Somalis – The First Decade and Beyond

by Debbie & Larry Ritter
Originally published in the 1990-91 CFA Yearbook

WHAT IS A SOMALI?

Somalis are the epitome of everything that most people would ever want in a companion animal. On the one hand they are lively, alert, and actively engaged in everything new that piques their curiosity, and on the other hand when playtime is over, they will seek all the attention and affection that their caretakers are willing to give. A cozy lap is a favorite nap site after a boisterous bout of chasing elusive playmates, real or imagined.

Somalis have very resilient personalities and adapt to new people and homes with ease. Other cats and even dogs rarely pose any problems for them. They are easily trained to fetch favorite toys and have an unusual fascination with water.

Somalis usually range in size from 6 to 10 pounds, the males being somewhat larger. Acceptable coat texture varies from thick and woolly to long and silky. The former having a denser and fuller coat, and the latter having less undercoat but longer guard hairs and generally more banks of ticking. Most Somalis’ coats are fairly smooth over the body and are a blend between these two extreme coat types – that is silky and luxuriant, two to three inches in length, non-matting, and easy to care for.

One remarkable aspect of the Somali is their “foxlike” appearance due to their markings, bushy tail, full breeches, and ruff. They are also very muscular, lithe and athletic.

Like its shorthaired Aby counterpart, the Somali is an active, intelligent, affectionate companion. Being extremely people oriented, Somalis are most “helpful” in assisting people in their day to day activities.

In general, Somalis are larger cats than Abys. In a litter of newborn kittens, a Somali looks decidedly different than his shorthaired cousins. In addition to being a little larger than a shorthaired kitten, the newborn ruddy Somali is born nearly black over the portions of his body that will later be ticked as an adult. The stomach and inside of the legs and chest will be a reddish cream in color.

In contrast, a shorthaired Somali or Aby is reddish in color, displaying the ruddy coloration of the adult animal. Where as Somali kittens at birth are almost black and show little hint of the rich mahogany undercolor which they will develop as they mature. Somalis are also slower to mature than Abys. With the added coat length of the Somali, ticking often takes longer to manifest itself, and the same can hold true for color.

Nothing is more delightful than to watch an impeccably groomed Somali perform in the judging ring. A natural clown, a Somali will show himself to the fullest while playing with any toy a judge chooses to honor him with. Whether in the judging ring, or at home, a Somali shows a zest for life which makes him a wonderful companion and member of the family.

RECENT HISTORY

1979 is marked as a special year in the history of the breed. It was the first year that Somalis were admitted into CFA Championship competition and Somali breeders were off and running to the shows!

That first year also saw Foxtail’s Rio Grande, a ruddy male, bred and exhibited by Patricia Neil Warren, become the first CFA Somali Grand Champion. However, Rio, who granded on a Saturday, was first by only a matter of hours. On the following Sunday, CFA had its second Grand Champion Somali, Nephrani’s Kubla Khan, a red male bred and owned by Ruth and Robert Morris.

It was a close race for the rest of the show season between Rio and Khan, but Rio went on to complete the season in a “grand” style by becoming CFA’s Best Somali, and 19th Best Cat in Championship. The many shows in which both of these fine examples of Somalis were shown, and the final outcome, renewed the efforts of many old and new breeders alike, of pursuing their hopes and dreams of producing the ultimate Somali.

As we’ve moved through our first decade of competition, we’ve seen the Somali accomplish great achievements within CFA. A large number of Somalis have granded, and have also achieved Regional wins of distinction. In 1985 another ruddy male, GC, NW Murex’s Sunrise, bred and owned by Richard and Karen Smith, earned top honors as CFA’s 16th Best Cat in Championship.

Silamos Rocky Boy, reached a new milestone in CFA by becoming the first cat to achieve the title of Best Cat in Premiership in a CFA Region (Gulf Shore, 1984). 1990 sees another cat repeating history by also achieving the title of Best Cat in Premiership. This time the region is the Southwest and the honors go to Zarpa’s Liberty Valance.

In recent years, three very high scoring fine Somalis fell just short of achieving top twenty wins at the national level. Zarpa’s Durango, Zarpa’s Lakota, and Nephrani’s Red Flash, during their show careers, all represented the Somali at its finest. As Somalis move into their second decade of competition, it is certain that the growing number of dedicated Somali breeders will produce many more cats of superb quality and distinction.

For the first time, in the 1990-91 Show Season, Cat Fanciers will see Somalis exhibited in four colors: Ruddy, Red, Blue, and Fawn. Originally, in 1980, Somalis were only recognized in two colors, Ruddy and Red. In 1986 Blue Somalis were recognized for Championship competition. It took four more years of hard work by the Fawn breeders before their cats would obtain equal status. The first and only Blue Somali Grand Champion, as of this writing, is a female, Yum’s Blueberry Cobbler, who granded in 1990. As we progress into the 1990’s, we eagerly await the first Fawn Somali Grand Champion.

RECENT HISTORY

Where did the Somali first originate and how are they different from the ever popular Abyssinian? The original Somalis were born to “registered” Abyssinian parents. It may be said that the Somali is simply a longhaired Abyssinian; but as mentioned earlier, there are some non-trivial differences between the two breeds.

Prior to a discussion of the origins of the Somalis, it is necessary to discuss some basic genetics concerning the longhair and shorthair genes and also the manner in which CFA allows the registration of both “long” and “short” haired Somalis.

The most important fact to consider is that the shorthair gene is dominant, and the longhair gene is recessive. This is always true in any breed. What this means is, if a cat is carrying the shorthair gene, it will be a shorthaired cat. However, a shorthaired cat may carry the longhair gene without showing any evidence of it.

As a consequence of the above, it is genetically possible for two shorthaired cats, who are both carrying the longhair gene, to produce a longhaired cat. However, no two longhaired cats, bred together, could possibly produce shorthair offspring.

The chart below shows the genetic results of the cross breeding of parents carrying combinations of the Shorthair and Longhair genes.

 SSSLLL
SS100% SS50% SS
50%SL
100% SL
SL50% SS
50%SL
25% SS
50%SL
25%LL
50% SL
50% LL
LL100% SL50% SL
50% LL
100% LL

SS: Shorthair, not carrying the Longhair gene
SL: Shorthair, carrying the Longhair gene
LL: Longhair, not carrying the Shorthair gene

Since the acceptance of the Somali as a breed, CFA rules have allowed Somalis to be bred to Abyssinians. The purpose for this has been to increase the gene pool of the Somalis. The resulting kittens of any Somali to Aby breeding must all be registered as Somalis, regardless of the length of the coat. This is in spite of the fact that most resulting shorthaired kittens are visibly indistinguishable from their shorthaired Aby counterparts.

CFA only allows “shorthaired” kittens from an Aby to Somali breeding to be registered as Somalis. However, such kittens, may only be shown as AOV Somalis, and NOT as Abyssinians. It should be noted that this is primarily so because of the concerns of the Aby breeders to keep the occurrence of the longhair gene in the Abys to a minimum. The origins of the Somali, discussed further on in this article, shed some interesting light on such reasoning.

Since the Abyssinian is a shorthaired breed, how did it acquire the recessive longhaired gene? This is a question that has sparked debate for many years between Aby and Somali breeders. The answer to this question, if indeed it can ever be adequately answered, lies in a review of Somali and Abyssinian history dating back to the 1800’s.

In 1967 an Abyssinian breeder, Evelyn Mague, was volunteering at an animal shelter near her home in New Jersey. One day a male cat was brought into the shelter and Evelyn realized that this was a longhaired Abyssinian. She had heard rumors of the existence of longhaired kittens in Aby litters, but had never seen one until this point in time. She named the cat “George” and saw to it that he was placed into a good home and subsequently neutered.

Intrigued, Mrs. Mague was fascinated by this longhaired beauty and decided to investigate George’s background. George was born the only long coated kitten in a litter of normal coated Aby kittens from Li-Mi-R Cattery.

Amazingly enough, Mrs. Mague actually owned both of George’s parents! The sire was Lynn-Lee’s Lord Dublin, an Aby she had bred, and the dam was Lo-Mi-R’s Trill-By, an Aby she had just recently purchased. These two Abys would later go on to produce a total of five Somalis.

In further pursuit and investigation of the elusive longhaired gene, Mrs. Mague discovered that longhaired kittens have been appearing in Aby litters born in the U.S. since the 1950’s. In confidence, several Aby breeders told her that they had had longhaired kittens in their litters. Usually these kittens were placed as pets and the parents altered to keep the unwanted longhair gene out of the Abyssinian bloodlines.

Mrs. Mague felt that these unwanted longhaired beauties ought to be recognized and legitimized and into that effort threw herself wholeheartedly. She named the breed “Somali” as a tribute to the possible African origins of the Abyssinian Cat.

At the same time in Canada, a CCA judge, Ken McGill, had discovered the existence of the longhair gene in Canadian Aby lines and actively began breeding Somalis. He purchased a male Somali kitten, May-Ling Tusieta, thus founding one of the oldest Somali lines.

Meanwhile in the United States, Somalis were fast acquiring devotees. In 1972 the Somali Cat Club of American was founded and Evelyn Mague was elected as president. Members began working for recognition in all associations including CFA. Allegations from Aby breeders that the Somali had been deliberately crossed with other longhaired breeds (i.e. the Persian) provided impetus for serious genetic research into the Aby lines which produced Somalis.

In 1976 Walter Del Pelligrino undertook a major analysis of all Somali pedigrees. His results were published by the Somali Cat Club of American and was entitled “Genesis”. Mr. Del Pellegrino discovered that all Somalis registered to date could trace their lineage back to May-Ling Tusietta and/or to four Abys at stud in the 1960’s.

Furthermore, all of these early cats go back to one Abyssinian imported from Great Britain to the United States in 1952. This cat is Raby Chuffa of Selene, bred by lady Barnard and purchased by Mrs. Schuler-Taft.

Looking at Raby Chuffa’s pedigree we undercover one of the ways in which the longhair gene could have entered the Aby gene pool. It should be kept in mind that World War II was not a kind time to cat breeders of any breed in Great Britain or Europe. It is estimated that by the end of the war that perhaps only 12 Abyssinians existed in England.

Due to the ravages of war, in order to reestablish the breed it was common to foundation register cats meeting the Abyssinian phenotype. Consequently, these foundation registrations allowed ample opportunity for a longhaired gene to enter the Aby gene pool.

In conducting further research on the origins of the Somalis, Patricia Nell Warren published an article in Cat World in September of 1977. Shortly after the publication of that article, Pat received a letter from Mrs. Janet C. Robertson, who owned the Roverdale Cattery in Great Britain, and at the time of this correspondence resided in California.

As evidenced by Chuffa’s pedigree, above, two Roverdale cats appeared in the third and fourth generations of Chuffa’s pedigree thus leading to the possible introduction of a longhair gene into these Aby lines. After the publication of “Somalis: A Search for Roots” Mrs. Robertson told Ms. Warren:

“I was quite astonished to see the Roverdale name in print after all these years. Purrkin’s grandmother was brought to England by a sailor during World War II. She had some kittens – I do not know who the sire was. One of the kittens, a female, was given to a friend of mine, and the friend gave the kitten to me. This was around 1942.”.

“I had always admired Abyssinians. I had seen them at the Crystal Palace show long ago, when I was a little girl. I remember two beautiful Abyssinians with their cages simply covered in ribbons. This must have been two or three years before the Crystal palace burned down. So I recognized this kitten as an Abyssinian. I named her Mrs. Mew.”.

“I lived in a covered wagon in a field near the Kingston-on-Thames bypass. London was being blitzed at the time. I was in the Fire Service and stationed in the docks area. My friend looked after my kitten when I was on duty. Incendiary bombs often fell near the wagon, and the field was simply covered with shrapnel.”.

“When the blitz ended, I joined the Mechanized Transport Corps and drove a truck for a factory. In due time, Mrs. Mew produced kittens. I do not know who the tom was, but one of the kittens was black. The other kitten, Purrkins, looked so much like her Abyssinian mother that I kept her. Mrs. Mew died in 1944.”.

“After the war ended in 1945, I moved out near Dorking, where I started my cattery under the name of Roverdale, and I registered Purrkins. I located an Abyssinian male in Chatham and sent Purrkins to him. Tara was the result of that mating. Unfortunately, I cannot recall the name of the cat or his owners.”.

The importance of the above information supplied from Mrs. Robertson is that Roverdale Tara is the grand dam of Raby Chuffa of Selene. Roverdale Purrkins is a foundation registered Aby whose littermate was black. The obvious conclusion is that Mrs. Mew was a hybrid.

Continuing this train of thought, Purrkin’s sire was an unknown cat of possible Siamese heritage. From correspondence from Tommy Meadow, Ms. Warren was able to learn that Purrkins was bred to Croham Rasambu. Rasambu’s pedigree shows another unregistered cat in his immediate background. Thus, we have another incidence of “surprise” genes being introduced into Aby lines.

The use of foundation registrations in the Abyssinian is well documented in the Abyssinian breed. Foundation registrations are known not only in England, but in the United States as well, where the practice was still continued in the 1950’s. Since Aby breeders were striving to produce only short coated cats, it is possible that the longhair gene remained “hidden” for many years, and only surfaced occasionally when line breedings were done between Abys carrying the recessive longhair gene.

However, in spite of the above, it has been documented that since the late 1800’s, outcrossing of Abys to other breeds has occurred. In light of this information, it is possible that the longhair gene may have been implanted into the Aby gene pool decades prior to the confusion exhibited in the post World War II years. It is also a possibility that the longhair gene has always been a part of the genetic makeup of the Aby.

In 1951 Helen and Sidney Denham published a booklet about the Abyssinian cat entitled “Child of the Gods”. During the course of their treatise, it becomes quite obvious that the Aby was outcrossed to several different breeds at the turn of the century.

In fact, when examining show records of the time, one sees silver as well as chinchilla Abyssinians being exhibited in the British shows. In order to achieve these colors, deliberate outcrossing was done with silver tabby shorthairs. Some breeders felt that using the silver Aby in breeding programs caused the ruddies to become “muddy”. In an attempt to thwart this, an additional outcross was done with a cat described as a “red self” but with proper Aby body type. Considering this type of outcrossing it is not surprising that a longhaired Aby would eventually result.

Although we may never be able to pinpoint in which ways the longhair gene was introduced to the Abyssinian, the eventual result was the Somali, and the Somali is here to stay!

The Somali is by no means exclusively an American phenomenon. Somalis have appeared in all parts of the world in which British Abys have been exported. Somalis have even appeared in Australia and New Zealand where their pedigrees closely resemble those of their American Aby counterparts which produced Somalis.

In addition, we have a sizeable contingent of breeders working with CFA Somalis in Japan. In recent years, Somalis have also captured the hearts of breeders in Hawaii and several people are actively breeding Somalis on the islands.

WHAT LIES AHEAD?

As we enter our second decade, what is the future of our beloved Somalis? It is a very bright one. Never before have we seen the quality of cats being shown throughout all parts of the country. Dedicated breeders have been working very hard to produce not only a quality animal but a healthy one as well.

In the long run, it doesn’t really matter who were the “culprits” in introducing the longhair gene into some Aby lines. Those of us who are totally captivated by the Somali are glad that these cats were the end result. Cat Fanciers worldwide can be assured that Somalis will be around to capture their hearts for many decades to come.