Prestigious Sphynx cats once considered 'feral' breed
Sphynx cats are recognized as a prestigious breed today, but when Ethelyn and Milt Pearson of Wadena were first raising them, they weren't as well received.
Ethelyn Pearson said the mother of the hairless cats arrived at her and her husband's farm.
"My husband was cleaning fish and this stray cat came out. Just skin and bones and so hungry. So he fed her, and then she just sort of stayed with our cats on the farm," she said.
The mother cat had a litter of kittens, and one of them did not have any hair.
The kitten grew fast and had a long tail, long tail, unusual eyes and big ears.
Six months later, another litter brought two hairless kittens.
"They were so smart," Pearson said.
The farm couple found them to be ideal pets.
"I wrote and sent a picture to University Farm at St. Paul," Pearson said. "And they wrote back saying, Get rid of them! They are a feral breed, they're going to ruin all the cats in your neighborhood, get rid of them."
Pearson said she couldn't bring herself to follow that advice. Those unique cats were smart and loving and made good pets.
Another time, she wrote to a cat show going on in Minneapolis asking what they had to do to show a cat.
Pearson recalled that the response was something along the lines of, "We're not going to show the feral cat that you've got there. If you want to bring it in just to exhibit us to what people should not save in a cat, you can do that."
At one point, the Pearsons had 14 of the unusual cats. They were nimble, playful and looked "like little old men."
"They were adorable," Pearson said.
Epidermis and Dermis were the names of the mother cats, and the Pearsons had them for about ten years.
Without a coat to protect them from UV rays, the cats were especially vulnerable to sunburn.
Milt built a separate cage for them so they could be away from the sun and mosquitoes.
They gave away a couple of cats to a zoo.
One day on the way back from Wadena, they found a dead tomcat on the road.
The Pearsons suspected that this was the father, and the combination of his genes and the genes of the stray cat had produced the Sphynx.
That was a couple days before the cats were sold.
"A lady came in one day and she said she'd heard about the hairless cats and wanted to see them," Pearson said.
The lady from Oregon asked if she was willing to sell them.
Pearson said she picked a number out of the air that she thought was outrageous enough to discourage her: $200.
She asked if she meant one or both, and Pearson said both.
The lady took out the checkbook.
"I was sitting at the kitchen table crying," Pearson said.
Milt asked her what was the matter, and she replied, "I sold the cats!"
"No you didn't!"
"Yes I did."
Pearson said the buyer recognized the Sphynx gene.
The Pearsons were credited with being instrumental in starting the breed.
The Brainerd Dispatch ran a front page article on the Pearsons and their cats in the Feb. 16, 1978 issue.
"All we did was feed a stray cat," Ethelyn Pearson said.
At the time when Sphynx cats were starting to be in demand, they were promoted as being good for asthma and good for people with cat allergies because of the lack of fur. The information was false - cat allergies are triggered from skin and saliva, not fur.
Pearson said they themselves never promoted the cats that way.
She said the Sphynx breed caught on in the East Coast and shot to the top.
Pearson later tried to purchase a Sphynx cat a couple years ago - not a show cat, just a good pet cat.
She said the lady offered her one of the cheaper ones with a crooked tail.
The price was $1,500.
Pearson said, "No thanks."
"They, to this day, are bringing in over $2,000 for a kitten six weeks old," she said.