Friday, September 24, 2010

Remembering Dancer by Ken Flick

It will be a long time before Helmi and I forget a little Bengal kitten called "Dancer," who we had the pleasure of photographing last Sunday at the Wichita, Kansas, show. I could feel her trembling from the moment her owner placed her on our shooting stage, so I asked, pretty sure of the answer I'd get, "Is this Dancer's first show?" We were told that, yes, this was her first show and, more than that, this was only her second day away from the home where she was born six months ago. So this little kitten was in a strange place, surrounded by the sights and sounds of a hundred strange cats, in the care of her new owner who was essentially a stranger to her, and now being handled by a strange man -- me -- in a room full of bright flashing lights. No wonder Dancer was trembling. And I'm not sure she ever stopped trembling during the entire photo session.

But I'll tell you what: this scared little kitten was so courageous and so ready to please that she let me put her through all the paces and coax her into all the poses that I would expect of the most cooperative veteran show cat. And Dancer's performance was especially welcome to us, since we had had a number of tough subjects earlier that day.

Unlike cat show judges, whose criteria for evaluating cats are strictly those of a beauty contest without the talent or personality component, Helmi and I judge the cats we shoot based upon their willingness and ability to perform for the camera. Our feline subjects earn our admiration if they are cooperative, poised, playful, good natured and photogenic.

Our job is to produce the best possible portraits of the cats our customers bring us, yet we cannot deliver on this if the cat is shy, ill at ease, cowering, camera-phobic, frozen stiff or freaked out and bent on escape. Most Oriental breeds tend to be this way and despite our best efforts and all the patience we can muster, we are seldom satisfied with what we are able to get from these cats -- and always surprised when their owners are. At the other extreme are Maine Coons, who are such easy going, eager to please, rewarding to shoot subjects that Helmi and I decided early on to get two of our own.

So, yes, we judge the cats we shoot at every show, too. And often, in the evening after the show is over or on the drive home the next morning, we will talk about the cats we shot and tell each other which ones were our favorites. And on the drive home from Wichita on Monday, it became clear that Dancer, the little Bengal kitten with the big heart, had stolen both of our hearts. Despite her understandable insecurity at being wrenched away from the only home she had ever known, she stepped up to the plate and performed at a level that a number of our Wichita cats never attempted. We don't give out rosettes, but Dancer was a big winner in our eyes. She gave the kind of photogenic performance that enabled us to win -- she made our job look easy to our customer and enabled us to deliver images the customer would like.

It is always heartbreaking news to hear that a cat we have known has died, especially when it is a kitten who has left so soon before its time. And it was even more tragic to learn this about a kitten who had so recently won our respect and affection and was still very much on our minds. But this is what happened on Thursday (yesterday) when we learned that little Dancer, who had not eaten for days and had spent the previous couple of days in the care of a vet, was diagnosed with terminal feline leukemia and put to rest. It's enough to make a grown man cry. And that's not just a figure of speech.

It will be a long time before Helmi and I forget Dancer, the brave little Bengal kitten with the big heart. The world has lost a real winner.