BENGAL CAT ORIGINS
In the beginning…
In 1974, Dr.Willard Centerwall stated, “Bill Engler was probably the person most responsible for publicizing these hybrids” (referring to Bengals). Centerwall further stated, “Probably nobody can legitimately claim to be the originator of this particular hybrid. 1”
The Bengal cat was officially named the Bengal in 1974 by Bill Engler. There is still some speculation as to the “real” origination of the breed’s name. It was purported that the name was garnered from the Bengal cat’s heritage: felis bengalensis, and others held true to the story that the name was indeed inspired after Bill Engler himself, B.Engle.
Who was Dr. Centerwall? Dr. Willard Centerwall graduated from Yale University School of Medicine with postgraduate degrees in public health and human genetics from the University of Michigan. He served as a medical missionary for five years in South India and also worked in Afghanistan’s Amazononas territory of Venezuela and in Guatemala. In 1968 he started working at the Loma Linda University Medical Center as a professor of pediatrics, professor of maternal and child health in the school of health and an instructor for anthropology in the school of graduate studies. He was also the director of the genetics, birth defects and chromosome services for the university. His scientific hobby was felines, having published in the Journal of Heredity a definitive explanation on male calicos and tortoiseshell cats. Later he had numerous other studies published involving several different small wild felids.
The late Dr. Willard Centerwall is probably better known in the Bengal realm for his contributions of several Leopard Cat hybrids bred from two ALC brothers that came to be known as the Centerwall ALC’s. Dr. Centerwall bred the Asian Leopard Cats to domestics in an effort to aid his studies in immunocompromised individuals (carriers of congenital disease, HIV/AIDS, leukemia, lymphoma, generalized malignant disease and those using radiation therapy or medications that depress the immune system) and comparative gene mapping of cats and humans2. “We are currently engaged in research on the Type ‘C’ Feline leukemia virus in cooperation with Dr. Raoul Benveniste, Virologist with the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland,” Dr. Centerwall said. “The ordinary domestic cat carries the Type ‘C’ genome in the DNA molecule and passes the potentially lethal leukemia virus to its offspring through normal hereditary processes. On rare occasions, there is release of the virus into the system of the cat, causing leukemia and death. Because it is recognized that the Asian Leopard Cat does not have the feline leukemia virus built into its system, scientists in cancer research have expressed great interest in what happens to the leukemia genome in the offspring of the leopard cat and the domestic cat.3”
The compilation of a dense gene map and eventually a whole genome sequence (WGS) of the domestic cat holds great value for human genome annotation, for veterinary medicine, and for insight into the evolution of genome organization among mammals. Human association and veterinary studies of the cat, its domestic breeds, and its charismatic wild relatives of the family Felidae have rendered the species a powerful model for human hereditary diseases, for infectious disease agents, for adaptive evolutionary divergence, for conservation genetics, and for forensic applications.4
Feline leukemia acts in much the same manner as human leukemia. Dr. Centerwall was determined to find out why leopard cats were resistant to feline leukemia and if that resistance could be passed on genetically to their hybrid off-spring. He hoped these studies would provide him with more information regarding human leukemia (It should be noted, Bengal cats are not immune to feline leukemia).
Eventually, these same hybrids were instrumental in the Bengal breed’s development. Through a mutual contact, Dr. Centerwall and Jean Sugden Mill met in 1980. He had several F1 kittens needing homes that he enthusiastically shared with Jean. Gordon Meredith had also obtained some of the Centerwall cats earlier that were later entrusted to Jean when Gordon became ill and was hospitalized for Cancer.
Who was William (Bill) Engler? Bill Engler was a zookeeper and an active member of the Long Island Ocelot Club, LIOC. Early in 1964, Bill composed a “plea for the cats” to LIOC members, in which he shared that having been in the business of importing, obtaining and selling exotic cats for a number of years, with each succeeding year he found them increasingly harder to obtain. And the only means he could see to save them, the exotic cats, was by their being bred in civilization much as dogs and common cats. In 1967, Bill Engler was awarded the LIOC Lotty Award, an annual award presented by LIOC which signifies unusual devotion to exotic felines, exemplary conduct at home and abroad relative to Exotic Cats and unusual service to the club, the LIOC.
Bill was also active in “movie work,” – behind many of the feline scenes so widely admired on TV.
In 1970, Bill stated that he had two litters of “Bengals” sired by his Leopard Cat Shah, totaling nine kittens. In April of 1971, the same queens, Cybele and Cyclemnestra, were again bred to Shah producing six more Bengal kittens. Bill stated his purpose for the hybrids was: “To create a small exotic cat that was beautiful and that had the disposition that was suitable for a pet house cat, that had a greater resistance to disease of civilization than his jungle-bred cousins, and that would readily reproduce himself.” Although no kittens had been produced by these Bengals, Bill anticipated that there soon would be. In 1972, Bill shared with other LIOC members, “We are all aware of the increasing difficulty in getting, as well as the increasing costs of Ocelots, Puma and other exotics we love. I hope that these Bengals can not only help fill the gap between the supply and demand for exotics, but help to create greater interest in all exotics, that this interest be beneficial in funding research for production of and legislation for the protection of all the cats.” In 1975, Bill said that he had now produced over 60 Bengals and had bred down “2.5” generations. He retained seven Bengals for his own breeding and they represented first, second and “2.5” generation cats. Bill was considered a “pioneer in Bengals” and was active in the early years of the Bengal breed, hybridizing leopard cats to domestics, yet none of today’s Bengals can be traced back to any Engler lines. William Engler presented the name Bengal to the domestic registries and the breed’s name was official. The Bengal was accepted for registration through ACFA, and Bengals were now being registered by several different breeders.
In 1975, it was reported that Bill’s Bengal cats had reached the third generation and, “For some time males were considered sterile making a true breed impossible. Recently a few fertile males have been produced leading to a breakthrough in this area.” Bill Engler died March 17th, 1977.
After his death, his cats were then cared for by the Douglass’s, friends of Ken and Jean Hatfield in Florida. 5
The Bengal hybrids were becoming very popular and, in 1974, you could even find Bengals, “Toy Leopards” being offered through west coast ads as a possible franchise opportunity. 6
These early Bengal cat hybrids definitely were not the first hybrids to be documented. In 1871 there were records to show the spotted British Shorthair originated as a hybrid crossing of a spotted Jungle cat and a domestic 7. Also in 1871, the first organized cat show was held at the Crystal Palace in London. It was reported that domestic cats crossed with wild cats were amongst those being exhibited8. The 1934 Belgian scientific journal published details of the first recorded attempt to hybridize a domestic cat and the Asian Leopard Cat. And then the first attempts to create a “pet leopard” by crossing a domestic cat to a leopard cat is reported in 1941 as having been accomplished in Japan. 9 In 1963, a leopard cat/domestic cat cross produced by Jean Sugden, in Yuma, Arizona, USA, was brought to the attention of the genetics department of Cornell University10.
Through the LIOC society, a group of breeders formed Walk on the Wild Side Cat Fanciers, also known as WOW. These breeders consisted of various individuals breeding varied hybrids from Bengals to Safaris. In 1970, CFA accepted Leopard Cats for registration, for breeding purposes. WOW presented a 57 page “Source Book on the Safari and Other Feral-Domestic Hybrid Cats,” which included the Bengal, to CFA (Cat Fanciers Association), in October of 1979 in an effort to further CFA’s understanding and appreciation of the Safari and the other hybrid breeds including the Bengal cat. Walk on the Wild Side’s stated goal was to “present the validity of these hybrids, to elaborate and perfect the process and to direct it to the maximum benefit of the cat fancy, and of the cats themselves.” Because of the efforts of WOW, CFA allowed the Bengal to be registered as a domestic cat in the CFA registry only later to ban them from being CFA registered 11.
In 1980, Jean Sugden Mill, of southern California, decided to restart her program from where she left off back in 1963. Progress was being made. Jean persevered, despite the CFA set back, and successfully got the Bengal cat recognized by The International Cat Association (TICA), in 1983. Jean’s motivation was developing the breed, and she didn’t stop with the first generation hybrids. She encouraged fellow breeders to breed these hybrids further generations down, and to register them with TICA, with a goal to establish the Bengal as a domestic breed.
Heritage was the key, as the breed developed. In Jean’s plan, the Bengal wasn’t meant to remain a hybrid. It was meant to be a domestic cat. While pursuing these goals, Millwood Tory of Delhi, also known as Millwood Toby of Delhi, had been added to the Millwood Bengal breeding program in the early 1980’s. Tory was imported as a “domestic street cat” from India because of his spectacular promise to add rich coloring to the developing breed. Tory also boasted a beautiful glittered coat that the Bengal breed has now become famous for. With Jean’s strong sense of direction she could foresee what this one cat held for the entire breed.
Through her efforts, the Bengal cat was shown across oceans, bringing huge amounts of public adoration. Jean remembers and shares fondly her experiences with showing Millwood Penny Ante, a beautiful F2 Bengal, “She stole every show. She was friendly and relaxed and most closely resembled a little leopard. Penny became an instant celebrity. She purred for the judges, was handed to Channan (the photographer) to advertise shows from Seattle to Duzeldorf and Paris.”
The journey was a long one, yet Jean held fast to her goals and her vision for the Bengal cat. She spent hundreds and thousands of dollars to promote the breed. From passing out brochures, to attending shows across the world, the Bengal breed benefited from her endless and tireless efforts.12 Jean enlisted the help of other breeders to show their cats, she assisted them in starting breeding programs, and as history goes, the breed became more popular and more publicized. The Bengal breed soon became synonymous with the name Jean Mill. It is because of her dedicated efforts that we enjoy the Bengal cat as a recognized domestic breed.
There were many involved in developing the Bengal breed. Jean Mill herself was often the first to acknowledge fellow breeder’s advancements in those early days (again, this holds true today). Jean Mill was not the only breeder involved, but because of her efforts we can all enjoy the breed at a domestic level. She indeed was the originator of the breed.
For further Reading On the Bengal Cat’s Origin’s and Heritage Click on the issue below:
1) December 1974 Cat’s Magazine, The Truth About Hybrids, Dr. Centerwall, 2) Report of the Medical Team of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro on Accusations Contained in Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado * Maria Stella de Castro Lobo: Physician and Chief of Staff, Collective Health Service of the Clementino Fraga Filho University Hospital, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), specialist in Epidemiology and Public Health.** Dr. Karis Maria Pinho Rodrigues: Physician, Service for Infectious and Parasitic Diseases of the Clementino Fraga Filho University Hospital, UFRJ, specialist in Infectious Diseases. *** Dr. Diana Maul de Carvalho: Faculty member of the School of Medicine, Department of Preventive Medicine, UFRJ. Dr. Fernando Sergio Viana Martins: Faculty member of the School of Medicine, Department of Preventive Medicine, UFRJ. Neel, J.V.; W. R. Centerwall; and N. A. Chagnon, 1970, “Notes on the Effects of Mea-sles and Measles Vaccine in a Virgin-Soil Population.” American Journal of Epidemiology 91 (4):418-429. The Trisomy 9p Syndrome, Willard R. Center-wall and Jeanne W. Beatty-DeSana Pediatrics 1975; 56: 748-755. Center-wall, Willard R.; Wurster-Hill, Doris H.; Maruska Edward J.; Kramer, Lynn W. 1983. Chromosome identification of the rusty-spotted cat (Felis rubigi-nosa): One more down and four to go. AM. J. VET. RES. 44(5): 856-858. Biblioteca del gato SG, Leukemia studies Centerwall cats, Identification of Chromosomes of the Cat, Centerwall, et al, 3Gleaner 10/03/1977, 4THE FELINE GENOME PROJECT, Stephen J. O’Brien, Marilyn Menotti-Raymond, – William J. Murphy, and – Naoya Yuhki,- Laboratory of Genomic Diversity, National Cancer Institute–Frederick, Frederick, Maryland 21702-1201, LIOC Newsletter 1967, 5/6LIOC/FCF history/archives, 7The Bengal Byline, Dr’s Elizabeth and Gregory Kent, Lotsaspots 1997, 8Excerpted from Our Cats and All About Them, Harrison Weir, Science, Vol. 14, No. 350 (Oct. 18, 1889), pp. 270-271, 9Cat Fancy publications, 1941, 10Jean Mill, The History of the Bengal Cat, 1989, 11Walk on the Wild Side Source Book 1979, Part II, 12 Millwood Milestones, Jean Mill, 1998, photos reprinted with permission FCF