April 24, 2003 Episode 41: Bowling for Kitties

The simplest show ideas often become rich with complexity and beauty.  That was our experience with this week's episode.  We attended Victoria's Island Cat Fanciers Society's Easter Purrade Show earlier this month as a way to meet and talk with cat owners about their identity as cat lovers.  We decided to ask exhibiters and attendees how they knew a cat person when they met one.

Once attending the show, however, we were in awe of how well organized the whole affair was, including how much effort and money was needed to create the event.  More than a gathering of people who love cats, the show and the organization behind it offered an excellent example of how people group together around common interests.  As we hung out more and learned more, we were reminded of Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.  Specifically, we were seeing the development of social capital right before our very eyes.  The Island Cat Fanciers Society is the local chapter of the American Cat Fanciers Association, an international organization dedicated to promoting good care for cats as well as providing shows for exhibiters.  

An unfortunate coincidence further confirmed our belief that an important asset to the local community was being created by holding the cat show and having cat lovers organize both at the local and at the international level. On the last day of the show, an apartment fire took place near the show facility.  Several cats in the building were unable to escape and about a dozen cats were left as homeless as their owners.  The fire was traumatic enough, but the pet owners were, of course, concerned about what to do with their pets.  The Victoria SPCA rescued the pets and provided temporary shelter for them, but, this, of course, would require money.  The Cat Fanciers mobilized an effort to not only help rescue the cats in the confusion of the fire, but to also support the SPCA with money and goods to help take care of the cats.  This quick response could only have occurred in the wake of a well organized society of cat lovers.  Social capital paid off not only for the cat lovers, but also for the community.  It was a quintessential example of what Putnam believes will be lost if we don't find ways to associate with each other.


coming soon to this webpage:  
a video from the cat show!!! 
Yes, we aired the audio from our taping on our radio show, but we hope to webcast some of the video we shot in our first CCC digital production, 
so come back again and check us out



It seemed like a simple idea at the time. We had done a "dog show" so why not give equal time to cats? We could ask people "How do you know someone is a cat person?" and then talk about how people identify with their pets and the ways in which people divide the world between "cat people" and "dog people."

We thought about it. Meeting dog owners is not difficult at all, especially in a town like Victoria. Go out to the park along Dallas Road on any sunny afternoon and you will meet dogs and the people they own. Being a dog owner is a very public thing to be. Dogs must be walked, and in an urban setting, that means on the street or in a park.

Cat owners are harder to find. Of course, we could have walked around downtown and stopped anyone with cat hair on her or his clothing. It is the telltale sign. But that seemed a bit difficult and without the cat present, how do you start the conversation anyway? "I noticed that cat hair on your lapel."

As luck would have it, about an hour after thinking about the "cat show," meaning our radio show on cat owners, we found a brochure with a "cat show" announcement. The Island Cat Fanciers Society, Victoria's local chapter of the American Cat Fanciers Association, would be holding its "Easter Purrade Show" (that's p-u-r-r-a-d-e, of course) at the Archie Browning Sports Centre in Esquimalt. How do you find cat owners willing to talk about their cats and show them off? We decided to do our cat show at the cat show. It was nice and neat and simple, right?

Well, even the most-simple concepts often become complex ideas before your eyes, especially when you are using your sociological eye. Thinking we would spend an hour and meet some cat lovers and find out what makes a cat person a cat person and then leave, we found ourselves hanging out for several hours and becoming more intrigued with the social organization that goes into putting on a show such as this.

More than a gathering of like-minded people, this group had cohesion and complexity and, well, both formal and informal organization. It was wonderfully complex and worth exploring.

We learned that it takes money and several specific kinds of effort to produce a show. We also learned that having such a group in a community like the greater Victoria area is a real asset to the larger community. This year's spring show was marked by a tragic fire only a few blocks from the sports centre. On Sunday, a fire broke out at a four-story apartment building on Fernhill Road. A number of pets were in the building. At least four cats were lost to smoke inhalation. Several of the Island Cat Fanciers went to the building to help rescue the cats. Then they went back and raised money at the show to help the SPCA take care of the rescued cats.

Seeing how the Cat Fanciers were able to mobilize so quickly reminded us of the concept of social capital and specifically about Robert Putnam's claims about the decline of civic society in his now classic book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Putnam asserts that social capital is valuable to have:

Quote, When a group of neighbors informally keep an eye on one another's homes, that's social capital in action. When a tightly knit community of Hassidic Jews trade diamonds without having to test each gem for purity, that's social capital in action. Barn-raising on the frontier was social capital in action, and so too are e-mail exchanges among members of a cancer support group. Social capital can be found in friendship networks, neighborhoods, churches, schools, bridge clubs, civic associations, and even bars. The motto in Cheers "where everybody knows your name" captures one important aspect of social capital, close quote.

Social capital accrues from a sense of joining with other people. Not all associations however, provide social capital. For example, belonging to the Canadian Association for Retired Persons (CARP) would be distant because no local meetings take place. Belonging to the Fairfield Seniors Centre would provide a sense of joining because it has a meeting place where members frequently encounter each other. Putnam further asserts that people have stopped joining. Most associations made are distant and impersonal. No matter how much material capital exists in a community, this distance will have consequences because it will deplete the social capital some communities need in times of crises. To put it in terms of the book's title, people are bowling alone rather than in leagues, and this lack of association has civic consequences.

After hanging out at the cat show and watching how easy it was for the existing association to mobilize itself in quick response to a community crisis, we decided that we had seen dependency on social capital in action. Judging from the results, it looks like it was a good investment on the part of the cat fanciers and represented something greater than simply a love for a pet.

Today on First Person, Plural we will share excerpts from our conversations with different people at the Island Cat Fanciers Society's show as well as get an update from the SPCA regarding the Fernhill Road cats that were displaced by the fire, as we discuss the social capital of social cats in an episode we call, "Bowling for Kitties."



To understand better the social capital we observed, we will present our conversations in three parts. In this first part, we asked people how someone knows that a person is a cat person. What emerged was a warmth and pride and an obvious connection not only with the other cat fanciers, but with the cats themselves. It should not be forgotten that it was their relationships with their cats that brought everyone together that April weekend.

Pets represent an important part of our social world. Morris Holbrook examines the experience (and irony) of being a, quote, pet consumer, close quote in a 1996 article entitled "Reflections on Rocky," published in the journal Animals and Society. Holbrook writes about his cat Rocky:

Quote, I choose the term "friend" carefully. For Rocky the Cat is far more than a pet. He is sometimes naughty, sometimes cranky, sometimes uncooperative. But - like a fellow person, who may also be naughty, cranky, or uncooperative - he is a "friend" in the true sense of that word. He follows Sally and me around the apartment, wherever we wander, often just for the sake of sitting and watching us go about our daily lives. Each evening after dinner he sits and watches me do the dishes - just to keep me company. When I struggle through my calisthenics, he sometimes lies behind my head on the exercise mat, oblivious to the throat-choking consequences of his allergy-inducing effect on me. As I write this essay, he dozes peacefully by my side, curled into a big ball of cat fur. In these and countless other ways, Rocky becomes an inextricable part of our daily lives as consumers. And sometimes he manages to transform our shared life of consumption into something truly extraordinary or even magical. Consider, for example, the occasions of Rocky in the bath. Because of my allergies, we must bathe Rocky on a regular basis. But cats do not like to be drenched with water, lathered with "no tears" baby shampoo, rinsed under a hose, bundled into a bath towel, and dried with an electric hairblower. Rocky is no exception. At first, he resists mightily. Indeed, it takes two of us to hold him down. But, as the event unfolds, I am astonished by the philosophical composure with which Rocky settles down, retracts his claws, and submits himself to our will. I do not know if mere words or even three-dimensional photographs can convey the emotional strength of the consumption experiences that we feel at times like these. Dear reader, you have not lived until you have bathed a trembling, squirming, struggling kitten: soaked his writhing body with warm water; rubbed him gently from top to bottom with soapy bubbles; rinsed him clean and sweet-smelling from head to foot; tenderly cradled him in your own large fluffy towel; blown him dry and, oh, so ineffably soft to the touch. And felt him quietly purring in your arms, close quote.

The breeders and cat owners who talked with us at the cat show knew exactly what we meant when we asked how they knew someone was a cat person. Their descriptions of their pets, their breeds (or lack of breeding) and of the quintessential "cat person" revealed the warmth and love they felt for cats. It was definitely a fancy on their part.

Here is what the cat fanciers told us about cat people:

[insert vox pawpuli clips]



A gathering of cat fanciers with their cats required more organization than simply notification of a time and place to gather. The twice-yearly shows are a highlight of an ongoing organization that is both local and international in scope. Island Cat Fanciers Society is a chapter of the American Cat Fanciers Association (ACFA). The ACFA was formed in 1955 quote, by a group of Cat Fanciers seeking greater flexibility in the development of cats, the activities of cat lovers and greater freedom for growth and harmony with contemporary needs of the individual breeders and the broadening horizons of the Cat Fancy at large, close quote.

Seeking to form a democratic organization, they organized themselves around policies and bylaws that sought to promote breeding from the grassroots. For example, the inclusion of altered animals and household pets opened up their shows to a greater variety of cat fanciers. Another innovation that allowed a wider participation of cat exhibiters is the averaging system employed at the Master Show level. Cats are assessed on the average points they receive at the shows they attend. Quote, the unique part of this system is that every Cat Fancier can afford to compete for the top awards each year. Since it is not a 'total' point system, exhibitors need not incur the expense of campaigning a cat every weekend to be in competition, as is the case with other award systems currently in place, close quote.

Local chapter meetings are held monthly and the membership costs are a reasonable $15.00 per year. Show entries are additional, of course.

[insert margo & iams clips here]

Money is important to putting on the show, but volunteers are also needed to make this work. Officers of the chapter did a lot of behind the scenes work to make the show happen. In addition, while judges got paid, their clerks were volunteers who kept the show running on schedule. Other jobs had to be done as well.

[insert recept clip]

Of course, much of the focus is on the awards, and because the point system is in place, someone has to keep track of the points. That person is called the Master Clerk.

[insert clerk clip]

Lyda (Lie-duh) Judson Hanifan first used the term "social capital" in 1916 in his discussions of rural school community centres to describe quote, those tangible substances [that] count for most in the daily lives of people, close quote. Hanifan was particularly concerned with the cultivation of good will, fellowship, sympathy and social intercourse among those that quote, make up a social unit, close quote.

Hanifan's use of the term limited the focus to something quite local. The cat fanciers would be said to be developing social capital simply because of the roles they are willing to play within their organization and most particularly at a specific show.



Robert Putnam's use of the term "social capital," however, has expanded the concept to mean more than simple group membership. Putnam asserts that social networks are created to strengthen social bonds. The coincidence of the fire with the cat show demonstrated Putnam's meaning quite well.

On the day of the show that the fire occurred, we interviewed the cat fancier member who had taken charge of relief efforts for the cats affected by the fire.

[insert fire clip]

These efforts were quick, decisive and effective. Not only did the cat fancier members assist rescue efforts real time, they were also able to mobilize a raffle and fund raising to give support to the care of the cats while the SPCA connected pets and their owners.

Ten days later, we interviewed SPCA spokesperson Penny Stone who gave us an update on the fire victims and alerted us to a new crisis. She also took some time to reflect upon the Island Cat Fanciers Society's role in assisting the community with abandoned cats and cats in crisis.

[insert stone clip]

If you want to help the Victoria SPCA with either time or money, please contact them at 388-7722-that's 388-7722.

We learned that having such a group as the Island Cat Fanciers Society in a community like the greater Victoria area is a real asset to the larger community. Robert Putnam asserted that social capital is important not only to the individuals who acquire the capital, but also to the greater community. He writes:

Quote, A third way in which social capital improves our lot is by widening our awareness of the many ways in which our fates are linked. People who have active and trusting connections to others - whether family members, friends, or fellow bowlers - develop or maintain character traits that are good for the rest of society. Joiners become more tolerant, less cynical, and more empathetic to the misfortunes of others, close quote.

Who knew that the love of a cat could produce so much?

Every cat fancier, of course.

This show was made in honour of all the cats we have known and 
most especially the one to whom we currently belong, 
whose name is Anawim.


copyright by Pattie Thomas and Carl Wilkerson 2003


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