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The Origin of the Maine Coon - Part I

Beth and Mike Hicks (Tanstaafl Maine Coons) and Rick Branham conduct a candid interview with the late Don Shaw, TICA Allbreed Judge, geneticist and outspoken genetics editor of "Cats" Magazine. Don Shaw, in Memphis to judge the Memphis Cat Fanciers show on March 20-21, 1976, graciously agreed to be interviewed by a panel of Maine Coon breeders on the origin of the Maine Coon cat. The interview was conducted in the home of a Memphis cat fancier. It was taped and then transcribed verbatim.

DS - I personally feel that the Maine is the result of what nature was permitted to do with the cat on the north Atlantic coast of the North American continent. During the period of the exploration of this area, the rats and pests on board ships were a great problem. Cats were great seamen's omens and they carried them constantly on ships. Like their shipmates, the cats jumped ship from time to time. The cats that did escape and were on the coastline of the North American continent had to survive in those winters that did occur. If you really look at the structure of the Maine and you look at the coat of the Maine, I think that it is the kind of thing you might have expected nature to produce starting with a lot of raw material. Evolution has supplied us a great deal of genetic variation. The cat is a very good example of this because we have a tremendous amount of genetic variation in the general group of feline species. When nature is permitted to operate then those structures that will make that cat most survivable in that terrain will be the ones that will show up because the animals that have them will survive better than the animals which did not have them. They will be the ones that survive until spring to breed and reproduce. I think that is what happened in Maine. If you look at the Maine Cat, I think you will see these features - the long legs, the long body - these help them to get through snow, through terrain, through wooded areas, over things.
BH - In the standard, it calls for medium legs and a long body for a rectangular shape.
DS - Well, medium legs only in the sense that they are medium in regard to the length of the body. If you took their legs in regard to the legs of other cats, I think you'd find that they would be relatively long because the Maine is a relatively large cat in general. But with the extremely long body, the legs do not appear to be as long as they are. They are also a heavy-boned cat, a characteristic which given them a great deal of stamina and sturdiness with regard to being able to move through heavy terrain and rugged country. Dainty-legged things would not survive in those heavily wooded areas with tangles, snow, slush - that type of thing. The coat - sparse underneath, relatively, as far as very long shagginess is concerned, but shaggy down the back and down the sides. If it were very heavy underneath, it would only accumulate snow and as this would melt, it would freeze and refreeze. The result would be a matted mess and would cause a great deal of problems in getting through wilderness. The coat on top is insulative from nature; it sheds water and snow and the wind that the cat would have to face in those kinds of winters.
BH - Why the shortness (of coat) in the shoulders?
DS - I would say that the shoulders of the cat are the widest part of the cat. If you can get your shoulders through something, you can get your body through it. Remember these cats are having to make their way through the wild and must move rapidly from time to time in order to survive. If you had a heavy, shaggy coat on the shoulder area, this would tend to hang up on knotholes, hollow trees, crevices between rocks, running under branches and logs, etc., while evading your pursuer. I am not by any means implying teleolistic concepts here; they did not develop short coats on the shoulders so they could get through these places. I am saying that the short coat is due to the fact that the animals that did not hang up in the brush were the ones that tended to survive to breed in the spring that followed.
RB - What kind of texture would the coat be for it not to mat?
DS - The guard hair, or top coat, on a Maine should be a rather hard hair. That is, they would be a slick hair and would have a full cuticle on it. That's what would stand the kind of conditions we've been talking about. The undercoat, or awn hairs, would be soft but fine and strait, not the curled or kinked hair that you find in the awn coat of some cats like the blue Persian. The down coat would be very soft and very close-lying, but also very dense. This gives you a great deal of support to keep the upper coat off of the body so that it does not tend to mat next to the body. A long, silky coat mats and kinky awn hair coats mat. This would be very disadvantageous to a cat who is surviving in wilderness conditions. We are not talking about Maine today - even though anybody that has been to Maine in February can still consider it a wilderness - but we are talking about the Maine of, like, 400 years ago. They were completely at the mercy of nature then; they couldn't huddle under houses, shacks, or man-made structures. They would have had to depend entirely upon what was available in the way of caves, rock notches, hollow logs, trees, and things of this type in order to bed down and keep warm to sleep. I think you can see that a very long, bushy coat like a Persian with that heavy, dense undercoat would be very detrimental and be hung up in the brambles about half the time.
RB - How would that kind of coat feel to the hand?
DS - Well, I am having mixed emotions because I am describing a coat and I am also thinking at the same what I feel on Maines that I think feel right. What you see in the show room and what you know that nature would have produced aren't always the same thing. This is kind of difficult because when I feel a Maine coat that really turns me on, what I get is a feeling of softness and, at the same, a feeling of firmness or hardness to the coat. It isn't silky like you want on an Angora, but it is also not bristly hard. It has a resilience to it. The individual hairs have substance and glassy hardness about them, and yet the total effect with the substantial undercoat is a bushy softness as you stroke the cat.
MH - Why do Maine Coon cats have big feet?
DS - Oh, snowshoe rabbits have big feet, do I need to say any more? It gives them better traction; better support on a soft, snowy surface which they had to spend a great deal of their lives on.
MH - Why tufts on the feet?
DS - Same reason, it gives you more structure on the foot for support on the snow. It's like putting on a snowshoe. Tufts are light, yet they distribute the weight on a larger surface so the feet don't push down in the snow. And, of course, for warmth as well.
MH - Why large ears?
DS - Probably because they had to depend a great deal on their hearing. The ones that survived were the ones that heard the best and had the best directional hearing. Large ears will give you a better funneling in of sound from specific directions. Maines also have tremendous ability to move their ears. The Maine should be noted for being able to funnel the sound from almost - I would say that they can move their ears probably 75 to almost 90 degrees. Abys have this - denoting closeness to their wild form.
MH - Wouldn't a cat with very large ears in a very cold climate have trouble with their ears freezing?
DS - The Maine is more heavily furred on the ear than most cats. Also the ear structure on the Maines that I have seen that have been very good Maines, or what I thought were very good Maines, tend to have a thicker ear structure than some others. You also have to remember that they are not going to be out flailing around with those ears standing high in the air unless they have something that is attracting their attention. They do lay their ears back, and the Maine is one of the cats that does tend to lay its ears back.
MH - Why a long tail, especially a long, bushy tail?
DS - The tail is a sort of a rudder or steering gear for animals - maybe that's why man is so clumsy. If you are going to use a tail in a lot of slushy, cold, windy, snowy weather, you don't want a tail that keeps getting caught in the snow; if it is furry and fluffy it will lie on top of the snow and not tend to submerge into it. That also protects it from cold. It would give them a great deal of rudder power in running, moving and maneuvering at a rapid pace making short turns because you have more balance.
RB - Don't you think that this would also be a big factor in keeping the thin parts of the face warm since the cat could curl the tail across its face?
DS - In the resting position, insulation on the tail can be used to cover head and face and shoulder areas which are less furred. Remember you want them less furred because they are the leading part that would tangle when you go through things. So there would be a double advantage to having extra fur on the tail and extra fur on the body because as they curl up, they could insulate the parts that are sparsely furred. If you notice foxes and a lot of other fur-bearing animals of the north countries, they have these kinds of tails. You can visualize little foxes in their holes with themselves just curled all up in their tails, and you can hardly tell which end of them is where.
BH - Our current standard calls for tufts on top of the ears and tufts that curl back behind the ears, but this is something that we are not seeing very often in show rings. Even on one cat here in town, with what I would consider a perfect coat otherwise, there are no top-tufts. Is this something that has just been put in the show standard or is this something that would have helped the cat?
DS - Let's look and see if it was there or if it is something we are asking for. Whether it has aesthetic value or not, that's another thing. It has aesthetic value to me because I like tufting (agreement here that we all like it and wish we could get it consistently). But that shouldn't be our reason necessarily for deciding whether to leave it or take it out of a standard. If you want the Maine cat to be what nature produced it to be, then let's see if tufting should have been there. Probably the Maine cat's major progenitors from Europe were the products of the breedings between the European wildcat, Sylvester, and the Asiatic cats which are very much like the Aby. Now both of these cats are tufted, so the earlier cats we would have expected to be tufted. Most of the wild cats of Asia tend to be tufted, that is, the small wild cats. So I expect tufting was a native phenomenon. Does it have an advantage in the survival system of New England? Back to where Mike was talking about the largeness of the ears; yes, tufting gives extra insulation. Also, without adding weight, it gives mass to the ear for funneling sound in. You see, the Maine is peculiar in that it has heavy bone and muscular structure, and yet it has a lot of other mass which is not weight mass. This makes it a much more massive cat than it actually weighs to be if it is in proper structure - which, again, is important in moving on snow. A Burmese would have one hell of a time in snow - that is a good Burmese, a chunky Burmese. They are all solid and have relatively slender legs that would plunge right into the snow and there they are - a little bundle stuck right in the middle of the snow. The Maine's weight and mass is distributed in length and in coat, giving more buoyancy to the weight.
BH - The width at the base of the ear - does this increase the mobility?
DS - Width at the base increases the funneling capacity. The things that hit you up here aren't all that important, it is what gets down in the base of the ear that you hear.


© "The Scratch Sheet", Summer 1976.
Reprinted with permission.