The History of the Bengal Breeding Program
Though several crossings of the Asian Leopard Cat and the domestic feline occurred throughout the early 1900s, the real work of developing the Bengal breed didn’t begin until the 1960s. Dr. Willard Centerwall, a professor of pediatrics and maternal health at the Loyala University Medical Center, was a cat fancier and studied feline genetics as a hobby. Dr. Centerwall was fascinated with the Asian Leopard Cat because it was found to be resistant to the feline leukemia virus (FLV) and he was one of several researchers who were interested in studying whether or not the trait could be passed to hybrid offspring.
Around the same time, a cat breeder by the name of Jean Sugden Mill also began crossing the ALC with domestic felines, starting with her own solid black tomcat. Mill’s motivation for creating a hybrid of the two was entirely different from Centerwall’s, however. Whereas Centerwall was interested in manipulating feline genetics for health reasons, Mill’s interest was more aesthetic. Mill sought to create a hybrid breed that had the appearance of a wild cat in hopes that people who supported the fur trade would find it more difficult to purchase furs if they were similar in appearance to their own pets. In fact, Mill received her first Asian Leopard Cat specimen from Dr. Centerwall in 1980.
Mill and Centerwall were not the only two to show an interest in hybridizing wild cats with domestic felines. In 1970, zoo keeper Bill Engler produced two litters of kittens he named “Bengals” by crossing his male Asian Leopard Cat, Shah, with two female domestic cats. Engler state that his purpose for creating such a hybrid was:
“To create a small exotic cat that was beautiful and that had the disposition that was suitable for a pet house cat”
Similar to Mill’s motivation for hybridizing wild and domestic cats, Engler sought to preserve exotic cat species which were becoming increasingly more endangered. Engler is credited with coining the name “Bengal” cat, though the exact origins of the name are unclear. Some suggest that it draws inspiration from the scientific name of the Asian Leopard Cat, Felis bengalensis, while others posit that it might be derived from his own name – B. Engler.
Engler may be credited with naming the Bengal cat, but it was only through Mill’s dedication and hard work that the breed came to be recognized by TICA. Mill experienced several hiccups along the way, however. The CFA accepted Leopard Cats for registration and breeding purposes in 1970, only to later ban them from registration. In 1980, Mill restarted her breeding program in a renewed effort to domesticate the breed. Her hard work was rewarded in 1983 when TICA accepted the Bengal cat for registration. Once a rare and exotic breed, the Bengal is now one of the most frequently exhibited breeds in TICA shows.