INLE LAKE, Shan State — Even if you’re not a fan of felines, it’s a pretty tough feat to hate the Burmese cat.
They might not seem remarkable at first, with their small round heads, wide-set golden eyes and short glossy fur. But get a bit closer, even on the first acquaintance, and you will surely regret your poor prejudgment. With temperaments that could melt even the stoniest of hearts, these cats will hop on your lap and nestle up to your neck, as if reuniting with a long lost master.
Friendly, inquisitive, playful and outgoing, Burmese cats are one of the world’s most popular breeds. Originally from mainland Southeast Asia, they lived in the region for over 1,000 years, reportedly kept by ancient royal families and used as guardians of temples in Burma.
But nearly all the purebred Burmese cats had vanished from the country by the 1930s, after the indigenous breed was bred with other cats that arrived during the 19th and 20th centuries. Luckily, a few were sent to the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia before extinction.
Several decades later they are now back again, thanks to local residents in Shan State who began a program to reintroduce and breed the well-mannered cats in their homeland.
“From the best possible pedigree sources in the UK and Australia, seven Burmese cats were brought back to [Burma] in 2008 for breeding purposes,” says Nang Myat Chaw Su, conservation supervisor of one of two pedigree breeding centers at the Inthar Heritage House on the shores of Inle Lake.
“So far we have 30 cats at the house and 13 at the resort,” she adds, referring to a second breeding center at the Inle Princess Resort, which is also situated on the lake and owned by the founder of the heritage house, DawYin Myo Su.
Daw Yin Myo Su never had any particular affection for cats, but everyone else seemed to be talking about them and she wondered why.
“I fell in love minutes after meeting them. How can anyone resist such very friendly cats?” she says. “They are as friendly as we Burmese.”
It dawned on her that perhaps she should consider the cats more seriously, as part of her national heritage. “I decided to reintroduce and preserve them, partly because they have our Burmese personality,” she adds.
The project is a collaborative effort with the China Exploration & Research Society, a nonprofit focused on environmental and cultural conservation.
Within two years the initial breeding program was successful, yielding several litters of healthy cats while also attracting large groups of tourists and visitors. Since the original Burmese cats were believed to have been chocolate brown, the breeding center aims for the same color fur, though occasionally some bluish silver kittens are kept around.
Hoping to reintroduce the felines to their native land, the program has so far given nearly a dozen cats to interested local people for free, while foreigners can pay US$1,000. The pets are all neutered to preserve their pure pedigree.
“If anyone would like to keep them as we do here—with a playground, sleeping rooms and a separate spacious room for the day—and if they can guarantee to avoid mixed breeding, we are happy to give anyone a couple of cats,” says Daw Yin Myo Su.
“Here they are like kings and queens. We are their servants.”