Last week, we sent a dog person to the National Cat Awards. It was not what he, or we, expected. It was way better, shining a light on the joy cats bring, and the unique work of the Cats Protection charity. Archie Brydon reports.
There was one cat at the 2022 edition of the National Cat Awards and his name was Kaspar. He was carved from wood 95 years ago and has since resided at London’s Savoy Hotel, where this year’s ceremony was being held.
Kaspar’s an impressive looking chap. A black cat, he wears a white napkin around his neck despite never making much of a mess. He sits effortlessly still at every dining table he graces, dutifully carrying out his unusual job as the fourteenth guest whenever a party of unlucky 13 dines in one of the Savoy’s private rooms.
Kaspar’s superstitious history dates back to the late 19th century and the premature death of a South African diamond magnate, who met his maker just weeks after a dinner at the Savoy, during which he scoffed at the idea that whoever stood up first from a table of a 13 would be next to die. The man, Woolf Joel, was shot in his office upon his return to Johannesburg. So it goes.
A black cat hardly seems the obvious way to cure a superstition, but Kaspar was the chosen remedy and nearly a century on, there have been no suspicious baker’s-dozen-related deaths at the Savoy. Problem solved. Kaspar is now part of the hotel’s furniture and the subject of a Michael Morpurgo book, on top of being the lone attendee resembling a cat at this year’s National Cat Awards. True to form, Kaspar enjoyed the jamboree at a table with 13 other guests.
I was expecting lots of cats; a combination of last minute planning, a lack of research and my general mindlessness meant I arrived at the Savoy expecting the feline equivalent of Crufts.
Instead, I discovered an event more along the lines of the Pride of Britain Awards, but for cats. Forget pedigree and looks and tricks; imagine if Sports Personality of the Year did away with the sport, and focused exclusively on the Unsung Hero Award – or rather a series of unsung hero awards – and imagine all the contestants were cats.
Organised by British charity Cats Protection, the awards (that I shall henceforth refer to as the NCAs) are now in their fourteenth edition and returning for the first time since 2019. The charity was founded in 1927 – incidentally the same year Kaspar was carved – and now has over 10,000 volunteers and has helped over two million cats.
Competition for the NCAs is stiff. There are more cats in this country than there are people in London – 10.8 million, to be precise – with over a quarter of British homes now having at least one cat. The awards are divided into four categories: Outstanding Rescue Cat, for cats who have come from rescue shelters; Furr-ever Friends, for cats and children who share a special bond; Cat Colleagues, for Britain’s best professional cats; and Most Caring Cat, for cats who have had the biggest impact on the owner’s well-being. At the end, each of the four winners go head to head in the ultimate award: National Cat(s) of the Year.
It was a horribly humid day and I arrived dripping as well as clueless. I gave my name and the doorman – grinning like a you know what – asked, “Do ya like cats?” In hindsight, I should have seen this line of questioning coming. I could have prepared a better response than an evidently disingenuous and still unacceptable, “I’m impartial.” It sounds bad now. It sounded even worse then.
The doorman raised his eyebrows while the woman beside him, in her cat-print dress, looked even less impressed. Fearing I’d failed the one-question entrance exam, I fumbled for some more words that likely only made the situation worse, before I was led into an air-conditioned, if cat-less, ballroom where over 200 people were sitting down for lunch.
Chicken was on the menu and ‘Chicken’ won the second prize of the afternoon. His relationship with 11-year old Elliot, who has autism, was one of a dozen moving stories that graced the screen, and when Elliot took to the stage to accept his best friend’s accolade, the cynicism that usually rests on my tongue had turned into a lump in my throat. ‘Chicken’ was narrowly beaten to the overall award by the winners of the rescue cat category, Jasper and Willow. The pair were rewarded for their role at St Peter & St James Hospice, where they spend their days comforting patients, families and staff.
The felines’ stories were both funny and endearing, and the role of the cats in their owner’s lives was impossibly more important than I had imagined. It therefore begs the question: what kind of sadist decided to make this thing competitive? It was like choosing between Make A Wish children. They all deserve a prize and yet judges need to rank them and pick winners and losers. I suppose a choice can be justified in that they’re already winners – they’ve all been shortlisted and the trophy is just a token – but seeing those little children’s faces, cuddling their mogs on screen, and then not winning…phwoar. I would not want to make that decision.
Thankfully, I’m not an obscure celebrity and I don’t have to. Deborah Meaden and David Seaman were among the cat-loving souls tasked with adjudicating various categories, while Alan Dedicoat, the voice of Strictly Come Dancing, was the master of the afternoon’s ceremonies.
As the simultaneously heart-warming and heart-wrenching stories were broadcast on the screen, the room started sniffling. The air conditioning was not that cold, and for the first time, Cats Protection had planned ahead, knowing the damage they were doing, and putting a box of tissues on every table. That did not mean they were immune themselves. I was sitting next to a very nice woman named Heather, who worked at Cats Protection, and who – before the sniffles – kindly explained some of the work the charity does.
To me, the most surprising and impressive of these was Cat Protection’s Paws Protect programme – a pet fostering service for families fleeing domestic abuse. Understanding that a beloved pet could be a barrier in leaving an abusive situation, and knowing pets are not typically allowed in shelters or other forms of temporary accommodation, Paws Protect offers a loving, temporary home until owners and cats are able to be reunited.
“Paws Protect is run by an experienced woman-only team, who take referrals, collect cats, and arrange foster placements through a wonderful network of dedicated volunteers,” their website explains. “The service is completely confidential to ensure safety for owners, volunteers and cats. While it is not possible for the owner to visit their cat while they are being fostered, the Paws Protect team visit the fosterer on a regular basis and provide monthly updates to the owner.” The service is completely free, and Cat Protection covers all costs, including vet treatments.
Another new service is Paws and Listen. Helping owners navigate the grief of losing a cat, the Paws and Listen phoneline offers an experienced, sympathetic ear for people who have lost a pet after euthanasia or whose cat has gone missing, and the line is open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.
These are just two of the services offered by Cats Protection. They help in countless other ways as well, but I had overlooked, or not even considered, the breadth of the charity’s impact. Much like the NCAs themselves, it caught me off guard.
For it was so much nicer to see an animal awards show revolving around the joy these creatures bring, rather than their human-determined physical attributes. There was no strange breeding or dyed fur or cats jumping through hoops. It was more lovely than that.
Forget Crufts and up the NCAs. I guess I’m now partial to cats.