THE TRADITIONAL SIAMESE
By Mrs. Sheelagh Le Cocq
Siamese are universally recognized by the majority of people.
Unmistakable with their distinctly patterned markings and piercing deep blue eyes, they are known and loved by people the world over. It was therefore all the more amazing that such a familiar animal could change so dramatically over such a relatively short period of time without their many devotees realizing just what was happening.
It was only 3 or 4 years ago that I became aware of the change that had taken place when the last of my old Siamese died at the age of 18. A pure Traditional Siamese or "apple head", he was bon in the mid-1970's and did very well at shows, winning his kitten and adult open classes. His younger brothers both followed in his footsteps and won at every show they entered.
It was only when they had gone and I could no longer bear to live without Siamese that I began to take notice of the current Siamese world and I simply could not believe what I was seeing. Gone were the sturdy, healthy, thick coated cats with beautiful faces, to be replaced by long, anorexic animals with noses like Concord, legs like spiders, huge ears out of all proportion to their faces and long, thin tails like pieces of string. Gone was the type of cat that I knew and loved, to be replaced by creatures that bore no resemblance to them at all.
The breeders whom I asked were very disparaging; all of them said, "They don't breed them like that any more," and one even said to me that "Siamese cats had never, ever looked like that, any that did were only pets, who had probably been crossed with moggies." I tried to ask her how she explained the many rosettes and awards my old cats had won, but she couldn't. To her the modern type of Siamese was the only one. That was how they were meant to be, but of course it wasn't always so.
The first mention we have of the Siamese Cat is from the Cat Book Poems, which were written some time between 1350 and 1750 in Thailand, or Siam as it was known then. These manuscripts wee beautifully illustrated, and we can see the first pictures of the Siamese cat to reach the western world. These cat, which were known as the Vichien Mat, were very similar to the Siamese we know today, although it is difficult to decipher their shape from the illustrations.
Little was known of these cats until the latter half of the last century, when they were shown fore the first time at the Crystal Palace Cat Show in 1871.
In their native land, the Siamese appears not to have been common. Most were kept in the Palace in Bangkok and many of those, which came to the West, were bred by the King himself. Hence the attachment of the prefix "Royal" to the breed. Some reached England by legitimate means, as gifts from the King. Miss Forester-Walker received four, Mrs. Vyvyan two, Mrs. Velvey received a number from her brother, who was himself a breeder and was the British Consul in Bangkok and Lord Beresford two. These, of course, were not sufficient to fulfill the demand for these beautiful cats and some were stolen from the Palace, including Nims, the mother of Wankee. He was bred in Hong Kong and went on to become the first Siamese to become a Champion in England, when first shown at the age of 3 in 1898.
It seems that even at the turn of the century there were two distinct types of Siamese. They were described as 1) rather a small long-headed cat with close lying coat and 2) a larger cat with a rounder head and a much thicker, longer and less close-lying coat. It appears from photographs of the time that the second type appear to have won the day for almost all the pictures of Siamese from the late 1800's and early 1900's show what we today would call "Traditional Siamese" type. Champion Wankee, The Tiam O'Shians 0 I, II, III, and IV and Mafeking all look to be of the Traditional type. Lady Marcus Beresford writes of two cats that she bought from Mrs. Vary Vampbell, "They differed from the Royal Siamese, having a more pointed head and face", so it seems as though the "Traditional Siamese" prevailed.
The type didn't change very much over the next 70 - 80 years. Breeders worked very hard to eliminate undesirable characteristics-the squint, which was common, the kinked tail (many of the early cats had not just kinked but twisted or bob-tails of the type, which remain common all over Asia today). Most importantly they worked hard to improve the health and stamina. The early cats had proved to be extremely delicate, few lived to anything that we would consider old age. If they survived kittenhood (and many didn't), two or three were considered a normal life span and six was elderly. Frequently an entire litter or even a whole cattery would be wiped out, particularly after even one of the cats had attended a cat show. Many breeders refused to attend shows at all for fear of infection. Eventually, the Siamese adapted to the English climate and breeders learned how to create the most suitable conditions for them to thrive.
The Siamese were physically little different from those, which had been imported from Siam. They were sturdier, healthier, (but then people were healthier than their Victorian counterparts), but otherwise hardly changed.
The watershed came in 1980, when the Siamese Join Advisory Committee decided to re-define the standard of point, by which all Siamese were judged. The new standard called for a thinner "daintier" cat, and the shape of the head, which was required to be "wedge-shaped" was given more emphasis. On the face of it, these changes, which were not dramatic, should not have had the far-reaching consequences that they did. They in themselves were not the problem, but various breeders' interpretation of the new standard, particularly in America, where they always seem to want to push things to the limit, was the problem. Suddenly everything had to be long and thin, the longer and thinner the better. Long, thin bodies, long tails, long legs, long noses with thin close lying coats. They were a caricature of the animals they were meant to be.
When man take a hand in designing an animal, he seems to want to exaggerate the characteristics that he first admired without thought to the health or well being of the animal. Hence, we have in the dog world, Bulldogs, whose enormous heads mean that the majority of bitches can't whelp naturally; Sharpie's, whose wrinkled skin has been exaggerated to the point where they cannot see for folds of skin over their eyes; Old English Sheepdogs, whose hair completely covers their eyes and dachshunds, whose bodies have been elongated until they suffer spinal problems and become paralyzed. The cat world too has its parallels; in dogs the Pekinese and now in cats the ultra Persian. These are unfortunate animals who have been designed to have extreme flat faces with the nose pushed up to the eyes causing continual weeping, and breathing difficulties. Of course, we can't leave these examples without mentioning those ultimate obscenities, the Mexican Hairless dog, the Sphynx or hairless cat, and the Munchkin. These last pitiful creatures are man's "designer creations", which stand no chance of survival in the wild and are totally dependent on human bounty for their existence.
The Siamese has reached such extremes.
Already we hear that the modern Siamese has lost its stamina. The fine, close lying coat is all that is needed in modern centrally heated home, and many Siamese never set foot outside the door. Gone are the days of the thick, woolly, waterproof coat, and cats that seemed not to notice the cold or wet. Gone too the cats, who would roll in the snow like a dog, or who could survive living rough through bitter winter weather. They were so different from the delicate modern hot house flowers who huddle round the fire or heater and refuse to put a paw outside until Spring. They are designer bred for modern living, when cats aren't supposed to go out at all. Many breeders won't sell their kittens to anyone who wishes to give them any sort of freedom. And the Thinner coats mean less fur shedding, designed for people who don't want fura ll over their clothes and furniture. Eye problems have occurred due to the elongation of the skull, so have heart problems due to the narrowing of the chest. Fertility has dropped and many people report an increase in auto-immune diseases and early deaths.
The Traditional Siamese Cat Association was formed a year ago by people who love Siamese as they used to be. Their aim is to preserve what is left of the old type Siamese and to try to reintroduce them. It would be naive to think that could oust the Modern type overnight, but we aim to stop it going any further down the path it is following and try to bring the old type back alongside them on the show bench.
Traditionals seems to have fared better elsewhere in the world and can be found in France, Spain, and Russia as well as in their native country. Thailand, where the Siamese have not been changed to fit any breeders blue print. In the U.S.A., where moderns became far more extreme than ours, there has been a huge backlash, with Traditional now being shown, and pages of adverts for them in the Cat Magazines alongside those of Moderns.
Let us hope that it is not too late to turn the tide and that we can restore the Traditional Siamese to his former fame and glory.