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Elfin Magic ... The Devon Rex


by Terri Jorgensen
Cat Fanciers Almanac, 2000

They have been referred to as the "Pixies of the cat world," a cross between a cat, a dog, a monkey and Dennis the Menace. Delightfully silly in both antics and appearance, they capture the heart and the imagination. What are these curly-coated living works of art? Let me introduce you to the captivating, the mischievous, the loving Devon Rex. The first thing that catches one's eye is that magical face. The Devon Rex is a breed that is unique in appearance - large eyes, a short muzzle, prominent cheekbones, and those ears! The ears are gigantic and ultra wide-set at the base, extend beyond the side of the head, have large bells on the back, and evoke a feeling in onlookers of being in the presence of an extraterrestrial. Just looking at them brings a smile across one's face. Advocates of the Devon Rex have been known to say that "in order to completely appreciate the appearance of the Devon Rex, you must first put aside all of your preconceived ideas of what a cat should look like." Three pairs of convex curves formed by the Devon's huge ears, prominent cheeks, and round whisker pads frame the cat's softly triangular head. These "poodles that purr" sport a medium-fine frame that is covered by a distinctive soft, wavy coat that comes in a rainbow of colors including the pointed colors. Devons are currently accepted in all colors and patterns. With such a recent history of lusty farm cats so close behind this breed, it would be folly to have restrictions on their colors and patterns. Although great attention is paid to the coat and curl, no limitations are placed on pigmentation. A kitten whose color is point restricted, as in the Siamese, sometimes appears and surprises Devon breeders. That rascal "Kirlee," father to all Devons, is thought to have carried the gene for it. These little pixies are alert and inquisitive, showing interest in all that is around them. By the same token, these active cats are also very much people cats and are strongly devoted to their owners, claiming a lap and a good snuggling whenever the opportunity arises. They purr incessantly, chortle and coo when intrigued by the birds outside the window, and wag their tails when they are happy. Devons are an outgoing breed, and will run to meet you at the door at the end of a long day to tell you in no uncertain terms how much you were missed. They love sleeping under the covers with you, and many will also brave the waters of a shower just to be near their person. They are driven to be with people from the moment they first toddle out of the kitten box at around three weeks of age. The mission is to find a soft hand and a warm lap. They are hearty eaters, although most would prefer to steal or beg tidbits from the table. This is probably an attention-getting ploy. But attention is the key to living with a Devon. They are intense, personable cats. They are clowns...They are lovers...And they want to be involved with their people. The popularity of the house cat as the favored domestic pet has soared over the past several years.

With that growth, the growth in popularity of the Devon Rex has been phenomenal. They have a gentle voice, have a need to be with people, shed almost unnoticeably, have wonderful puppy-dog-like personalities, don't require much space, and seem to be well tolerated by many allergy sufferers. "Elfin Magic" has worked its spell on untold numbers.

Early History

In 1960, Miss Beryl Cox was living in Buckfastleigh, Devon, England, near an old abandoned tin mine. A curly-coated feral tomcat was known to live around the mine, but no one had been able to capture the wild cat. Miss Cox, a kind woman who had been crippled as a result of a war injury, gave shelter to a feral tortoiseshell and white female behind her house. When this female gave birth to kittens in her back garden, Miss Cox was not surprised to find that one of them was a beautiful, brownish-black male with lots of curls, some of which even cascaded in ringlets on his tail. It is believed that this mother was an offspring of the unnamed and untouchable tin mine troubadour, and that this litter was sired by him as well. Miss Cox, being a cat lover, decided to keep this lovely kitten who was the spitting image of his father as her own pet. She named him Kirlee. Ten years earlier, another curly kitten had been found in Cornwall, England. This kitten was named "Kallibunker," and a group of interested breeders had been working diligently to try to establish the Rex cat as a breed. It was found through outcrossing to straight-coated cats that the gene responsible for the rexed coat mutation was a simple recessive. The first litters all yielded straight-coated kittens, but when those kittens were bred back to Kallibunker, the yield was 50% curly and 50% straight. The gene pool was tiny and the breeders were struggling to increase it. Ten years to the day following the birth of Kallibunker, that first rex-coated kitten, an article was published in The English Daily Mirror, an English newspaper. It featured a picture of a lovely curly cat that had one eye closed and appeared to be "winking." He was touted as the only curly-coated kitten in the country. This kitten was Du-Bu Lambtex, the first rex-coated kitten to be born as a result of the concerted breeding efforts with Kallibunker. Miss Cox saw the article and wrote a letter to the breeder group stating that "Lambtex" was not the only curly coated kitten in the country, as she also had one - Kirlee. It is interesting to note that Kirlee and Kallibunker shared identical histories. Both were born from tortoiseshell and white feral cats, both had fathers that could not be positively identified above rumor, and both were single curly-coated kittens in litters of all straight-coated siblings. The breeders in England were ecstatic over the possibility of another curly kitten. This could be just the boon that was needed to infuse life into their breeding program. Kirlee, as a supposed distantly related cat with the same spontaneous genetic mutation, would be a good outcross. Mr. Brian Stirling-Webb, a noted breeder of Rex cats and Rex rabbits, and Mrs. Agnes Watts of Du-Bu Cattery agreed that someone should go to see this kitten to confirm that he was indeed another genetic mutation with rexing of the coat. Agnes Watts and her daughter Susan made the trip to the neighboring county to see Kirlee, who was indeed a lovely rexed cat. Miss Cox was encouraged to allow Kirlee to be integrated into the current breeding program. Understanding what Kirlee could mean to the establishment of the breed, she sold her beloved pet to Mr. Stirling-Webb for 25 English pounds. Kirlee then left the county of Devon and at the request of Mr. Stirling-Webb, went to live at Darby House with Agnes and Susan Watts.

Kirlee was mated to several Rex queens and the group waited in anticipation for the kittens to arrive. The days rolled by and one by one the litters were born, but there were no curly kittens to be had in any of them. Breedings were repeated and still no curly kittens. It was a large discouragement to all. It became apparent that Kirlee did not carry the same genetic makeup as the other curly cats. After breeders accepted the knowledge that he was a definite separate genetic variation, the first rexed cats which we now know as Cornish Rex were referred to as "Gene I Rex," while the cats which we now know as Devon Rex became known as "Gene II Rex." One member of the group, a Mrs. P. Hughes, had kept one of the straight-coated females from one of the litters that she had bred. This female was named Broughton Golden Rain. When she was bred back to Kirlee, her father, the resulting litter yielded two straight-coated kittens and, lo and behold, one curly blue-cream female. This tiny dilute girl became the first curly-coated kitten to be born from Kirlee. (Of interest, "Golden Rain," the straight coated female born out of Kirlee and a descendant of Kallibunker, was later mated to a Gene I Rex and produced a litter of two straight-coated kittens and two curly kittens. She thus became the first hybrid known to carry both Rex genes.) With this confirmation that the genetic material for the Cornwall Rex and the Devonshire Rex were not compatible, a new breed was born. The task now at hand was to proceed with diligent work to establish both Rex cats as independent breeds. Kirlee and his descendants were and are, the Devon Rex. In 1964 Kirlee was neutered and placed in a loving pet home by Mr. Stirling-Webb. Kirlee lived out a long and productive life and even continued to preside at cat shows until 1970 as the much admired original Devon. Unfortunately, Kirlee passed away in 1970 as a result of injuries suffered in a street accident. Since the Devon Rex had such an intertwined beginning with the Cornish Rex, it is interesting to take a step back and really look at the differences between these two breeds. There are several features that set the breeds apart phenotypically as well as genetically. The coat of the feline has three different types of hair: guard hair, awn and down. The guard hair is the coarsest of the three types of hair and makes up the outer layer of a cat's coat. The Cornish has a short coat with no guard hair. This makes for the silky feel and a more orderly natural pattern to the wave. The Devon has all three types of coat hair; however, the guard hair is very sparse, short and rexed. It has a slightly denser texture and is thus responsible for the more open, billowing wave and the looser curl of the Devon coat. To pet a Rex is pure pleasure, and fortunately these curly cats love to be handled. Both breeds are very affectionate. (The Devon likes nothing better than to cuddle up right under your chin.) The Devon head is not narrow at the nose like the Cornish, but is shorter and squarer and has a definite whisker pinch. The nose also has a definite stop or change of direction where the Cornish profile sports a straight Roman nose. The Devon ears sit lower on the head and extend out to the side, while the Cornish ears are positioned higher and sit more atop the head. The Cornish is also a thin, svelte cat with an arch to its back and a definite tuck-up to its abdomen as is seen on the greyhound dog. The Devon, on the other hand, is a somewhat fuller bodied cat without the arch or tuck-up. The chest of the Devon is broad, with the legs coming off of the outside shoulder and sloping gently inward, giving the appearance of a little bulldog in stance. All in all, it seems that the only things that these two breeds do actually have in common is that they both have lovely, silky, luxurious curly coats with kinky little whiskers that are short, curly and brittle.

Devons Come to America

Alison Ashford, of Annelida Cattery, one of the early pioneers in Britain's Devon breeding, tells of her first Devon acquisition: "I visited Mrs. Sedgefield of Esher one day in 1962 and saw Du-Bu-Debbie, a young tortoiseshell female, with her litter of Rex and plain kittens. One kitten jumped into my arms from the floor, and literally refused to be put down. I tried to turn away, but loud purring and a wagging tail were prelude to another amorous leap. This was Broughm, then six months old. I could not then really afford the price of a Rex kitten, but I could not leave him. So I rashly wrote a cheque on my housekeeping account and phoned home to warn my husband to have a bed ready for the new acquisition. I was given a somewhat cold reception when I arrived home, but Broughm's charm soon convinced the family that it would be worth eating bread and cheese for the next month." (Ashford and Pond, p. 18)

A great debt of gratitude is owed to Alison Ashford and to those like her who contributed so greatly to the breed that we have come to know and love.

By 1967, the Devon Rex was accepted for competition in Europe (GCCF) and Mrs. Gentry's Amharic Kurly Katie, bred by a Mrs. Knight, became the first Devon Rex Champion in any association. Since that time, the British-bred Devon Rex have traveled to many countries where new eager enthusiasts were engaged in the endeavor of bringing these pixies to the world.

The first Devon to cross the Atlantic was Annelida Smokey Pearl, who was sent to Miss Mary Carroll of Canada. Shortly thereafter, Annelida Callidor joined Pearl. There were, however, no known breedings that took place with these cats.

The first North American breeding program of Devon Rex was established in 1968. Marion White and her daughter Anita had become familiar with the breed following a military posting in England. Two lovely cats, Annelida Aubretia and Wigmel Black Witch, winged their way across the great ocean and came to live with the Whites in their home in Austin, Texas. Anglo-Tex Devon Rex was born with these two cats chosen by Alison Ashford.

In 1969, Shirley Lambert, of Bob'N Shir Cattery, imported Hesperian Orchid and Wigmel Telaman to her home in Texas. The pair were seal-pointed Devons, and were the first pointed Devons in America. The Whites and the Lamberts imported a few more Devons, and together they worked with a combined breeding pool of eight cats. Among those Devons imported were Annelida Sunset Gleam of Anglo-Tex, Redcliffe Pegasus of Bob 'N Shir, Hadrian Blue Angel of Anglo-Tex, and Toby Touchstone of Van Dol.

The interest in the Devon Rex in North America continued to grow. Over the next several years, ten new breeding programs were begun and forged ahead down the road of helping to establish this wonderful breed in the U.S. and Canada.

In 1974, Becky Curneen, of Far North Cattery, imported a pair to Washington State. Delores Johnson, of Dee Jon Cattery, imported three Devons to Oregon. Frank and Wendy Chappell, of Yclept Cattery, imported five Devons to British Columbia. Frances Kirkham, of Cal-Van Cattery, imported a pair to Alberta.

In 1977, Ann Gibney, of Scattergold Cattery, returned from England with her first Devon, Annelida Pervinca, and she added a second one in 1980.

In 1978 the single greatest influx of Devons to the U.S. occurred when British breeders Roma and Lajla Lund, of Homeacres Cattery, immigrated to the United States bringing with them well over a dozen of their Homeacres Devons.

In 1980, Mary Robinson, of Marya Cattery and a Persian breeder at the time, fell in love with pictures of a New Zealand cat named Annelida Seagull. She tracked down the breeder and imported three Devons from New Zealand to Canada.

In those 12 years between 1968 and 1980, the core of the North American Devon Rex breeding program was established.

Why Hybridize?

Since all Devons evolved out of Kirlee, the first genetic mutation, the gene pool remained dreadfully small even though the numbers of Devons were increasing dramatically. Initially the Devons were heavily inbred simply to establish a pool from which to work. This silver cloud did, however, have a black lining. The toll of inbreeding had begun manifesting itself in genetic problems present in the general feline population, but concentrated in Devons through the inbreeding. In addition, a neurological condition causing muscle spasticity appeared in very low numbers, but apparently only in Devons. The focus turned to hybridization through total outcross. Outcrossing is still actively done to insure a healthy breed with a wide and diverse gene pool, and it is working! The currently accepted outcrosses in CFA are the American Shorthair and the British Shorthair, although many different breeds were used initially. As mentioned earlier, the Rex gene is a simple recessive, and thus the labor of an outcross hybrid program is truly a labor of love for the breed, as all first generation kittens will be straight, and on average, 50% of all second generation kittens will be straight.

Another problem that surfaced was parental blood incompatibilities resulting in the death of kittens. Many Devons were found to carry Type A blood, while others carry Type B blood. When an "A" male was bred to a "B" female, the mother's milk would contain antibodies against the kittens' own blood and result in the death of the kittens. All breeding Devons are now blood typed, and if a breeding such as the above occurs, the kittens are hand fed every two hours until the gut closes internally and they can handle the antibodies on their own.

The Road to CFA Acceptance

The Cornish Rex had a good head start on the Devon Rex in CFA. Having been established ten years prior, and referred to simply as the Rex, they had been accepted into championship with CFA in 1964. CFA did not recognize the Devon Rex as a separate breed, but adopted a policy that all curly-coated cats were to be registered as the same breed, Rex cats. Both Devon breeders and Cornish breeders recognized the total incompatibility of the genetic make-up of these two breeds, and therefore maintained separate breeding stock. The Rex cats were, however, shown together with the standard being that of the Gene I Rex, or the Cornish Rex. What had made breeders fall in love with the Devon was the impish pixie look. They were not willing to breed towards the Cornish standard and risk losing those devilish expressions. In 1972, ACFA was the first North American registry to recognize the Devon Rex as a separate breed. While other associations were recognizing the Gene II Rex as the Devon Rex, CFA continued its stance of considering all Rex cats as one breed. The CFA Executive Board was not moved by numerous letters from Devon breeders to reconsider this stance.

Finally in 1978, it was felt that the climate might be more conducive for acceptance, and formal concerted efforts were once again mounted. Anita White provided most of the history, experiences and background for the group and Ann Gibney became the spokesperson who addressed the CFA Executive Board with the plea once again to separate the Gene I and the Gene II Rex cats. In 1979 this wish was granted, and CFA accepted the Devon Rex as a breed unto its own with registration rights. Dr. Gibney continued to play a key role in the advancement of the breed. She was vigilant and determined. She attended all board meetings and annuals to speak up for the Devon Rex. In 1981 the breed was advanced to Provisional status. Breeders who had previously stayed away from CFA now registered their cats with CFA. They began showing the cats in the Provisional class in good numbers. All of their hard work paid off, and in 1983 the Devon Rex gained Championship status in CFA. CFA was the last registering body in the world to grant this status.

References:
1. Ashford, A, (1970, November). The History of the Cornish and Devon Rex Cats. Cats Magazine, England, Vol. 2.
2. Ashford, A., & Pond, G., (1972). Rex, Abyssinian and Turkish Cats. London: Gifford.
3. Carlson, S., (1991, September). Devon Are Heaven - In the Beginning. CatBytes.
4. Gibney, A., (1993, October). The Devon Rex: Pixie in a Cat Suit. Cat Fanciers' Almanac.
5. Hay, V., (1984, July). Quarter Century of the Devon. Cat World.
6. Lawson, C., (1998). Devon Rex Hybrids - What is a Hybrid?. Planet Devon.
7. Luxford-Watts, S., (1983). Cat World Annual, Part Eight.