It takes a special kind of dedication to make your pet into a pageant animal.
For seven Oregonians, the pursuit of breed perfection isn't a hobby. It's equal parts sport, parenthood and personal identity. Only the most competitive pageant parents find it rewarding, because most titles don't translate into money. To outsiders, the time, money and travel required to show off their animals might seem absurd. Even those within the microcosm don't deny its quirks.
In an attempt to better understand the unique pastime and the people who build their lives around it, WW spoke to seven of the humans behind Oregon's champion dogs, cats, chickens, chinchillas, ducks and alpacas.
Breeds and shows: Miniature bull terriers
Years in showbiz: 10
Titles won: 77
Day job: Works full time for a software company in Slabtown
Stuck to the back of Kimarie Wolf's navy blue Subaru Outback is a sticker that reads, "My Dog Is Smarter Than the President."
The proclamation is hard to argue with. Wolf, 52, breeds and shows championship-winning miniature bull terriers. In 2011, her dog, BlackJack, won Best in Breed at the Westminster Dog Show, the biggest dog show in the nation. According to American Kennel Club standards, BlackJack was the most "strongly built, symmetrical and active, with a keen, determined and intelligent expression."
"I like to tell people that my dog is famous, I'm not famous," Wolf says. "He's been on national television."
Wolf shows at around 30 competitions annually and teaches handling classes at Beaverton's Pup-A-Razzi pet store—showing hopeful dog owners how to hold their dogs' leashes, how fast to run around the ring and how to display their pups' teeth to judges.
She's serious about breeding for perfection. For one litter, she says, "I brought a dog over from France to collect his semen, and then I bred [my mini bull terrier] to that frozen semen."
She also admits that some of the stereotypes about dog people are true.
"My favorite, like, satirical story about dog shows is the movie Best in Show," she says. "And what a great movie, right? There are definitely always people that take things to the extreme. It's not as quirky and as weird as it looks in the movie. But it is certainly as fun as it looks."
Owns and shows: Maine coon cats
Years in showbiz: 17
Titles won: Over 40
Day job: Works full time for Standard Insurance Company in its commercial loan department
Connie Hazel is sitting at her dining room table at home in Southeast Portland, stroking a massive Maine coon splayed out in front of her.
"People tend to think that all cats are owned by these lowly little old ladies who sit around knitting sweaters or something," the 65-year-old says, "and that couldn't be further from the truth."
High on a shelf sits a framed portrait of the same white- and tan-furred behemoth, staged like a teen beauty pageant at a mall photo center. The cat is Champ. He is, Hazel says proudly, a Supreme Grand Champion winner. He won that title because of his devilishly good looks—or his adherence to perfect Maine coon standards, like ear placement, forehead slope and tail length.
Cat judging is brutal—one of her six cats is unshowable because his chin is too pointy—but winning awards means serious bragging rights in the tight-knit cat community.
"Walking through a show hall with a cat like a Champ, you can hear the people behind you like, 'Oh my God, did you see that? That's the most beautiful cat I've ever seen in the world,'" she says. "It's a pretty big ego boost."
Hazel adds it's not all about winning.
"I just enjoy having the companionship," she says. "They sleep with me, they sit with me, they bug me. You can talk to yourself and not talk to yourself. They're my fur babies."
Breeds and shows: Suri alpacas
Years in showbiz: 10
Titles won: "Hundreds."
Day job: Breeding and showing Suri alpacas
Alpaca fleece is the bougie wool of the future. And Jessica Hackett breeds some of the best.
The 32-year-old Oregon City rancher currently holds the title for Breeder of the Year—meaning her Suri alpacas have shinier, denser coats of fleece than those of any other midsize breeder in the nation.
Shows are scientific affairs. Judges take fleece samples from every animal and "look under a microscope to see how dense, or how big in diameter a fleece strand is," Hackett says.
"The more show winnings that you have," she adds, "the easier it is to sell an animal in the end run." Her 100-plus alpacas produce fleece for things like hats, socks and, more recently, "tuxedos and high-end clothing."
At shows, Hackett says people train their alpacas to traverse obstacle courses or prance around in costume. But that kid stuff isn't judged.
"[Alpacas] kind of remind me of a mix between a horse and a dog," Hackett says. "Some want to be kissed and loved on, and others don't want anything to do with you. They hum to one another in the pasture. They're just such peaceful animals."
Dave and Millie Holderread
Breed and show: Ducks and geese
Years in showbiz: Over 40
Titles won: "Oh, too many," Dave Holderread says. "We've got boxes of trophies."
Day jobs: Duck and geese breeding
"As a boy, the thing that intrigued me about ducks and geese was that they could swim, they could fly and they could walk," says Dave Holderread, 67. "It just seemed like they had the best part of all worlds. I was jealous."
Holderread and his wife, Millie, ship thousands of ducks and geese of over 20 breeds from their Corvallis farm to showers around the world. They've retired from competing, but when they were active, Holderread says, "We were the people to beat."
In 1991, a Holderread goose won best in show at the national bird competition—the first time a waterfowl had won. "That's like the Super Bowl," Holderread says.
In bird competitions, judges rank things like plumage, wing size, body length and weight, and bill straightness.
"I'm just enthralled by the variety," Holderread says. "I often get asked, 'What's your favorite breed?' I always say it's whatever breed I'm looking at at the moment."
John Jensen Jr.
Breeds and exhibits: Chickens
Years in showbiz: 8
Titles won: He guesses "a couple dozen" but says, "I don't keep track."
Day jobs: Farming and property management
For John Jensen Jr., there is "nothing more rewarding than to open up your pens in the morning and have chickens come flying out and running to you to see what type of treat you got them for the day."
Jensen got his first chickens at a local feed store as a kid. "In college, they kind of frowned on having chickens in the dorm," he says. "A few years after graduation, I came back and said, 'Oh, this is a lot of fun. I missed it.'"
Jensen now owns over 300 birds at his farm in Newberg. He selects the top 1 percent of those chickens to take to competitions.
"We're all governed by an organization that prints out a standard of perfection, they call it, which we strive to achieve in our breeding programs," Jensen says, "[Poultry exhibitions] are a lot like the Westminster Classic. Just imagine that, rather than having dogs running around on leashes, you have chickens in cages."
Jensen says there's no prize money for winning titles. But when breeding seasons are successful, people look to him to purchase birds for backyard coops.
"The backyard thing has really helped out a lot," he says. "To be quite honest, there ain't a lot of money in chickens. We do it because we love the chickens."
Breeds and shows: Chinchillas
Years in showbiz: 10
Titles won: Six ribbons last year alone and, prior to that, "a lot."
Day job: Legal secretary
Usually, Sarah Ralston keeps her 40-plus chinchillas in multiple large cages in her garage. On rare occasions, she brings them to work with her at Beaverton City Hall.
Her prized animals are bred for their coats. At competitions, judges plop the critters down on white sheets of paper, shine bright lights on them and give awards to those with the best color and quality hair.
"You can have a chinchilla missing ears, missing legs, a tail—that doesn't matter when you go to a show," Ralston says. "They're simply judging the color."
To keep them fresh, Ralston bathes her fur balls once a week in volcanic ash. "If you don't," she says, "they will start to get greasy."
Because of their pristine coats—"they're the softest animal in the world; where a human has one hair per follicle, a chinchilla has 50," says Ralston—they are often sold to fur traders and killed. Ralston's only go to pet homes.
Ralston's source of pride, she says, is "going to a show and saying, 'I can produce an animal that's better than anyone else's out there.'"
"That's what you take into a pet home," she says. "People get rats when they want something that looks like a rat."