The Ragdoll is a beautiful and very popular breed of cat, on both sides of the Atlantic. It is much liked, both as a pet and for showing. But the story of its origins contains so much controversy, and so many wild and unsubstantiated claims, that for a long time the breed was not that widely accepted, and did not look as though it would be. So what are these crazy claims? And what is fact, and what is fiction, in the fascinating history of the Ragdoll?
All Ragdolls are descendents of Josephine, a white non-pedigree longhaired cat who ran free in the neighbourhood of Riverside, California, in the 1960s. That much is true. However, according to Ann Baker, the Persian breeder who originally developed the Ragdoll breed, Josephine was injured in a road accident. After this, Ann Baker claimed, she began producing kittens which were cuddly, placid, and passive. They grew very large, and had magically non-matting fur. They also had an unusually high pain threshold, and did not feel pain like other cats. And they flopped like ragdolls when picked up, hence the name of the breed. These traits were caused by Joesphine's accident, Ann Baker claimed, but could be passed on to future generations of 'Ragdolls', as she named these new cats.
There were other stories too, even more outlandish. One claimed that the cats were the result of secret mutation work carried out by the government, and contained either skunk or alien DNA, depending on when you heard the story.
So is any of this true. Basically, no, for it is genetically impossible, apart from anything else. Ann Baker obviously knew very little about cat genetics, for it would be impossible for Josephine's accident – if she had one - to affect future generations of kittens; that is simply not how genetics works. And the skunk or alien DNA story is even more ridiculous. Ann Baker appears to have made these things up as she went along. The wild stories certainly gained her publicity, and perhaps brought early fame to the Ragdoll. Perhaps that was her aim. But in fact they were so unbelievable that they actually brought more notoriety than true fame, and they brought the new breed into disrepute at least as much as they promoted it.
As for Ann Baker's other claims concerning Ragdoll traits, there is some truth in some of them, but by no means all. They are certainly large cats, but not outrageously so; Maine Coons and some other breeds are far bigger. Their fur lacks the dense undercoat of the Persian, but Ragdolls still need some grooming. The cats tend to be relatively laid back, and they do tend to relax when picked up, but not always, and they are still real cats and certainly do not flop like ragdolls. And the most irresponsible claim – that the cats did not feel pain – is utterly untrue!
Ann Baker's claims did not stop at the origin of the Ragdoll. Another of her developments was a breed she called Honey Bears, but registered with the CFA as Persians. However, she said they did not have a cat skeleton, and in the late 1970s, she told the CFA that they were genetically modified and were part skunk! The registry's response was to look again at all her past registrations, and they decided to accept no more registrations from her. These claims did nothing whatsoever to increase her credibility in the Cat Fancy, of course.
What actually happened was that in the 1960s Ann Baker began selecting kittens out of Josephine. These kittens were by a number of non-pedigree sires, mostly unknown, but some of Burmese and Birman type. Josephine was then mated to two of her sons. Among the offspring of these matings were two females, and all subsequent Ragdolls are descended from these two males and two females. Ann Baker began registering Ragdolls in 1965, and started selling them by the end of the decade. She started working with other breeders, but insisted on keeping control over all breeding decisions. In 1971 she founded her own registry, the International Ragdoll Cat Association (IRCA).
Breeders who objected to her restrictions soon started another association, the the Ragdoll Fanciers' Club International (RFCI). By 1975 the breeders had split into two camps. But later, even some of those breeders who stayed with Ann Baker's association began to object to her idiosyncracies, and in the 1990s another group broke away, choosing the name Ragamuffin for their breakaway breed. Although Ann Baker died in 1997, the breakaway breed, which is very similar to the Ragdoll but comes in more colours, is still known as the Ragamuffin and is accepted and shown as a separate breed.
Partly as a result of Ann Baker's ridiculous claims, for a long time CFA remained resolutely opposed to the Ragdoll as a breed. However, by the end of the 1970s it was established within the newly formed TICA. In the 1980s some RFCI cats were sent to Europe; Ann Baker would not export her IRCA cats. By 1990, Ragdoll Catswere recognised in the UK. They are now accepted by all major registries, and are in the top ten most popular breeds on both sides of the Atlantic.
Ann Baker may have been confused about genetics, she may have upset many people, and she might even have been slightly mad. But she did spot a gap in the market. Her cuddly dog-like cats were ahead of the trend for cuddly, lovable cats which like to curl up on laps, rather than the independent mousers which people had tended to go for in earlier times. Since the 1980s, owners' expectations of cats have changed in many ways; many people keep their cats indoors, treat them as part of the family, and refer to them as their 'fur babies'. The development of the placid Ragdolls has had a lot to do with this ongoing trend.