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The Origin of the Maine Coon - Part III

This article is the last of three installments of an interview conducted with Don Shaw in Memphis in early March, 1976. Mike Hicks, Beth Hicks, and Rick Bramham talked with Mr. Shaw. The interview was taped and then transcribed verbatim.

RB - We talked a little about polydactyls and why, they have .....
DS - Yeah, that is a simple genetic dominant. It has variable expressivity in that it can have ..... It has extra digits. How many extra digits and how well formed those digits are is subject to some modification. The basic gene that causes extra digits is a simple dominant.
RB - Is that a beneficial thing for a Maine Coon to have?
DS - Well, it would have given them ..... Well, the snowshoe rabbit again we mentioned before in the polydactyl type phenomenon and it would have given extra supportive mass - area mass not weight mass.
RB - But because it is variable in expression you could have problems if you tried to breed for that? Would you have problems with defects? There are a couple of Maine Coon breeders interested in keeping this.
DS - I cannot give you any good reason why not to have a polydactyl Maine if that is what you want. I mean I cannot give you any good selective reason as to why it would be advantageous or disadvantageous; whether a polydactyl is healthier or less healthy than other cats. I will say that some personal experience with the poly is that they do have some dexterity with the front feet thatís rather interesting. They can climb in a different way than other cats. They do not climb by simply hanging their claws in but they actually use the thumb-like digit.
RB - Would this enable them to handle their food in the same way as a raccoon which may be part of the reason for .....
DS - Well, polydactyls can do that to some degree. There are other cats that can, too. The poly would tend toward the more thumb-like phenomenon and therefore the adaptation would be there to do this.
BH - I donít know if you are familiar with it but there was a study done by someone connected with a university in the 1950ís which showed that 40% of the Maines were polydactyls. Now, this was before they came back on the show circuit.
DS - That wouldnít surprise me at all. It would certainly ..... regardless of whether it gives them an increased capacity for climbing on slick surfaces or rocky surfaces which I know from personal experience from the poly who used to climb the lattice work posts that were holding up my patio roof. Heíd go up them like a monkey! That could have some advantages in their survival. Being able to handle food with more dexterity would certainly have some survival advantages. But I think we could definitely say, I donít think anybody would argue with us, that the increased area - the area mass increase compared to the weight mass increase of the polydactylís feet - would give them a greater capacity to walk on snow. That alone would be sufficient selective advantage that it would not surprise me at all that polydactyl was very prevalent. If it was ever introduced, it would have become prevalent in that area.
RB - Where did it come from? What raw material carried that?
DS - We donít really know. Polydactyls have been popping up in cat populations universally. I am sure that it was in the European cat in 1500, 1400, 1300ís. But what was itís original origin, whether it was from an Asian origin or an African origin, I have no idea. I donít think anybody can speculate on that. We know mostly about it because of the British. The British write about it and the British talk about it but that doesnít mean that thatís where it happened. We tend to think things happened with a British background because thatís where we found out about them. That doesnít necessarily mean thatís where they occurred. The British found them and exploited them. Thus it becomes known to us as of British origin. Thatís particularly been true in the cat fancy. We give a British origin to a lot of things that really did not originate in the British cats per se.
RB - You donít, then, foresee any real problems in breeding polys. It is not like taillessness?
DS - No, the skeletal abnormality involved here is not one that is deformative in the sense that it carries any ill effects to the animal. Living with a poly for a year and a half, I saw that he was as healthy and happy as any cat. His capacity to do whatever he did was only enhanced If anything by the structure. I find nothing I would say that would be against it. Expect it is aesthetics, if you donít like it aesthetically then - you know.
RB - People say that a Maine Coon sometimes appears out of a shorthaired litter. In other words a longhaired recessive pops up and these cats appear all over the country. Can you call those cats Maine Coon cats? If they have the type, appearance and the coat?
BH - In the 1960ís, a lot of foundation stock was registered all over the country because it appeared to fit the Maine Coon standard though most of it, I would say, out of longhairs.
DS - Let me put it this way. Some associations had and some still have a rather open registration system and you can go out here in the streets of Memphis this afternoon and you could probably pick up 25 or 30 cats and put them in a breeding colony. We could get out of them some cats that are point-colored and would conform fairly well to the Siamese standard. At least, we wouldnít disqualify them in the show ring as having such insufficient merit that they do not warrant being considered in the breed. We could also, out of that group of cats that we picked up off the streets of Memphis, produce an animal that would conform sufficiently to the Maine Coon standard to be able to be shown without being disqualified for insufficient merit. I would ask you this - is the Siamese a Siamese and is the Maine a Maine? Both of them came out of this breeding population. I say that neither one of them is truly a Maine nor is the other one a Siamese. They are the selected remnants of things that have been in the Siamese and selected remnants of things that have made up a Maine which are in the general population of cats now running the streets of most major cities. Our wild population in the streets of any large city now are an accumulation of all the mistakes and the dropouts and the escapes and what have you. So, any large citiesí cat population in the wild has practically all of the genetic material necessary to produce any breed being shown.
MH - With that in mind, what would be your recommendation to purebred cat breeders in regard to foundation registry?
DS - You donít really want me to talk about purebred cat breeders. Because I have got one word for purebred cat breeders. The only thing pure about it is the bull _____! Letís talk about pedigreed breeders because pedigreed breeders is a meaningful statement. Pedigreed breeders means people who project the linage of their cats over a given period of time and a given number of generations. I have come over the years to appreciate the fact that we do have to have; if you want consistancy, if you want to buy two cats and they are both supposedly ..... you buy two cats that are Maine Coons and you want them to produce like progeny, you can do that only with honest, pedigreed lines. The cat that we got out of those 25 or 30 - if we breed it to a Maine, it may produce lovely kittens. It also may produce American Shorthairs in the litter, it may produce Siamese in the litter .....
RB - Whoa, Don, two longhairs wonít produce a shorthair since longhair is recessive.
DS - No, but you could get all sorts of body types and coat textures and things popping out of it. The only way you can consistently get progeny from two parents that are going to be like unto them is if they are from pedigreed lines where you know that they are going to consistently do it. It is controlled knowledge. As I say, the cat we pick up on the street that we could put in the show and I would show as a Maine could be bred and it might produce Maine Coons.
MH - May I infer from that then, that you would recommend the outlawing of foundation registry?
DS - No, I am not saying that I outlaw foundation registry. I am saying that what we should do is to try to let people know the difference between buying an honestly pedigreed cat from one who is foundation record or one who is unknown by unknown. In the sense, that if you buy a cat from unknown by unknown that tells you exactly that - you can get whatever happens to come out of unknown by unknown, regardless of what it looks like. If you buy two cats out of honestly pedigreed - and I am going to keep stressing the word "honestly" pedigreed - cats then you have a 95% chance of getting cats that are going to fall within the showable range of its parents. I think we can sell cats and we should sell them on that basis. We should sell pedigreeing on that basis. Honesty of pedigree. That if you buy my cat with its pedigree then you can know that you will consistently get this type of cat if thatís what you are interested in. That is not to say you canít get a cat that looks like this one, acts like this one, and so forth and it might even produce kittens like this one - it might, but you donít know. Itís how much chance you want to take.
MH - Which is what breeding pedigreed cats is all about - getting like kittens.
RB - With a breed like the Maine which is not new but is new in pedigrees, you had to start with foundation registry. I mean, you didnít have pedigreed cats.....
DS - Everybody started with foundation registry. God did not make any pedigrees! (General laughter)
RB - ..... youíd be better off getting a Maine type cat from the Northeast than elsewhere.
BH - Wait a minute, let me give you some background on what heís thinking about before you answer that. There are or have been in the past approximately 10 to 15 separate and different lines of Maines. All the registered Maines in existence now have only got that much in the gene pool. Ten different lines - foundation cats that we know about. There has been discussion lately that this is a tremendously small gene pool - not for now but for ten years from now. A need for more bloodlines is seen by some breeders but encouraging foundation registration is asking for trouble. I mean, itís fine if someone is honest and careful; sets goals and knows where theyíre headed - thatís how we got where we are now. But there will always be someone who doesnít know what to breed for and drags in junk and breeds junk.
DS - I am not asking you to encourage foundation stock. I am going to say this about foundation stock - I know what happens when you say no foundation stock. It just means that when they find the cat, they lie about it. Youíd set up a system where it is more beneficial to lie than to tell the truth and anytime you put a man or a women in that position, there are very few of them that will not lie. Thatís why I keep stressing the words honest pedigree. I want us to start looking at it from the standpoint of trying to get more honesty in the pedigrees by giving you the latitude to do that but when you do it, say you did it so we know what happened and what to expect from it. That, to me, is more important than whether ..... We set up these arbitrary rules - you know, "you can import Maines from Maine for foundation record". Alright, so I happen to pick up one in Arizona. I tell you I got it in Maine. How in the hell are you going to prove that I didnít get it in Maine?! So you are putting in an artificial thing to make people lie - you canít control it. Never make a rule you canít control!! Because then you are making a rule that you are encouraging persons to be dishonest with.
BH - Wouldnít the odds be better to get kittens of proper type from foundation stock from Maine than elsewhere?
DS - I would suggest that that is true. The closer you go to the original gene pool to pick up your material, the more that gene pool is going to reflect the reality of what you are looking for. Sure, you can find dribbles of silver in weins of earth in various places but if you really wanted to mine silver, you would go to a silver mine. You wouldnít just go out and try to pan it out of sparse silver areas. So if I were looking for the stock to make up Maines, I would think that the best thing to do is go to Maine or that area. Preferably away from the larger cities. On the converse of this, if I were looking for foundation American Shorthair stock, I think I would go to South Central Texas. In fact, I happen to know somebody who happens to live in South Central Texas and thatís where she produced some of the finest American Shorthairs in the country from foundation stock!
RB - I was thinking of the colors in the Maines and where they originated. It seems to be predominately tabbies and particolors.
DS - When the early stock was brought over, letís face it we didnít have the colorpoint system, we didnít have silvers. The cats that were running around Europe and were the most prevalent cats were brown tabbies. A few blues and they were odd. I can remember even when the Maltese cat - any blue cat - was sort of a special cat.
MH - Out in left field, where did blue cats come from anyway?
DS - Well, presumably from the Isle of Malta by British heritage which is why it is called Malteseing, but thatís probably not true. Itís probably that some sailor had picked up a cat and she had some kittens and one of them was blue and they were on the Isle of Malta. Some Britisher thought that that was an unusual cat and got a fancy for it and took it home and you got Maltese cats.
BH - Wouldnít the tabbies, especially brown tabbies and particolors, be better from a camouflage standpoint. You know, reds will stand out like a sore thumb.
DS - In the native wild, yes.
BH - We may edit this considering the fact that we all breed brown tabbies!!
DS - No, I think brown tabbies probably were ..... well, the European progenitors were brown tabbies - Sylvesterís a brown tabby.
RB - We talked about blue Persians and that they were for some reason typier than other colors. Does color influence type at all?
DS - No, not per se. Itís a matter of gene pool. 1tís kind of like taillessness. The taillessness got carried along with other tremendously advantageous things. Remember the blue Persian was the original Persian. That is, as far as the show Persian is concerned. Thatís not because blue was an early color. Itís because blue was a late color and therefore it was a novelty. The novel is what we dwell on usually. What you have seen all your life you never think about making a show piece of until somebody comes along whoís never seen one of them before and they decide itís a show piece. Then you start maybe bringing those things in the house!
RB - When we see a brown tabby and say it looks like a Maine Coon thatís our conception, itís not that the brown tabbies tend to have the Maine Coon type? What I am thinking of is a lot of the old Persian brown tabbies were very close to the Maine Coon.
DS - SHHHHH, you said that didnít you?
RB - I did say that.
DS - Shall we play that for the Persian breeders? I mean he might as well be in hot water, too!
BH - Heís doing a good job of getting himself there!
DS - The Persian cat in the show room ..... somebody reached down and grabbed up a hunk of genetic material. It happened to be blue because thatís what attracted their attention since it was different. They set it aside and stopped breeding it with the general population. The general population of cats that they picked that up out of didnít have these pushed in faces and the big round eyes and the little tiny ears sitting way down on the sides of their heads and they didnít have those tremendously bushy coats. The breeders selected for these things. They set these cats aside and removed them from the main stream of catdom. The first ones were blue. Therefore all the accumulation of genetic material that made a really typey Persian was associated with Maltese. The Maltese gene just happened to be there because it was the color that attracted their attention but then they did all the selection around it therefore it is intimately involved with it. It is not that the blue per se makes the Persian better. Itís simply that it happened to be accumulated and associated in with the glob of genetic material. Now they reach back into the pool and decide we want them to be brown tabbies or what ever. Well, when they did, the cats had the big ears, long noses, and the longer bodies .....
RB - They had a Maine Coon. (General laughter)
DS - No, the Maine Coon has taken this and gone the other way. You see, with the Maine weíve taken the same main stream of catdom and pulled out a section and dropped it over on the coast of North America. Then nature did the same thing to the Maine Coon that little old women in London were doing to the blue Persian. Nature selected .....
RB - Are you saying that we have close to a natural breed of cat?
DS - Yes, I am saying that you have what nature selected rather than what humans selected. Now you are going to reverse the phenomenon, probably, and mess it up!
RB - Thatís what weíd like to avoid.
DS - But you see the brown Persian didnít have a Maine face. It had the native face of cats. The Maine is an extension of that selected in another way.
RB - In other words, in introducing the other color, they brought in the other.....
DS - Right, when they go dipping back into the general pool where Maines came from and they originally came from (and have now been selected away from), they bring back those traces of intermediacy.
MH - Back to specifics for a second, why do the Maines have the longer faces?
DS - I would suspect "better to snatch thee out of your hole, baby" to the mouse he says! I mean, can you imagine a flat-faced Persian trying to burrow a field mouse out of a hole! Can you imagine! If the best cat in show in the blue Persian class were left in Maine to survive next winter on the field mice that it could catch with that sawed off little face - regardless if you kept it warm and everything else and even got it up to the mouse hole once a day - I suspect that it would die.
MH - Can we print that?
RB - She will.
DS - Well, I donít see why not print it.
RB - Well, itís obvious to anybody that has any sense at all.
BH - Iíve always said Iíll take anybodyís Persian and my Maine, throw them out together and weíll see whoís still surviving in six months.
DS - But letís donít knock the poor Persian. Pretty clever beast, too. Being short faced and bugged eyed like that, he has an aesthetic value which created a great deal of interest and he did quite well by himself. He sits in his little nook and eats nicely minced kidney while your Maine is off out there having to plow through that snow looking for the mouse hole. Which cat is the smartest?!
RB - Adaptation to a different environment.
DS - Right and intelligence is adaptation to your environment. The Persian has been very intelligent.
RB - What do you think of hybridization to increase gene pools and color range?
DS - I find nothing wrong with it if its done with controlled, honest, pedigreed breeding. When you see something you want, you go out and you deliberately dip in and get that, bring it back in and then set it in your breed. Donít just keep messing back and forth - thatís playing, thatís backyard breeding. But when you see a color or you see a feature, a characteristic that you want and you think would be advantageous or aesthetically pleasing or beneficial in some way, then dip out, get it, move back in, and set it. But keep honest pedigrees on how you are doing it.
RB - Of course, a lot of associations wonít allow it anyway.
DS - Well then, what you can do is start changing your registration systems because you are people who are voting members of associations. Registration rules are written by people. I think, if I am not terribly mistaken, all three of you qualify. At least, you would not be disqualified in my ring as being of insufficient merit to qualify as a human. Since humans write standards and humans write registration rules, those you can change to fit more honest breeding procedures than they are now structured to do.
RB - Do you have any specific ideas on.....
DS - Oh, Iíve had a lot of them and I fight them constantly!! Thatís another whole Scratch Sheet!
BH - Does anybody have anything else? We have gotten a little off the subject and are almost out of tape.
O.K. Thanks, Don.


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