CHRISTINA MARAZIOTIS and her husband, Lee Browning Ezell, have always loved animals. Despite growing up on opposite sides of the world—Christina in Athens, Greece, and Lee in Arkadelphia—both were raised in very animal-friendly homes, caring for pets and regularly rescuing strays. It was something they bonded over early in their relationship after initially connecting online through their work as photographers. When the couple settled in Arkansas in 2016, they did so on a 17-acre ranch near Lake Ouachita, ultimately sharing the property with their five horses, all rescues, and two Alaskan malamutes.
Oh, and about 20 cats.
Not just any cats, however. These were purebred Maine Coons, the largest domesticated cat breed, which can grow to be over a foot tall and more than 3 feet long. These animals served as the foundation of the MetatronEyes cattery (named for the cats’ expressive eyes) that Christina started back in Athens in 2012. Along with her mother, Eva, and sister, Monica, Christina had started breeding these “gentle giants” after becoming enamored with them during a visit to a cat show.
Not long after that, Christina and Lee met, and their relationship developed into a whirlwind romance—the two haven’t been separated since. Once the couple got married and decided to relocate to Arkansas, they began the process of moving the cattery overseas.
While Christina and Lee still consider photography their day job, their work with the cattery is a full-time endeavor. The couple have even managed to marry their work with their passion in the form of their Gentle Giants of the Wild fine-art photography series.
Today, MetatronEyes Maine Coons has a three-year waiting list for the regal creatures the cattery produces and has delivered the animals to clients all over the world. We recently spoke to the couple to find out how it all happened.
(Editor’s note: The excerpts from this conversation have been edited for length and clarity.)
The Feline Persuasion
Christina Maraziotis: I grew up with animals. We had many, many cats, many dogs, always. We had guinea pigs, rabbits. Everything, really everything. We did a lot of rescue work with cats. It’s pretty bad in Greece—we have so many strays everywhere. So we were rescuing, and I don’t know; it just happened.
Basically, I went with my family to a cat show, and we saw these huge Maine Coons, and we were just shocked at their size and personalities. It’s the largest domesticated cat. Once you see them, that’s all you need to know. I mean, really. They’re just so majestic, and they don’t look like any other breed, to me. Later, we purchased a Maine Coon as a pet, and about a month after, we decided to start a cattery.
Lee Browning Ezell: Christina’s the heart and soul of the cattery. It’s something she got into when she was quite young, before she even met me.
CM: I was 16 years old, and I feel like it’s kind of unique for someone so young to start something so difficult.
LBE: It was kind of the Wild West, trying to figure out how everything works.
CM: Yeah, it was pretty difficult because we were extremely alone.
LBE: There’s so much education that you have to know. Until you get into it, it’s very easy to underestimate the amount you have to be educated on—not just veterinary things, but genetics. It’s a huge subject that it’s kinda … you can’t just go and get a master’s degree in it. There’s no organized education on it, so you just have to pull from so many places and people and books.
CM: And you’re dealing with living beings, and anything can happen with different genetic lines. You just have to really experiment a lot and kind of find your way. We did a lot of showing in Europe. You learn the more you do it.
Home is Where the Cats Are
LBE: People come to us with their highest ambition. It’s people, so many, that maybe can’t have kids or don’t have kids, and they take this decision so seriously as far as bringing a new family member into their home. So we kind of have this interview process where we talk with somebody for a really long time, and we get to know them for a few years before they ever even get a baby from us, and it’s a two-way street of trust.
CM: It’s a hobby, and it’s not. We’re basically working almost 24/7 on this, because it does require so much work. It’s not just the cleaning. It’s not just the knowledge that you have to really refresh every year.
LBE: It’s not a business model that works if you apply the stereotypical cost-cutting practices you have [with] a store or if you have a competitor product. It’s a living creature, so you can’t approach it that way if you’re trying to do everything as ethically as possible. It’s kind of a unique situation for us, being photographers who are self-employed. If we travel for a project, we bring in Christina’s family to take care of everybody here. As you know, with digital work, most of the time, you’re sitting at the computer back at home. So that lets us be here with the babies. We’re very busy, but we’re also at home a lot. And that is what you have to be when you have so many little fluffs depending on you.
CM: They live with us, you know? We have a nice living room with really nice TVs and everything, and we have a really nice leather couch that has scratches everywhere.
LBE: We have these huge cat trees. We take these 12-foot-tall oak trees out of our land, drag it up with ATVs, Arkansas-style, you know? Cut it up with a chain saw. We have a really big open floor plan between the first and second stories, so it’s like a fireman pipe they go up and down.
CM: We’re actually going to put a cat run in.
LBE: We’re always expanding, making different things for time outside. We maintain probably about 20 [cats] that stay with us at any given time because inbreeding is obviously a big, nasty thing that you want to stay away from. So if you only have three cats, you reach that wall pretty quickly. So 20 is kind of the equilibrium where we find it’s manageable, where everybody has their own room, their own space. Luckily, we live out in the country. We have a really nice big house, and everybody works out well that way. But 20 is kind of the Goldilocks Zone.
Bringing Up Babies
LBE: It’s so crazy when you have a little pregnant mama. They become very attached to you and dependent sometimes, and they want you to be there for the actual birth.
CM: We actually have three bedrooms upstairs that are kitten rooms. They all have beds in there.
LBE: It’s like little kitten nursery areas—little kitten bedrooms with these cute little colors.
CM: And we have those soft beds. We don’t have any cages in all of this. We’re totally against that. From like two weeks before the due date, we sleep together with the queen. We have the birthing box on the bed.
LBE: If a cat gives birth in the wild, there’s a reason why they have so many, and that’s because they’re only cooking in there for like two months. So they’re kind of not fully cooked when they come out. They’re these little jelly beans, and they’re very delicate. And there’s a reason why they might have—let’s say an average litter is five kittens—most of them might not make it in the wild. So we kind of have to be on standby to make sure that we’re there to do all these little medical things that they might need.
CM: It’s not just that. Some females don’t know how to be a mother immediately. They might hurt the babies. You have to be there to calm them down, to help them and support them. And it’s crazy because you bond with them, and they bond with you.
LBE: It’s a very hands-on process. It’s not automatic at all.
CM: We just now had a litter, and she had two kittens. But 32 hours after, we thought we were feeling another kitten in her belly, but we weren’t sure because she was very calm. But then all the sudden she just started talking to us, and sure enough, she had another kitten.
LBE: That’s atypical. But atypical is typical for this, because there’s always something that goes wrong with biology.
CM: Then you sleep next to them for about two weeks.
LBE: Because if the mama rolls over on the kitten and doesn’t realize she’s on it … they’re tiny. They can’t breathe. They can’t support that weight. So every time you hear the tiniest little squeak, you wake up. It’s like having a human infant. You’re on call 24/7 until they’re big enough and strong enough to kind of be on their own.
CM: And after three weeks, they start crawling out of the box.
LBE: They start opening their eyes. They start trying to crawl around. Sometimes you’re lucky and don’t have to give milk, and sometimes you’re nursing with a bottle every two hours. So, again, it’s just like a human baby.
We have these stages of socialization where we introduce them to other cats. We try to get them prepared for what life is like in an actual house. If you have a baby animal that is isolated, that doesn’t see people or a house or anything, they’re terrified in what we consider a comfortable environment. It’s different for them. So we try to run vacuums around them so they know what that big monster is. Some of our kittens ride on the vacuum because they’re taught that it’s not something to be afraid of. The same with heavy music or people talking, just normal family things.
It’s only after about four months of age [that] they’ve had all their shots. Their mom has decided they don’t want anything more to do with these crazy kids anymore. But they’re still young enough that they are looking at this big world with bright eyes ready to adapt to a new home, too. A 4-month-old Maine Coon kitten, honestly, is not dissimilar from an adult normal cat. So it’s kind of crazy when people come to us, they’re like, Is that a kitten?
Worth the Wait
LBE: We have so many waiting-list people that we’ve gotten to know. Every family is different. You might have a young family that has eight kids running around, and they have this crazy energy in their house. That suits a certain kitten. If you have this little old couple who migrate from boiling their tea to their reading nook in the corner, and it’s dead quiet, and they just want somebody calm to come cuddle up with them—that’s different, too. So we really try to match personalities with homes in a really, really compatible way.
So it’s not until the kittens are about three months of age that we feel pretty confident—because even kittens have their teenager phase and different phases they go through. But once their personalities kind of settle, we start to go through our list, and we give our own recommendation on compatibility with the homes.
I thought long and hard about how to set up our waiting list and the way it works because there’s a lot of different ways to do it. But here’s what made sense to us: To have everybody just kind of have an order that gives me an order to go by because we’re blessed to have so many good families. I don’t want to be in a position where I have to say, Oh, who do I like better? We actually have a number that we follow. And that applies for all litters that we produce.
CM: It’s just always a learning process. I think we pretty much know how to find the best homes by now because we interview the people.
LBE: And we’ve had the luxury of some of these people coming to us that we get to be completely selective, which is so important because these are our babies.
CM: We get to know the people for sometimes years before they get kittens from us. And if we don’t like something, we have the right to not give the kitten.
LBE: Even at the last moment. If somebody doesn’t smell right, we have cash on hand to just give them back anything they gave us, like, OK, done.
Refining the Breed
LBE: Christina’s actually absolutely hands down the expert on this. The wild-card is genetics. There are so many recessive genes, and genetics is such a broad pile of information when you put two lines together that there are so many possible combinations from that, and there are so many recessive genes that it might only pop out many, many generations later. It’s such an incredibly complex subject. So that’s the big future refinement we’re always trying to make in our job as a breeder, preserving the breed and refining the breed better over time.
When we bring somebody new in, it’s what we call outcross line. Even if you have 20 cats, you reach that wall pretty soon. So you always have to bring in fresh blood.
CM: And retire the older cats after a certain amount of time.
LBE: Not viewing them as machines, there’s a healthy reproductive system that lasts for a few years before they start to get older, and it might be more difficult for them.
Right now, our waiting list is closed. We’ve cut it off at about three years just because after that we feel like it’s a lot of people to talk with on a consistent communication basis, but also kind of difficult for making somebody plan out much further than that. Three years is already a long time. Part of the advantage of having a certain group of people is there are no kittens that fall through the cracks—even if you have one that’s not the most popular color, for example, or somebody that’s kind of a more difficult personality. We’ve never had a situation where we don’t find the correct home.
The MetatronEyes Family
LBE: We do, I think, a wonderful job of having a big happy family here. I can see the advantage of not building a bond, but also you lose a lot of that little special ingredient that we try to have if you do that. So it never gets easier.
CM: We name all of them. We really do. We wait until they’re old enough to know their personality to give them a special name. But it is difficult to give them away.
LBE: There are some times on that final day when Christina hides and makes me be the bad guy. It’s not any easier for me, but it’s the least I can do to help her.
You become so bonded because you are their whole world for that time. Over the course of four months, you get pretty accustomed to having them around. But here’s what helps: When you have families that you’ve known for a long time, you trust them, and if you don’t trust them, you don’t get the cat. Period. So that’s always there.
Also, we can’t keep up with everybody in the whole world, but when somebody has a cat from us, we continue that relationship far beyond the day that we hand over our baby. They throw birthday parties for them. They send us little pictures with their little birthday cake many years down the road, and we’re on their Christmas-card family greeting list.
We don’t give out our personal cellphone number anymore, in general, but I get texts every single day from families that have our babies just saying, Hey, look what he got into. Somebody has, let’s just say, a medical question at midnight. Sometimes they’re going to call us. We’re not vets, but we’ve seen a lot. We have this little what we call our MetatronEyes family. It really kind of grows and becomes tighter and tighter over time. That is the biggest thing that helps is knowing that you’re not going to lose your connection with the babies after they go away.
Want to know more about Christina and Lee’s work with the cattery? Visit metatroneyes.com