Thursday, April 2, 2015

Slavicat - a collective Siberian cattery - interview with Jelena Nekrasova

I am incredibly excited to post this comprehensive and informative interview with Jelena Nekrasova, the founder and managing director of the collective Siberian cattery Slavicat. Jelena talks about some of the practices pertaining to the origin, breeding and placement of Siberian cats. I conducted the interview in Russian and translated it into English. Welcome, Jelena!

MJN: Do you live in a house or an apartment? What is the minimal square footage you need to run a successful cattery?

JN: I should begin by saying that the term “cattery” is very relative.  I know some catteries that only had one breeding cat, and that cat left a huge legacy within the breed.  And then I know of some foundation catteries that have up to seventy active breeding animals.

MJN: Do your cats roam freely in the same space as other members of the family, or do they live separately?

JN: Regarding the minimal square footage, one veterinarian from St. Petersburg conducted a study and came to the conclusion that a cat living in an apartment needs at least five square meters in order to be comfortable.

Of course, it’s much easier to keep a cattery – especially if it’s enclosed – in a free standing house, preferably not just a suburban home but a real country estate, a ranch or a farm, where you can build a large enclosure, away from neighbors.  That would be an ideal setting for a cattery.

My cattery is apartment style.  All our cats live with families in high-rise apartment complexes. We have many families participating in our collective cattery.  Our breeding cats live not only in Moscow and the suburbs but in other Russian cities and even other countries.

Since the cats live in apartments, then obviously they use the same space as the owners. In some instances a separate room would be set aside for the cats, with cages and climbing trees. It’s not something I personally can afford. However, I do give my male cats separate space for mating purposes. I also keep my lactating queens separately, until the kittens are about six weeks old.

MJN: On your site you state that your mission is to get back to the origins of the breed.  What is your attitude towards the Neva Masquerade cats?

JN: Every breed is shrouded in myths and legends. Now people are saying that Siberians originate from the deep taiga forest where they had mated with wild cats. It’s not just ordinary cat lovers who subscribe to this theory, but certain breeders too. Before “going back to the origin” of the breed, I really did my homework and studied the history first. I have nothing against glamorous legends – after all, they promote the popularity of the breed.  It’s so romantic on one hand: mysterious palaces, gifts from Emperors, Viking heritage. But breeders need to know the truth. It makes their lives easier, because it excuses them from the necessity to go to taiga in search of “real Siberians”. Real Siberians are product of the two capital cities – Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg).  
I have nothing but sincere admiration for the Neva Masquerade cats – they are truly gorgeous animals. However, I do think they are different from the traditional Siberians – perhaps different in a good way. The breed has its own name for a good reason. Most breeders who breed Neva Masquerade cats work exclusively with color-points. At shows, the present their animals as Neva Masquerades – not color point Siberians.

MJN: Many breeders are content if they only have one litter from a high-ranking cat, and once they get that litter, they promptly retire the cat.  Do you approve of that practice, or do you think that it’s better to capitalize on the cat’s reproductive abilities and continue breeding her as long as she’s healthy?

JN: For me personally there are too many nuances. Every breeder has his or her own program and has a rough idea of what he/she wants to see as end result.  So if you have a clear idea what you want, and you get that in the very first litter, so it doesn’t make sense to continue breeding that cat, if you plan to continue working with the offspring.  Not to mention, a younger animal is a lot easier to find a home for than an older one. In Russia, with strong feral animal control policies, an older animal is very hard to place.  And sometimes you need just one feature from a particular cat – a rare color or new combination of genes – and once you get that captured, you don’t need to continue breeding the animal.

However, if the animal is truly outstanding in terms of its adherence to the standard, then I feel that its breeding potential should be given a chance to fully develop. I realize that not all breeders can afford that luxury.  For instance, if there is a lack of suitable breeders in the region.  You have to keep in mind that even repeat litters from the same pair are not clones, so it’s a good idea to get two or three litters from the same pair.  Or consider collaborating with colleagues.

There is what’s called “chain” practice that allows the cattery to get high turnover without additional expenses.  The sire, having produced one litter, is being sold into another cattery, and then another one, etc.  There is also the possibility of “loaning” a cat when a sought-after sire travels from one city to another, spending virtually no time at the cattery to which he officially belongs.

Of course, not all breeders can treat their animals as genetic material – there are strong emotions involved. But eventually you have to get a thick skin, because you really have two options – either you rehome the animals you no longer need, or you shut down the cattery altogether, because you cannot continue operations with so many elderly animals. I know breeders who operate according to the first model, as well as breeders who ended up shutting down their catteries.

MJN: Do your lactating females nurse each other’s kittens?

JN: Some females love other cats’ babies, and some don’t treat them any differently from their own. But there are some females who don’t want to share their offspring with anyone else for the first month or so.

MJN: I heard that Siberian males often participate in parenting. Did you ever witness that phenomenon?

JN: I don’t think that males help parent only their own kittens. For instance, my cat Bailey’s treats his own kittens the same way he treats other kittens. I suspect, not all males are as nurturing. There are always exceptions.

MJN: Is it true that Siberian males mature later than those of other breeds?

JN: Yes, I’ve heard that Siberians are “late bloomers”. Old-school breeders say that ideally you should deflower the male after he turns two, possibly even three years old. By then he should reach his physical maturity.  But I see no reason to torment the cats for several years and let the “ripen up”. If you don’t exhaust the male with frequent matings – every two weeks – then you can start breeding him at the age of eight months without running into any health problems. It will be good for him, actually.

Talking about the prime in general, among Siberians, older animals fit the standard better than the younger ones. With other breeds, it’s totally opposite – the younger contestants getting higher scores.

MJN: In the history of your cattery, can you single out one male or female that was particularly adherent to the standard?

JN: If I had to single out the best cat, every category considered, it would be my signature cat Bailey’s. He’s the one who inspired me to breed and to start a cattery.

MJN: Some of your alumni live in North America. What transportation services do you use to ensure prompt and safe delivery of the animals to their destination?

JN: All my alumni travel by plane. Sometimes the new owners would pick them up, and sometimes they’d hire special carriers.

MJN: What are your contractual terms and conditions for dealing with international buyers? Do you make provisions for maintaining contact with the new owners and monitoring the wellbeing of the animal?

JN: You’re talking Utopia here. I really don’t worry about the animals traveling overseas. It’s the domestic placements that worry me. Unfortunately, those agreements, even if you have them signed, are very hard to enforce. It’s not like you can travel to various parts of Russia and knock on people’s doors to do “spot checks” and see how they are treating their animals. You do have those items in the contract, but they are strictly nominal.

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