History of the Bengal Cat
While Jean Mill is considered the founder of the Bengal breed as we know it today, the recorded history of the first Asian Leopard cat hybridization goes back to the late 1800s through Harrison Weir in his book Our Cats and All About Them. Wild cats and their hybrids were an early fascination for the fancy - especially those with spots. An Ocelot won the "Wild or Wild and Domestic Cat Class" in the 1875 cat show in Edinburgh, Scotland. While these pairings continue to happen in Belgium in the 1930s and Japan in the 1940s, there is no record of them contributing to the Bengal breed as we know it today.
In the 1960s, Loma Linda University Medical Center professor of pediatrics and maternal health, Dr. Willard Centerwall, took an interest in the Asian Leopard Cat's immunity to the feline leukemia virus. Dr. Centerwall, a fan of the cat fancy and feline genetics, spearheaded a research project on the Asian Leopard cat to further his understanding of humans with compromised immune systems and to determine if the Asian Leopard cat could pass its immunity through hybridization. Because human leukemia behaves in much the same way as feline leukemia, there was great hope that studying the Asian Leopard cats and their hybrid offspring would better understand leukemia in general. While the experiment didn't produce the desired result of passing the resistance on to hybrid offspring, it ultimately led to the creation of the Bengal breed.
In 1980, Jean Sudgen Mill received her first hybrid cats from Dr. Centerwall. She had another purpose in mind for these beautiful hybrids. Jean saw the hybridization of the Asian Leopard Cat as a way to minimize the exploitation of small spotted wild cats for fur and to offer an alternative to people keeping illegal wild cats as pets. In addition, she hoped that if these spotted cats became popular, it would decrease people's desire for real furs as fashion, as one would not want to wear the cats they have as pets. Thus, the Bengal cat was created in hopes to help save the small wild cat populations.
Jean Mill, however, was not the only one with this idea in mind. In the 1970s, Bill Engler, a zoo keeper, bred his Asian Leopard cat to two domestic cats and created hybrids. He, too, was hopeful that these hybrids could help save the decreasing small wildcat populations. While many believe that the Bengal cat got its name from the Asian Leopard cat's scientific name - felis bengalesis - Some claim it was actually Bill Engler who gave the breed its name which is perhaps a shortened version of his own B.Engle. The name, however, is the only contribution Mr. Engler left. While it seems Bill made it down three generations, his pursuit ended with his death in 1977 and much like the very first hybrids of the early 1900s, none of Bill Engler's cats contributed to the Bengal breed.
And so, the fate of the create of hybrids that looked like wildcats ended up in the hands of Jean Mill who in 1980 happily took the left over hybrids from Dr. Centerwall's project and created the cats that originated what we now know to be the Bengal breed. JEan was able to aquire her own Asian Leopard cat, Kabuki, and, in order to move the generation down the line, she brought in a domestic street cat from India Millwood Tory of Delhi. There were others, such as Doctors Greg and Elizabeth Kent, who were crossing their Egyptian Maus to there Asian Leopard cat Baghara Kahn. While many breeders worked together to get the breed off the ground, it was Jean Mill who worked to get them accepted as a registered breed through TICA and began to show them around the world.