Couple Educates Pet Owners About Feline Fakes

AssoluxDavid Boehm awarding prizes to a boy and his cat at a competition this year. Assolux has files on 35,000 cats.
Dangers lurk at every turn for Russians buying a cat or rodent. Conmen fake pedigree certificates, hide diseases and spray-paint pets to simulate prestigious breeds.

Olga and David Boehm are working on a solution. The husband-and-wife team runs registries for Russia's felines and rodents out of their apartment in northwestern Moscow, and aim to educate the nation's pet owners about the hazards and tricks they face.

"We teach [owners] how not to be cheated," Olga Boehm said in the city center office of the Dobry Mir dog club, where their organization for cats, Assolux, holds office hours every Saturday afternoon.

Assolux grants pedigrees, creates ownership certificates and registers litters. Ingenuous cat owners may pay a cat club hundreds of dollars for a kitten whose parents are said to be show champions, but Assolux's records could prove these cats actually died years earlier.

"It's ZAGS for cats," Boehm said, referring to the office that registers births, deaths and marriages.

The organization encourages people only to buy from responsible breeders. Some pet sellers don't like signing contracts with buyers as it makes them subject to taxes, but after money changes hands they are not liable if an animal's pedigree is found to be false, or if it dies.

Dishonest sellers have also made sick kittens out to be healthy, with the animals carrying diseases that could be passed on to owners.

Some Russian cat clubs have tried to pass off "anything that walks as a breed," David Boehm said, even though their own paperwork might disprove the claim. "Everyone thinks they can make money," he said. "It's more of a business here than in the States."

Although dozens of organizations register cats, only Assolux and a few others maintain a central database. It has one of the largest registers in the country, and has amassed files on 35,000 cats since it began keeping records in 1986. A pedigree certificate in Russian and English costs 130 rubles ($4.85). Cat fanciers send in their paperwork from Irkutsk, Novosibirsk, Chelyabinsk and other cities across the country.

The Rodenta registry, modeled on Assolux, is for rodents. It battles opportunistic breeders who, trying to create new breeds of hamsters, mice and gerbils, have ended up causing harmful mutations.

David Boehm, 55, arrived in Russia from Hackensack, New Jersey, in 1990. He was hoping to be the first person to take genuine Siberian breed cats to the United States. Staff at his St. Petersburg hotel helped him find his first kittens in a bird market, and allowed him to keep the animals in his room although the hotel had a strict no-pets policy.

It was during his early quest for Siberians that he crossed paths with Olga, a lawyer who was then president of Assolux's predecessor, a Moscow cat club named Fauna. It had members throughout the Soviet Union.

The American settled in Moscow in 1991, after three trips hunting for cats. A metallurgical engineer by training, he runs Assolux and Rodenta in his spare time and works as a consultant helping companies import and setup computer equipment.

As well as registering animals, this year the organization held five cat shows and a rodent exhibition. At agility competitions, ribbons were awarded to cats that leapt over obstacles and to hamsters that propelled balls around racetracks.

In July, the Boehms ran an annual cat seminar in Moscow, a five-day course attended by eight people. Olga Boehm taught lessons about pet care and basic genetics while her husband prepared blinis and hot dogs for students and their families.

Assolux's idea of a central registry is attracting support.

Nellie Fomicheva, a cat breeder and Assolux registration agent in Novosibirsk, said she preferred a central registration system. "I don't trust the specialists in the small clubs," she said by telephone.

Cat fancier Vitaly Abiniakin of Yekaterinburg said many clubs didn't keep their records in order but often dictated the breeding of their members' cats, hoping to turn profits by then selling the kittens on as "purebred."

"People shouldn't let the clubs control them," Abiniakin said. "They just want to make money."