From IVF to queen of the cat show

Lesley Freeman. Photo by Madeleine Neale.
Disability carer, IVF researcher, cat judge and show manager are just some of the things on Lesley Freeman’s resume. Paris, Contessa, Zambizee are among her 13 cats. Madeleine Neale reports.  

It all started with a Siamese called Tokky. Although she has had cats in her life since childhood, Lesley Freeman says a Christmas gift in the late 1960s for her new husband, Kevin is “where it all started”. The couple had recently moved from New Zealand to Australia and Kevin asked his wife for a Siamese cat to make Australia feel more like home.

Lesley has been passionate about pedigree cats ever since.

She is now in her third year as Royal Melbourne Cat Show manager and has been entering her prize winning cats for over 30 years. She and Kevin live in Upwey along with Paris, Contessa, Zambizee, Maddie and their nine other blue-eyed, white footed, Birman cats.

There is no competition for a spot on the bed though. Each cat lives outside in an enclosure and is under a strict diet of high quality cat food with a mixture of cooked chicken and grated cheese. Every morning Lesley rises at 5am and juggles a full time career as a disability carer. Preparation takes most of the year, with each cat being groomed and brushed once or twice a week. The wake up time is even earlier on show mornings as there is a lot to do.

This year Lesley hopes to add more ribbons to her collection that already line the doorways of her home. The pair are entering three of their cats in the show. “We arrive at 7am and have to carry the cats all the way from the carpark to the pavilion. It’s quite hard when each cat weighs around 8kg!”

“It’s all worth it when you manage to breed a top-class kitten and it starts to win, that’s probably the reason you do it,” she says. “I’ve had about four or five of those.”

But what makes a top-class Birman kitten or cat? “For the Birmans, it is important they all have the symmetrical white feet, bright blue eyes and a semi long hair coat which means they are fluffy but their hair doesn’t get knotty,” says Lesley, a leading all breeds judge. “That’s how they win.”

The mother of three adult children and grandmother of four is forever grateful to her former boss, IVF pioneer Professor Alan Trounson, who wrote her a letter of recommendation that was the key to get her qualified as a judge. Her relationship with the world renowned scientist began when she joined the Monash IVF team soon after moving to Australia. “Once I had finished my studies, I got a job with Alan Trounson who was looking for someone who could use a microscope for endless hours of the day.”

She was then a part of the team when the first ever baby was born through IVF and was involved in the industry up until 2009. “The highlight of my career was in 1983 when I worked on the frozen embryo project. The Monash group achieved the world’s first frozen embryo birth which was fantastic to be a part of.”

Her judging career has taken her to places such as Brazil, South Africa, America and Malaysia where she has been invited and paid to judge international competitions. Her favourite overseas competition was one held in Portland, Oregon, which she describes as being “bigger than Ben Hur”.

This year the Royal Melbourne Show will host two international judges, one from USA and the other from New Zealand. Each cat will be judged out of 100 by five judges and ranked according to the Australian Cat Federation (ACF) breed standard.

This year the show is featuring the British breed which is well-known for its curly coat and big size. Spectators will also be able to see Persians, Bengals, Ragdolls and of course the massive Maine Coons. There is also a chance to see and learn about different kinds of breeds in the Pat-A-Cat section.

Lesley’s role as show manager involves sorting out over 150 entries, organising exhibitor passes, setting up the displays and making sure everything goes smoothly over the two days.

Lesley freeman and three of her cats
Lesley Freeman and three of her cats.

Alison Hall, secretary of the Governing Council of the Cat Fancy Victoria (GCCFV), which Lesley chaired for nine years, describes her as very friendly and easy going. “She is always happy to assist people breeding cats for their hobbies who come in and does a lot of work for other clubs in our organization,” she says. “And somehow Lesley always manages to keep everything ticking over nicely.”

Asked how Lesley thinks people would perceive her, she says it is possible people would ask how she manages to look after so many cats. “But you know, we all have our things that we do. Some people gamble, I don’t gamble, I just have 13 cats!”

“Just don’t write that I’m an eccentric old cat lady!” she laughs.