Is a cat called Zeus worth 100,000?

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Esmond Gay, who bred Zeus, says he is worth 100,000. But the main governing body for cat breeders says you can get a Bengal for 350 - and that Zeus isn't really a Bengal anyway. What's going on?
Esmond Gay, the man who claims to have bred a 100,000 pussycat, moves over to sit next to me on the yieldingly soft sofa and opens a thick, worn photo album of celebrity clients posing with him and his animals. These are his references. His finger pauses on a familiar face, with a smile on it broader than that of any natural-born cat. It's Jeffrey Archer.

"He might be dodgy, but I trust him implicitly," Gay says. "Him (Rolf Harris) I trust like my own father. Her (Esther Rantzen), she's nobody's fool."

The room is as hot as the forests of east Asia, home of the wild forebears of Gay's exquisite feline treasure, Zeus, lying slender and self-possessed on the divan opposite. Gay keeps taking out a handkerchief to mop the sweat off his brow. He tries to explain how he arrived at the price tag of 100,000 for Zeus when the cat, which is five months old, hasn't actually been sold.

"He's special because he's unique throughout the world. There isn't another one like him. We are unable to breed anything like him ever again," says Gay.

Yet every cat is unique. The only evidence so far for the 100,000 pricetag, broadcast up and down the land over the past few days, is two rejected bids from interested parties. And the only evidence of the bids, since Gay won't say who they came from, is Gay. He claims to have sold cats in the past for up to 65,000 each. But he won't name those clients, either.
"If you lived in London, or wherever, and spent 65,000 on a cat... and perhaps you're being watched, because people know you've spent 65,000 on a cat, are you going to allow another breeder to see the prices and where you live?" asks Gay in rhetorical explanation. He has spent 100,000 on alarms for his estate, he says; he had to get rid of the guard dogs. They scared the cats.

The only proof of the high prices Gay claims to be getting for his cats is a certificate on the wall of the room, competing for space with new marble statues, two chandeliers each a metre across, electric candelabras, a baroque gold-framed mirror and a glass coffee table supported by near lifesize bronze figures - and it isn't a big room - from the Guinness Book of Records.

The certificate says: "Lord (a bought title) C Esmond Gay bred the world's most expensive cat SarezKato, a generation two Bengal, bought by Cindy Jackson for 25,000 in February 1998."

Even 25,000 is a lot of money for a cat. Particularly so when, according to the Kennel Club of the British cat world, the Governing Council of the Cat Fancy - the GCCF, a body from which Gay was expelled - his Bengals are not Bengals at all, and a "genuine" pedigree Bengal can be had for as little as 350.

As far as the GCCF is concerned, a Bengal is a domestic cat which, four generations earlier, had as an ancestor a small wild animal called an Asian Leopard Cat. Anything more wild than that is, as far as it is concerned, a wild animal, and needs to be treated as such.

Nonsense, says Gay. Envy from his rivals - the same rivals, he believes, who engineered his expulsion from the GCCF. His aim is to produce his own notion of a Bengal, a cat which looks almost identical to the wild Asian Leopard Cat, but has enough of the domestic kitty in it to be safe around the house. In Zeus, he believes he has created such an animal: nine-tenths wild, one tenth-domestic. If the GCCF doesn't accept it as a genuine Bengal, it is their problem, not his.

"That 10% domestic blood gives you that little bit of edge. If he was 100% wild, we wouldn't have been able to do anything with him after three months," says Gay.

Pulling out photo after photo of various generations of Bengals to prove his point, he jabs his finger at noses, ears, cheeks, to show how tabbyish the British Bengal establishment's Bengals are, and how close to the wild thing his are. "[My rivals] say only fourth generations can be Bengals because that's all they can breed," Gay says. "They weren't willing to invest the sums of money we were willing to invest."

Zeus certainly has the sharp features, the clear, dark markings and the enormous, lustrous eyes of his wild relatives, and appears to have the docility of a domestic cat. He is nervous, though. Sadly, he has taken against Gay; his owner hand-reared him, but was away for a crucial two weeks of his upbringing, and - as Gay's fiancee Sarah tells it - this means that Zeus now runs away whenever he approaches.

Gay's Bedfordshire country house, cluttered as it is with statues, soft furnishings and a vast collection of antique pistols and muskets, is a shrine to cats. Although it is perfectly clean, the pungent scent of multiple felines penetrates every corner.

Six bedrooms in the house have been given over to the rearing of kittens. They are fully-equipped human living quarters, with human-sized beds, wardrobes and, puzzlingly, televisions. I ask if the cats watch TV. Gay says they do. I ask if he provides special cat programming. Gay says he does not.

The grounds of the house are further evidence of a passion for animals. Besides the spacious breeding pens holding various generations of Bengals and a genuine wild Asian Leopard Cat there is a fully-grown leopard, an ocelot and a paddock where the unwanted and sick of the animal world wash up and are cared for. There are rheas, wallabies, a 52-year-old donkey, a three-legged pig, and deer with what Gay describes as "severe copper deficiency".

I ask Gay, a deeply sensitive individual who has accused "enemies" of stalking him and issuing death threats against his cats in the past, how he could hope to get his new version of the Bengal breed accepted by the British cat fancying fraternity if he wasn't prepared to mend fences.

"I'd like to," he muses. "I'm thinking of when I come to give up breeding. I suffer from severe manic depression and this job is exhausting. I can't leave the house. Sarah has not had a holiday or a break for 10 years. Up until two-and-a-half weeks ago we did everything, cleaned up the shit, the piss, I did the advertising, the website, I rebuilt this house. Yes, I would dearly like to make up with a lot of people; even though they are going to be bastards, and say I'm scum, if anyone was going to take over my breeding programme... it would include the enemies who hate me."

In his up moments, he has other, soaring, ambitious plans. "A couple of million doesn't go far in Britain," he said. "This house isn't terribly spacious. I'm very restricted as to what I can build and what kind of cats I can keep. I can't keep the snow leopards, the King Cheetahs, the Siberian tigers. If I was to move to India, my couple of million would buy me a nice house, with land."







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Guardian News & Media 2008