Sunday, July 3, 2011

Educating the Educators

As someone who breeds and shows Maine Coon cats, I usually enjoy the opportunity to talk about my cats and enlighten fellow cat fanciers. The hard part with having Maine Coons in the northeastern part of the country is that everybody and their brother thinks they have one too. True, the breed is naturally derived and has a common ancestry with many of the large domestic long-haired cats around here. When the veterinarians tell a pet owner that their cat could be a Maine Coon, people love that. After all, vets know cat breeds right? Animal shelters often list any long-haired adoptable cat as a Maine Coon mix; not because they know, but because labeling the cat with a breed makes it more desirable. Such is the curse of having one of the most popular breeds of cats that don’t look as breed-distinctive as some of the others like the Sphynx or the Scottish Fold.

I was recently contacted by a vocational high school principal, Suzanne Green, who was looking for someone to speak on the Maine Coon Cat. The Assabet Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School in Marlborough, Massachusetts was holding a conference for the teachers and apparently there were several requests to have a presenter on Maine Coons. The job paid $100, a little more than the cost of my gas to drive to Marlborough and back; Suzanne pointed out that this was more of public service job. Granted, I would have done it for nothing, but gas money was good. Since I do like to promote and educate, I agreed to prepare a Powerpoint presentation on color genetics and bring three cats of various ages, genders and colors. I was told the audience would consist mainly of animal science teachers, so a Punnett Square wouldn’t be too foreign to them.

Getting ready, I had more than my share of technical set-backs; learning to use Powerpoint and a major malware infection on my PC, but it all came together after about ten hours of work and more countless hours working with technical support people to get my computer working right. Although I’ve spoken to small groups about cats and have done large employee presentations in my former life as a Human Resources Manager, this was to be my first Powerpoint presentation. I went to Jay’s office and did a dry run-through for timing and to get a look at it on the big screen. Wanting to counteract the false information about my chosen breed, I started the slide show with a series of Mythbuster true or false questions. Questions like, “If your cat as a stripe in the shape of the letter ‘M’ on its forehead, it must be a Maine Coon” and “The Maine Coon gets to be 35 pounds”, true or false?

I saved my presentation on a flash drive, intending to use the school’s equipment once I got there. I even emailed the presentation ahead of time so they could make sure my version of Powerpoint was compatible. I planned on bringing three cats; my eight-year-old brown classic male, Bugger, a two-year-old blue torbie and white female, Trifle, and an eight-month-old solid black female, Lulu. Trifle’s coat is naturally low maintenance, but Bugger and Lulu required baths the day before we were to leave. I loaded up the minivan with a large traveling cage with enough room for 3 cats and a litter box. I also packed my grooming bag, a collapsible show cage to display with the cats in the auditorium, and a cart to carry everything in. It was almost like preparing to go to a cat show, but with more emphasis on me. I had printed out the slide show so I flipped through that on the drive up, rehearsing my lines and forcing myself to slow my speech down.

Once I arrived at the high school, the first thing I noticed was that there were cars parked everywhere; in the grass, on the sidewalk, in non-spaces…basically the place was overwhelmed with people. Fortunately, there was one empty space; someone must have left for lunch. I planned on getting there one hour early to set up, clean up any cat messes and make sure the presentation would work.

Towing my cart loaded with cats, I asked at the registration table where I should go. “Oh! Are those the Maine Coon cats?” the lady asked when she saw my carriers. “We’ve been waiting for you.” I was told to go down the hall to room 401D to check in. I got an even more enthusiastic greeting at 401D. The woman there squealed with excitement when I told her my name and instructed a man to call the phone number written on the black board as Principal Suzanne Green wanted to be notified the minute I arrived. Really? I started to get nervous. Everyone surrounded me and my cats; I felt like a celebrity but hoped I wouldn’t disappoint. Suzanne showed up within seconds, personally escorted me to the auditorium and helped me set up. I have never met a school administrator who was so personally involved instead of delegating. There was a sign on an easel outside the entrance to the auditorium with my name and a blurb about my presentation. I felt so important.

A few teachers were staked out in the auditorium before I got there, waiting on my arrival.  It would be almost an hour before I was scheduled to begin.  The intimidation of the school’s high expectations was mounting. Suzanne told me there were over 700 teachers there for the conference. Many were attending for continuing education credits for their field. 700? They won’t all be in here will they? I was assured that although some were so excited I was there that they were skipping their scheduled workshops, there would also be about 22 other presentations/workshops going on simultaneously with mine so it wasn’t really all about Maine Coons. Minor sigh of relief.

Although the small auditorium looked liked it could hold about 60 people, there were closer to 27 there when I got started. They seemed to like the Mythbuster questions, but I started losing some of them on the Punnett Squares. The educational part of my presentation was to explain color genetics; like how you can get a blue or a solid black kitten from two brown tabby parents. I had pictures of the variety of colors that Maine Coons come in, mostly my own cats.

Of course they just wanted to see the cats. After the slides were finished, I pulled each cat out of the show cage one at a time and talked about it. For another 30 minutes, I answered general questions about kittens, showing, genetic testing, personalities and behaviors while I had a cat on the table. Bugger elicited the same responses he used to get at cat shows. “Oh my God, look at that cat! He only weighs 17 pounds? I would have guessed he was more like 30. He’s huge!” The audience members who were the most enthralled circled around me and my cats, taking pictures with their cell phones like paparazzi.

When my 50 minutes of allotted time was up, Suzanne helped me pack everything back on my cart, proclaiming that my cats were a success. As I left, wheeling my Cart O’ Cats down the school’s hallway, I continued to receive attention and was asked more questions. Of course, after all my efforts to educate the audience about how only 4% of all cats are purebred, not all tabbies are Maine Coons, blah, blah, blah, I came away with the impression that I failed. I must have gotten at least five comments from people after the presentation about their own Maine Coon they had found or gotten for free. One man very proudly told me about the feral female cat he had adopted a year ago and how a stray Maine Coon cat had sired the litter she just had. I resisted the urge to scream at him, “Didn’t you listen to anything I said in there? It’s NOT a Maine Coon! It’s just a long-haired cat.” I politely bit my lip and didn’t even lecture him on why he should have his cat spayed and keep her inside. Instead I just wished him luck in finding homes for the kittens and walked away.





  1. I think the problem was the Punnett Squares. Monohybrid and Dihybrid crosses are a lot sexier.