ATWATER -- When Mary Benson got her first glimpse of the new litter of feral cats that had taken up residence in her rural Atwater horse barn in late August, she did a double take.
Nuzzled up next to the mother cat were two normal kitties with orange fur.
But then there was this "creature" who was nursing alongside its liter-mates. "It was a white spidery-looking thing," said Benson.
She shook her head and said, "Oh, no. I've had too much coffee today."
Born without fur on most of its body, the kitten is nearly bald. Fur-challenged.
It is also a mutant.
With a pot-belly, large ears, blue eyes and softy leathery skin that radiates heat, the kitten has a light growth of wavy, course fur on its back and tail.
Its head is deeply lined with wrinkles and its flexed muscles are easily visible through the pale skin. Benson describes his large sinewy paws as "little old man hands" with claws that are like razors.
When it was born, the male kitten had just a thin mohawk of fur down its spin and tail, said Benson. As the weather got colder it grew a little more fur.
"When he had that crazy mokawk, he was the oddest looking thing," she said.
Even with the mohawk gone, he is still a very odd looking cat.
Fearing that it would die if left outdoors on its own, Benson spent a month coaxing and taming the wild kitten, which she describes as a cross between the fictional characters, Yoda from "Star Wars" and Gollum from "The Hobbit" and "Lord of the Rings."
Opting for the more charming of the two, the cat is named Yoda.
After being brought indoors, the five-month old kitten has been gradually losing what little fur it had.
Being in possession of this animal oddity fascinates Benson, who would like to explore the possibility that the nearly-hairless cat might be a new mutation that could be valuable for breeding a Sphynx cat. Her family has been in contact with the Sphynx Breed Council to learn about the history of the cats and to see if their Yoda might qualify as a Sphynx, which has apparently become one of the more popular breeds of shorthair cats.
According to information the Bensons obtained from the Sphynx Breed Council, hairless cats have been documented in the U.S. for at least the last century but the Sphynx breed emerged in the mid-1960s. They were reportedly developed by breeding the occasional hairless cat with another mutant with similar characteristics.
But mostly, she and her husband Roger, just like having their new kitten as part of their family.
"He's such a nice kitty," she said. "I love him and I don't want to get rid of him."
The Bensons have two other house cats and a dog that get along just fine with Yoda, who tumbles and plays with the other cats in the animal-friendly house.
Yoda doesn't know he's different than the rest, said Benson, and the other cats don't seem to be bothered by their playmate's odd appearance. He has scratches on his skin from rough-housing with the other cats during playtime. "He doesn't protect his hairlessness," said Benson.
Concerned about Yoda's health, Benson has had him thoroughly checked over by the local vet who declared him a healthy mutant. Benson also got advice on how to clean the excessive oil from the cat's ears and the need to gently bath it.
Although he was born in a barn, Yoda is smart enough to know it's a good idea to stay in the house when there's a foot of snow and single-digit temperatures.
Everyday all the cats stand by the kitchen door so they can go outside for a few minutes. When the door opens, Benson said Yoda backs up and watches the other cats bound through the snow while he stays warm in the house.