the Animal Planet channel? You were featured in some of the interviews for Cats 101. Do people recognize you as "that girl from Animal Planet"?
IZ: That was quite a number of years ago, over 6 years now since it was before I got married and they identify me as Iris Tanner. And yes, people do still recognize me as that woman (thank you for calling me a girl!). I was asked to do it as a representative of the Cat Fanciers' Association Judging Program, but it also helped that I happened to live in the next town from where the production company doing the show at that time was located. Once they had covered all the different CFA breeds, they didn't need me anymore.
The Turkish Angora episode was partially shot at my house and has been seen and promoted by Turkish Angora breeders all over the world. I imagine it is probably the same with other breeds.
MJN: Let's talk about your artistic life. You studied drama in college, correct? Tell us about your CD with original songs.
IZ: I studied English and Drama. I wanted to go into advertising and thought that would be a good combination for it. This was back before majors in Communications were commonplace and I was at a small liberal arts school that didn't have much in the way of practical course offering unless you were pre-med or pre-law.
There were actually two CDs, but the better-known one is "Magnum Opuss," (spelling error deliberate) which is a compilation of cabaret-style songs that I wrote and had professionally recorded by several other singers. I do sing some of them myself though. It's available from CDbaby.com by download or as an actual CD (does anyone buy those anymore?) Here is a link: https://www.cdbaby.com/cd/birist3
I stopped writing songs several years ago when arthritis made it too difficult to play the piano. I still hope to get back into singing at some point but at present, it is not a part of my life.
MJN: How did you get your husband so jazzed up about cat breeding? Was he passionate about cats before he met you, or was this a passion you helped him cultivate?
IZ: He had never even lived with a cat before he met me. He was a dog person. The poor man had no idea what he was getting into, but when I invited him over for dinner and he met all the cats, he did NOT run screaming into the night.
He is not as passionate about our cats and breeding and showing as I am, but he is my partner and goes along with it because it is so important to me. However, we have one cat that is exclusively HIS show cat, a Korat, and those two have a very special bond.
MJN: How do you manage surprises in your line of work? I'm referring to unplanned matings between cats of different breeds - Siberian and Angora. You described the product humorously as Sibergora. What do breeders normally do when those things happen?
IZ: When you work with two breeds in the same house, it can happen. You just hope it doesn't. If it does, you take care of the kittens and find good homes for them. Years ago, when I bred Russian Blues, I had two "oops" breedings between Turkish Angoras and Russian Blues. One produced three kittens ... I named them Snafu, Glitch and Bluepurr (Blooper).
MJN: Siberians are slow to mature. That's a fact. Some males also need some guidance when it comes to Some Siberian breeders in Russia use the practice known as "unleashing the stud" - the act of defloration of a young male by a more experienced female. You mentioned that one of your males, Gloumov, did not show interest in the fair sex until he met an older Turkish Angora who was due to be spayed the next day.
IZ: Yes, it was pretty funny, we thought he was never going to figure out the "birds and the bees" and we were watching TV with him and the female one night and suddenly we noticed her rolling around as though she had just been bred. We looked at each other. There was only one male loose. We weren't too worried about consequences since we had already decided to spay her so we decided to watch and see what happened. If it was really him, he would do it again. And he did. Needless to say, his lady love was spayed a few days later.
MJN: What are some of the things you look for in a prospective family when you are placing kittens? What are some of the red flags?
IZ: I look for people who have done their homework and know that they want a specific breed for specific reasons. Also for people who are not going to give the cat access to the outdoors and ideally, nonsmokers. Cats are just as sensitive to second hand smoke as people are.
The biggest red flag is someone who wants a female cat and says she wants to have just one litter so the children can experience the miracle of birth. Or someone who wants a breeding pair for the same reason. I only sell whole cats with breeding rights to experienced, responsible breeders.