Bengals have a bit of a reputation. As a cross between a domestic cat and an Asian leopard, they are more energetic, active, and fearless than the average couch-commandeering kitty. Kelsey Wiese, founder of Spots and Stripes Bengal Rescue in Palm Beach County, FL, has a four-year-old Bengal named Cinderella, who is 50 percent Asian leopard (or F1), the most a Bengal can be without a license. Wiese rescued and socialized Cinderella last year.
"It’s like having a small dog mixed with an energetic four-year-old child," Wiese says. "I’ve seen people who have taught their Bengals to sit, stay and roll over. A lot of people have the perception that they are wild because of how they look. But they’re not."
Spots and Stripes will celebrate its first anniversary on Nov. 21. The organization is comprised of approximately 12 volunteer foster parents, who have helped find forever homes for more than 76 Bengals and taken in more than 100, which is three times more than the national Bengal Rescue Network. Check out Spots and Stripes’ web site to get to know their current residents.
Wiese suspects that Florida has such a high population of wayward Bengals because of the state’s lax breeding laws, which allow people to apply for licenses online and do not require yearly inspections. Many breeders have been unable to sell their cats since the economy tanked, which has left a lot of Bengals either homeless or stuck in hoarding situations. According to Wiese, if Bengals end up in shelters, they will be euthanized fairly quickly, so Spots and Stripes has been very much in demand.
"Last November we had two Bengals in rescue, and within a month we were getting calls every other day," Wiese says. "There’s a huge need for a rescue down here, but nobody wanted to step up and do it, so we decided that we’d be the ones."
Before Bengals, Wiese started off rescuing dogs, but she realized many people were "in it more for the glory." She ended up losing her house after putting a great deal of her own financial resources into helping unadoptable dogs no one else wanted to help, which forced her out of the rescue game.
She didn’t stay away for long, though. She adopted her first Bengal from a breeder she found on Craigslist, and she immediately fell in love with the attractive, energetic cat. Unfortunately, her Bengal had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), one of the most common forms of heart disease in cats, and she passed away at the age of three. "I was heartbroken," Wiese says. Shortly after her Bengal’s death she started noticing others from the same breeder popping up for free on Craigslist and in shelters.
"No breeder wants to be caught with HCM, because it looks really bad if they’re knowingly breeding a cat who has it in the line," Wiese says. "Rather than admitting they had it, they just started getting rid of them. That’s what started the rescue."
Since founding Spots and Stripes, Wiese has encountered many unfortunate situations involving Bengal hoarders who started off as breeders. From one former breeder alone, Spots and Stripes has rescued more than 23 Bengals, 10 of whom were kittens. Wiese took home one who was blind and sick with an upper respiratory infection, and she died nine weeks later. In fact, only one of the kittens survived, and she lost her right eye.
"[The breeder] no longer wants to give any more [Bengals] up, so we’re working with the county to force him to surrender," Wiese says. "We took video in the house, and I think I was there maybe five minutes before I had cockroaches crawling on my legs."
Wiese’s own Cinderella also had a tough start. She was rescued from a breeder who was scamming people overseas by having them put deposits on Cinderella’s kittens. "And when it came time to adopt the kittens, she’d say, ‘Oh, they died,’" Wiese says.
After the breeder got busted, Cinderella was taken to a high-kill shelter, where someone contacted Wiese. When Wiese first brought her home, Cinderella was extremely under-socialized and fearful of humans, and she wouldn’t let Wiese come near her or even make eye contact. But 10 months later, Wiese’s dedication is starting to pay off.
"Just last week was the first time we’ve ever been able to pet her," Wiese says. "I was sitting at the table talking on the phone, and she just came up and headbutted me. We’ve worked with her for a long time, and for her to start coming around is awesome."
Because Bengals are more energetic and require more exercise than other cats, Wiese recommends fostering one and getting to know their quirks before adopting. Many Bengals enjoy going for walks on a harness, for example, and many male Bengals spray even after being neutered, a problem that can be avoided with proper training. Bonus: Bengals are also hypoallergenic.
"There are some Bengals who would make good lap cats, but for the most part they’re not for somebody who doesn’t want an active cat," Wiese says. "They’ve very distinct. I love them."