It is hours later. All you can think about is the weird cats.
And let’s be clear—there is no other way to say it. Lykoi, a new breed of cats under development in Vonore, are some of the weirdest looking cats you’ll ever see. Skinny, partially hairless, with huge golden eyes, the animals walk the fine line between incredibly cute and incredibly creepy.
It’s that distinctive look that made the cats an Internet sensation earlier this year. The Internet loves cats, of course, but cats that look suspiciously like werewolves? That’s an Internet wet dream. The Lykoi were on Gizmodo and io9, CNET and Yahoo!, Reddit and the Huffington Post. Even British tabloids picked up the story.
All this attention seems even more amazing when you consider that no one, except for a very few select breeders, even owns a Lykoi. And no one will be able to own one for another two to three years. At least.
“There’re people that want to give me money now to make sure they can get one in three years,” says Dr. Johnny Gobble, the veterinarian behind the felines. “We didn’t realize this many people would like this unusual animal. Sometimes it can be overwhelming.”
Let’s be clear about this, too—Gobble is not taking pre-orders for Lykois. Each day, he wakes up to a dozen new e-mails inquiring about the animals, from all around the globe. But there is no waiting list to get on. There’s no bribe you can make to force his hand.
“We want to make a healthy breed,” Gobble says. “If we were just doing this for the money, I could just breed the cats I have now and sell those kittens. But that would just be doing what I’m trying to stop.”
Gobble admits it’s probably a little weird for a vet to create a new breed of animal, especially in rural Tennessee, where there’s already a huge problem with people who don’t spay or neuter their pets. But then, Gobble’s a little weird himself.
“I like unusual things,” Gobble says.
That’s how he got interested in Sphynx cats—those odd-looking hairless cats with the wrinkled skin—which inadvertently led to the Lykois. After he and his wife got one and loved it, Gobble decided to try his hand at breeding them. He thought that as a vet, with the proper equipment and facilities and knowledge, he could make sure he was breeding healthy cats.
Gobble has been a vet for 18 years. He had studied genetics in vet school at the University of Tennessee, but he had never had much chance to put that interest into practice until he started breeding. And then, a couple of years later, a friend told him to call Patti Thomas, a breeder in Virginia.
Thomas said that someone had brought her two unusual-looking stray kittens, thinking they were some kind of Sphynx mutations. But they had too much hair on them, and they looked a little different, besides. Would Gobble be interested?
He was. And from those cats came the Lykoi breed.
“People have accused me of all kinds of things, like I’m some Dr. Frankenstein, that I’ve made these by gene splicing or selective breeding,” Gobble laughs. “I’ve been accused of splicing a possum and a cat together, or a possum and a monkey and a cat. If I could do that, I’d be rich.”
The truth, however, is much more prosaic. Genetic testing on the strays showed that the animals were not the offspring of a Sphynx and another cat, but were their own thing. Soon after, the Gobbles heard about another set of siblings with the same weird appearance—but from a completely different part of the country, so they couldn’t have been related to the first pair. They too had the same genetic mutation.
That was three years ago, and Gobble has been very carefully breeding Lykois since. But not with each other—not yet. The Lykoi gene, it turns out, is a naturally occurring recessive mutation. Only one or two kittens in a litter might look like a Lykoi, but the other kittens all have the gene. So if those non-Lykoi kittens are bred with a Lykoi, they’ll have some Lykois and some non-Lykois. And on and on.
Eventually there will be enough Lykois with the right genes to breed with each other and produce a litter of straight-up Lykois. But since the original gene pool is so small, Gobble (and the handful of other breeders he has helping him in his quest) is taking his time, not inbreeding and not overbreeding, keeping up with the genetics of every animal via specialized computer software.
Gobble would love to add to the gene pool, he says, but all the other natural Lykois he’s come across have already been fixed at a shelter before he could get to them. (Most shelters, Gobble says, think the cats have mange or are otherwise sick, so it’s likely that they’re put down even more often.)
So why is a vet who works so closely with his own animal shelter, spaying and neutering stray dogs and cats, spending so much of his own time and money creating a new breed of cat? Gobble swears it’s not about the money, even though whenever the time comes, he expects to sell Lykoi kittens for around $2,000.
“It’s to preserve the genetic mutation. If someone didn’t make it a breed, it would die out,” Gobble says. “If you didn’t have breeders, everything would go back to the average. You’d just have all these average kinds of cats. I am the number one vet in the area who says, ‘Spay and neuter your pets,’ and I’ll tell you this, responsible breeders are not the problem.”
Gobble clearly has a soft spot for the underdog—well, cat—and after you spend some time hanging out with the Lykois, with their creepy eyes, you can see their charm. They’re a little bit wary, at first, but once they check you out, they’re some of the friendliest cats you’ve ever met. They’re playful and sweet, although Gobble warns they do have a strong hunt drive.
“They will actually stalk our children,” Gobble says. “But they don’t hurt them! It’s more of a game.”
Still, Gobble admits, sometimes those giant glowing eyes do spook his wife. She was the one who suggested the Lykoi name, which is Greek for “wolf.” (Gobble wanted to call them “capossums,” since the cats’ almost hairless tails resemble an opossum’s.)
The breed has been officially recognized by the International Cat Association, but there’s still another step to go before the breed can be shown. Until then, Gobble’s fine with his weird little felines getting some Internet love.
“I’m just happy that they’re accepted,” Gobble smiles.
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