CATS magazine October 1978

CATS magazine, Volume 35, No. 10, October 1978, pages 8 – 9, 54Gale Maleskey


Gale Maleskey

AS A FLATLANDER come to live on the edge of Maine’s Great North Woods, I had to go through certain tests of my credibility during my first few months. Having had to leave my own cat in flatland, I yielded to impulse and began fussing over someone else’s Big Tom. Through this, I became the recipient of increasingly elaborate Maine Coon cat tales ranging from the gruesome to the heroic. One of the best: How a Maine Coon led a band of children from thin ice.

I came to think of these big friendly felines as supercats, guardians of the woodpile and general store – as Yankee stoicism and humor incarnate. They never seemed ordinary, even when they were just hanging out around the barn. When I met my first show Maine Coons, they were as dignified, well-groomed and genteel as their country cousins.

Maine Coons are now one of our most up-and-coming show cats. After an almost 30-year effort by a dedicated core of cat clubs and organizations, notedly the Central Maine Cat Club – and now the Maine Coon Breeders and Fanciers Association (MCBFA) – the cat has been accepted by all nine North American registration organizations.

Recognition was given first by the Canadian Cat Association and the American Cat Association in 1967. Other registries soon did the same, except for the Cat Fanciers’ Association (which waited until 1976). In all associations, about 20 Maine Coons have become grand champions since Sir Driftwood of Pupuli, a White neuter owned by LaVera Miller of Glendore/California, earned his ACFA alter grand championship in 1971 to become the breed’s first grand. Driftwood sired many fine Maine Coons before his operation, and was the great-great-grandsire of Purr-bred’s Silent Stranger, first MC grand in the CFA.

It is not unusual to find a dozen of these cats at some of the bigger East or West Coast shows, and up to 40 of them have been shown together. The CFF Steel City Cat Club’s shows in Pittsburgh seem to have developed into the continent’s biggest annual shows of Maine Coons. CFF’s Down East Cat Club in Maine brings out the home team each spring to compete against cats from all over the United States and Canada (many with relatives in Maine). On the West Coast, breeders of MCs are based mainly in central California, with the Central California Cat Club Co-op helping to spread the good word.

Along with the ribbons and acclaim have come the normal problems associated with a “new” show breed. Foundation registration, refining the standard and regional differences in the cat are some of the problems breeders are now working to solve. They are determined that these problems be solved to the benefit of the cat – not to the satisfaction of people or organizations.

Any Maine Coon owner will tell you these cats have got it together. Maybe they’ve been mellowed by countless years of country living. They are definitely “people” cats – affable but independent, playful, intelligent, strong, calm cats.

Marilis Hornidge is a Waldoboro/Maine woman who has written a book about these vats (The Yankee Cat, due to be published soon). She asked Maine Coon owners to list three adjectives describing their Maine Coons. The two most frequent answers she received were “loving” and “intelligent.” One woman wrote that her cat was “1. Self-assured; 2. Very self-assured; 3. But not stuck up about it.”

Typical “old-time” Maine Coon cool is typified by eighteen-pound Heidi Ho’s Heathcliffe II, owned by Harold Hansen of Staten Island/New York. This fine specimen recently breezed to a grand championship at a Down East show in Portland. After two days on the road, he was carted hither and yon in his carrier, confined in the hotel bathroom so he wouldn’t have the opportunity to make acquaintance of a certain young lady, flashbulbed, ogled and human handled. He was as nonchalant about the whole thing as if he’d been stretched out on a sunny porch. Some Maine Coons do like to let people know they’re no sissies – which, apparently, some judges enjoy. “Good show,” exclaimed a judge at a Newark/New Jersey show after a 20-pound male had all but tossed the good judge’s toupee on the floor.

These are the rugged individualists of the show cat world. They are big and sturdy. They have had to develop their wits to survive in a harsh climate, and they’re prodigious hunters. When I first saw Chelsea, a Brown Tabby female owned by Barbara Washburn of Malvern/Pennsylvania, she had been out stalking pheasants before coming in for a shampoo and blow-dry – all before noon!

The Maine Coon’s most distinguishing feature is its tufted ears and feet, which are similar to a bobcat’s. Fur curls outward from the inside of its ears, and tufts extend from the tips. Its feet are tufted between the toes.

Its fur, which is more like real fur than the “fluff” of many longhairs, is short on the back, gathering in thickness and length to provide a “ruff” on the chest and “britches” on the hindquarters. The tail is a long, thick plume – so big, in fact, that the cat is sometimes attached.”

Its head and body are more squarish than round. They give more the appearance of substance than most cats, with their heavy-boned, muscular bodies. They have high cheekbones, a square muzzle and wide-set slightly angled eyes that are usually gold or green.

They come in every color that cats come in. The MCBFA list 28 different colors and coat patterns for the cats, from Cameo Smoke to Red Mackerel Tabby.

There are plenty of stories about exceptionally large Maine Coons tipping the scale at up to 40 pounds. These may be mostly stories. Zigmunt Kozaczka, himself a MC breeder, writing for Cat World magazine in 1973, said that the 40-pounder (or anything close to it) remains small in number. A conservative number, he said, would be around eight nationwide. Elizabeth Eastman of Ktaadn Cattery in Brunswick/Maine says the biggest one she has ever seen weighed 28 pounds and was pregnant at the time. Earl (Gene) Eminhizer, a breeder in Warren/Ohio, says he bred one male who weighed more than 33 pounds.

Let’s just say these cats are larger than usual, with females averaging ten to twelve pounds and the males fourteen to sixteen, occasionally reaching 20 pounds.

The fascinating mixture of fact and fiction that surrounds these cats is a big part of their charm.

How they got the name “Coon Cat” is a matter of conjecture. They may simply have looked like raccoons to the natives, since the brown tabby with its bushy ringed tail occurs most commonly in nature. The cats also converse occasionally with an endearing trill or chirp somewhat like the cry of a young raccoon. They have been accused of romancing with real raccoons, although offspring from such a liason is genetically impossible. They have also been coupled with a mysterious “Captain Coon” whose existence has never been verified.

f1978 Where the cats came from is open to debate. Some people believe that Maine sailors picked them up during their world-wide travels, and that the Maine Coon is a cross-breed of Oriental, European and domestic breeds. Their genealogy may include the Angora, the Russian longhair, the English short hair tabby, and even native American bobcat. People who believe that the cat has bobcat blood have conducted genetic studies to support their claim.

Then there’s the story that Marie Antoinette had her cats shipped by a Maine captain to Wiscassett/Maine in anticipation of escaping to America, and that the cats are descended from her cats. A supporting fact: The beheaded French queen’s furniture still waits in one of the seaport’s houses.

A further link with Marie Antoinette is provided by author Marilis Hornidge. The cats are known to resemble in size, coat and facial features a Norwegian forest cat, called a “skogg-cat.” In fact, MCs are often called “shag cats” in Maine. Hornidge says Marie Antoinette was a good friend of a Swedish prince who, knowing she loved cats, could very likely have brought her some forest cats, which in turn might have been shipped to the New World.

Maine Coons were the first show cats in America. Although no definite records are available, it is known that exhibits of the cats, mostly at fairs, were held in Maine during the 1860s.

Mrs. E.R. Pierce, who lived inMaine for many years, was probably the first person to scientifically breed the cats, according to a 1959 CFA Yearbook article on the cats. One of Mrs. Pierce’s cats, Cosie, a Brown Tabby neuter owned by Mrs. E.N. Barker, won best cat in the first modern cat show in Madison Square Garden in 1895. Her best Brown Tabby, King Max, won the Boston shows in 1897, 1898 and 1899.

The first volume of the CFA register, published in the early 1900s, lists 28 Maine Coon cats. But interest was already turning to the more exotic breeds such as the Persians, and for half a century, the Coon went back to tending farms and docks in its native state, with appearances only at occasional local shows.

Interest in the cats was first revived by the Central Maine Cat Club, which in the 1950s began to hold shows just for Coons. Through the interest of people like Ruby Dyer and Mrs. Robert Whittemore, who organized the club, the cats began their comeback.

In 1968, six Maine Coon owners gathered in Salisbury/Connecticut to form the Maine Coon Breeders and Fanciers Association, which has worked to have the cat shown and registered, and to develop a standard for the breed (describing what the “ideal” Coon should look like). This group, along with the Maine Coon Cat Society, drafted a unified standard for the breed, which was adopted by these groups in 1972. This standard is now used by most registering organizations. CFA has its own standard, which is similar but somewhat more restrictive. The standard used by ACFA differs only slightly in wording.

MCBFA now plans to start tightening up its standard. According to the group’s Scratch Sheet editor Beth Hicks, MCBFA may think about adding “tip tufts” to the ear description and may refine the coat description in the standard.

This rising star has had problems that are to be expected for a breed just getting established in today’s fancy.

Foundation registration is one problem that concerns many breeders. Of the dozen or so breeders interviewed, most are happy that all associations have now granted the cat full show-breed status. But most are unhappy that CFA allows foundation (first generation) cats to be shown.

“They probably were thinking that this would help us out in the beginning by letting us register and show more cats,” said Rod Ljostad, a breeder from Port Chester/New York and former MCBFA president. “But,” he said, “we are disappointed with the lack of generation restriction. We wanted to first-generation cats to be registered but not shown. We wanted to have three generations of registered purebred cats before the cats could be shown. Foundation cats have no known ancestry. They may produce a different kind of cat. We are against anything that dilutes the breed.”

Jean Rose, executive director of CFA and the person to propose to their board that the cats be granted championship status, explains that with such natural breeds as American Shorthairs and Maine Coons, and with some mutations such as Rex or Scottish Folds, foundation cats or cats registered with other organizations are at first allowed to be registered and shown. Later, as the breed becomes more established, CFA tightens up on the rules, added Ms. Rose.

“It is quite possible,” she said, “that we could rescind this decision for Maine Coons, and demand that kittens born on or after a certain date have registered parents.”

Breeder Harold Schwartz of Kalicoon Cattery, Rockville Centre/New York, said “CFA wants an American Longhair,” and this may be why their entrance to championship showing has been made easier than some breeders would like.

Another problem is that at one time an estimated 40 percent of Maine Coons were polydactyl; that is, they had extra toes. MCBFA has a separate standard for polys” which is exactly the same as the regular standard except that it allows for “multiple toes, on either the fore or hind paws, or both.” But since no registration organizations presently allow it, fewer polys are now found among the breeders. To some, it seems a shame to disqualify the cat for a trait that puts it at a natural advantage in a rugged world, providing it with a big “snowshoe” and an almost thumb-like appendage that helps it climb and scoop up mice. Some breeders do deliberately retain this gene and sell their polys as pets. “The problem,” according to Beth Hicks, “is with the cat fancy. They have just never accepted polys in any breed.”

Some regional differences seem to have occurred in the breed, but the slightly longer nose of some Virginia cats or the shorter coats of some Midwestern and California cats are merely the trademark of particular lines.

The alleged introduction of a “hybrid” cat into a Californian line about ten years ago resulted in the formation of the International Society for the Preservation of the Maine Coon Cat a year and a half ago. But, says Beth Hicks, “the situation was investigated at the time the charges were made and everything was found to be legitimate.”

Nevertheless, Arizona breeder Zigmunt Kozaczka, the moving force behind ISPMCC, says the introduction of the “hybrid” resulted in a change in the characteristics of the line. “The coats of these cats are even all over,” he says, “not shaggy. They do not resemble purebred Maines, although some do have some features of Maines.”

Members of ISPMCC are said to sign an “oath” stating that they will breed “only true Maine Coons who bear pedigrees showing East Coast backgrounds.”

The group, however, has no backing from the Maine Coon Breeders and Fanciers Association which started in the East. Some of its members feel that ISPMCC has engaged in unwarranted personal attacks on breeders.

Two California breeders who would comment on the situation were optimistic about the track record of the breed in their state.

Said Mrs. Suzanne Servies of Suzeran Cattery in Pacific Grove about ISPMCC, “They are saying their cats are ‘purebred’ and ours aren’t, which isn’t true. Theirs have a different background, that’s all. Our point of view is that if the cat meets the standard, it doesn’t have to have a written East Coast background.”

Another breeder, Mrs. Lynne Sherer of Albany, said, “Although I can sympathize with both sides on this controversy, I am appalled at the unprofessionalism of these accusations. If some California breeders have Maines that are not particularly good, it should be up to the judges to decide this, not other breeders. The judges are quite familiar with the cat. I think breeders are aware of deficiencies when there are any, and are bringing in other cats to improve their lines. There’s a lot of interest in the breed here. It’s fantastic!”

And so, oblivious to the exciting games that people are playing over them, the New England cat that knew it was special all along has now become a very special cat to very special people throughout all the North American cat fancy. However disputes about them are decided, the Maine Coon will remain a true symbol of the spirit of our continent.