The Bengal cat breed began with the work of Dr. Willard Centerwall, who was doing leukemia research at Loyola University using the Asian leopard cat in the early 1980s. It was known that ALCs were immune to feline leukemia and Dr. Centerwall was crossing them with domestic cats, which are not immune, in an attempt to figure out the mechanism of the ALC’s resistance. If found, this could have far reaching consequences in the treatment of this disease, not only for cats, but for humans and other animals as well.
Jean Mill, who had owned an accidental ALC/domestic hybrid in the early 1960s, found out about Dr. Centerwall’s work and approached him about his hybrid cats. He was glad to have someone to take the kittens off his hands, as he had no use for them after testing was done. Jean’s idea was to create a beautiful domestic cat with the spotted coat that wild cats were being killed for. She thought that if people had these striking animals in their own homes, they would be less likely to want a fur coat that looked like their pets.
The road was rocky, as males from the early generations were infertile and females sometimes refused to mate or to raise their kittens. She searched widely for appropriate domestic males to use with her early generation hybrid females. When traveling in India, she came across a male kitten with a glittery spotted coat living in the rhino pen in the New Delhi zoo. He was tailless due to a rhinoceros misstep. She convinced the keeper to ship the kitten to her in the States, and Delhi, as he was called (Tory of Delhi), became one of the chief progenitors of the breed. It would be difficult to find a Bengal pedigree these days in which he did not appear at some point.
The breed caught on – to put it mildly – and is now the most popular in The International Cat Association (TICA), which is the chief registration body for the breed.
Eventually, other ALCs were added to the mix to increase the gene pool, and other purebred domestics were brought in. Drs. Greg and Elizabeth Kent of Kansas crossed their ALC, Baghera Khan of Kent, with some of their Egyptian Maus. Others added Abyssinians and Burmese to try to gain what were seen as desirable characteristics. Gradually the breed began to stabilize and now most Bengals are SBTs (Stud Book Traditional), indicating at least 4 generations away from non-Bengal breeding. Early generations, F1-F3, are not eligible for showing.
They are called Bengals because the scientific name of the ALC is felis bengalensis, so named because the first one classified was found swimming in the Bay of Bengal. There is no association with Bengal tigers.
Bengals are the size you think of when you think of a housecat, as are their wild ancestors, the ALCs. They are healthy, devoted to their owners, and clean in their habits. Most like to play in water, so it’s best to put their bowls on waterproof surfaces. They are active, sometimes talkative, playful, and athletic, performing amazing leaps after an airborne teaser toy. They have wonderfully soft, plushy, nearly non-shedding coats, many of which are liberally sprinkled with glitter, a clear tip to the hair shaft that sparkles in the sun like diamond dust. This came from Delhi, and no other breed can claim it.
We believe that anyone who once owns a Bengal will never again be satisfied with any other kind of cat.