The Origin of the Maine Coon - Part II

This article is the second of three installments of an interview conducted with Don Shaw in Memphis in March, 1976. Mike Hicks, Beth Hicks, and Rick Bramham talked with Mr. Shaw. The interview was taped and then transcribed verbatim. Virtually the only editing done was the striking of some repetitious phrases.

MH - This is almost guaranteed to start a fight somewhere - if you had to pick out a number of breeds to create a gene pool to produce the Maine Coon cat, bearing in mind the evolution and conditions they were living under, which cats would you throw in?
DS - If you took todayís show breeds and you wanted to build a gene pool that would produce something that would assimilate or mimic looking like a Maine, what breeds would be the most effective ones to use? If that sort of like what you are asking?
MH - And also what was most likely to have happened back then? What breeds were available?
DS - Well, the cats that were available then were basically the stock that has produced all the breeds you now see. Except the Malay cats; though they might have been somewhat involved, the Malay cats were not heavily involved because the traffic between the Orient and the North American area probably wasnít very heavy. The cats from Europe are primarily the ones we are going to be concerned with because they are the ones that would have gotten over here. Strangely enough, the European cat, by that time, already has what is the basic stock for the Persian which gives us the heaviness of coat and the length of coat. They already had the stock which is now being reimported called Turkish Angora because the Angora-type coat predated, really, what we now have in the show ring as a Persian coat. So that is basically where our coats come from - it is a combination of the Persian-type coat and the Angora-type coat. Along with the European wildcat coat - the Sylvester coat is pretty much like an American Shorthair coat in the sense that it is a hard coat - it is a weather coat and tends to be a shag coat. The Maine combined these basic components - the length of guard hair and the texture of guard hair, and the straightness of undercoat or awn hair coat which probably came from the stock that developed into the Angora. The Angora, you see, has the long silky undercoat - it is not bushy or kinky. A good Persian in 1900, if you felt it in the show ring today, would probably feel like a brillo pad. They have already breed the Persian with the Angora - the Persian breeders donít like to hear about that. The original Persian coat was a very harsh coat - it was like a brillo pad. You find this on blue Persians more than any other Persian now - this bushy coat that is a bit harsh to the feel sometimes when you get a really tight one. The silkiness was bred in deliberately to soften the coat and to lengthen the coat. At one time, they started trying to get away from the use of the term Persian and go to the use of the term longhair to alleviate the more asthetic feelings some people have for misuse of the term because todayís show Persian is not the pure old form of Persian coat.
BH - There is a cat called a Norwegian Forest Cat that, I believe, is shown in Europe. From the information we have received, it is very similar to the Maine. Wouldnít you say that this is not necessarily the ancestor of the Maine, that the similarity is because these cats developed in the same type of climate?
DS - In the same type of terrain, in the same situation. Using the same gene pool, they would come up with the same answer. I havenít seen one but this would not surprise me at all. In fact, I would suspect that if we got up on the Steppes of Siberia - in fact, when we do get on the Steppes we find that the old Archangel was not a cat unlike the one we are talking about. (At this point, there was some general discussion about a small wild cat called a Russian Steppe Cat. Mike and I have seen one and found the resemblance between it and the Maine remarkable.)
MH - What do you think about the suggestions that there is American Bobcat or Canadian Lynx in the background of the Maine Coon?
DS - I doubt it. I doubt it very seriously. The basic components that are in the Maine Coon were already well established in domestic cats and therefore such hybridization would not have been particularly beneficial. It certainly wouldnít have been necessary to get what you have got in the Maine Coon. It might make a nice story for people who want to go in for legends and tales like the kink Siamese - kinked their tails in order to carry the Princessís ring. Those kind of fairy stories make good copy but they donít make good genetics. I suspect that todayís Maine bred to a Bobcat would produce sterile offspring. They would probably be intermediate in appearance to the two parent species. You have to remember that the Lynx is a product of parallel evolution because the Maine Coon and the Lynx came from the same basic stock somewhere back down the line and there has been parallel evolutions at different times in the same terrain with basically the same kind of genetic material. So they would be very similar despite the fact that - like we were talking about with the Norwegian cat - it has a great deal in common with the Maine but it doesnít that it is the progenitor of the Maine. The both has a common progenator. They both evolved in a similar situation though maybe with a time gap of several hundred years between the time the Maine was reintroduced or, rather, the genetic material was reintroduced in the domesticated cat form, so the Maine would evolve parallel to and slightly behind the evolution of the Bobcat.
RB - When you talk about the cat fancy today, you can almost divide your basic body types into the cobby, heavy boned cat and into long, light cats.
DS - And then we have that large group in the middle who do other things with it. You have the long, lithe cat of the Malay body. I usually like to think of it as the Malay body rather than the Siamese body because that implys a breed. The Siamese body is the exemplification of the Malay body just as the American Shorthair that is being shown in the show ring today is an exemplification of the sturdy, shortened, heavier, blocky body. Neither one of them are what nature produced. Nature tends to produce mediocre things, not the extremes.
RB - Arenít Maines the only breed that has put these two - long length with heavy bone - together?
DS - In the American cat fancy today, thatís true. The Maine is one of those exceptions where you have the heavy bone structure and the length of body and the length of head, too. But I donít think it is because it is combining the Malay body with the heavier Persian bone structure. I mean it is a selection out of a pool before those two were split off. It was a selection taken out the middle. It became a survival advantage as we discussed earlier. It would have a terrific survival advantage in snow. I think you can just sort of envision that yourself. Being able to loop over rather than trot along is a rather important thing. With the long body you can get over things and loop through snow more efficiently than you can with a little short cabby body - if your back legs and your front legs are only 6" apart you are going to have a hell of a time getting over anything that is 8" long.
BH - What is the maximum size that we can reasonably expect to get consistently? Now, we are not trying for 30 and 40 pound Maines. Thatís a myth just like a lot of other things.
DS - I would say that somewhere between 12 and 18 pounds would be a reasonable size Maine. A size that you could expect to produce consistently; a cat that I think might have survived consistently. I think when you are talking about cats that are over twenty pounds, unless you are talking about the big structured cats in the wild, you are asking for an unreal thing.
RB - What will happen if people start going for size totally? Breeding the largest to the largest. What limit is there to that kind of thing?
DS - I donít know what is within the gene structure. I donít know until we get there. Thatís the beautiful part about nature - you never know what is available until you have gotten there.
BH - We have got two seven month old kittens that both weigh ten pounds.
DS - Now is it going to be avoirdupois tissue or is it going to be muscle and weight?
RB - It is muscle. Their body tone is just like that Leopard cat. (Note: Don was staying with a friend who owns Leopard cats - a small spotted wild cat from Southeast Asia.)
DS - Now, if you can get that then maybe you can go to twenty pounds.
RB - We realize that we want a cat that is agile.
BH - Well, they were hunters who had to survive. They have got to be powerful & muscular.
MH - What would be the disadvantage to having a cat with all these characteristics be thirty to thirty-five pounds?
DS - Well, when we start putting weight as a characteristic in the standard..... the reason I would sort of hedge and argue on this is I am afraid when you put things like that in your standard, people are going to begin to fatten rather than breed the lean, muscular, hard cat. Particularly in the cat fancy because we tend to cage. If you are going to have large numbers of cats, they usually donít get the kind of exercise that they get in the wild. If this cat had to run ten or twelve miles through heavy terrain every day in order to catch his food and maintain a weight of 25 pounds thatís one thing. When he walks around in his 4 by 4 cage all day long and eats his food because he is too damned bored to do anything else - that kind of 25 pound weight is not going to cut it. I would rather you maintain the physical, muscular stamina and the sturdy physical appearance of the Maine rather than talk about its size.
MH - Would you say that a cat that weighed 25-30-35 pounds in the wild and had to find food to support that type of mass, would probably have died out?
DS - Yea, no animal can develop a mass ..... to maintain a body weight you have to have a caloric intake that balances that body weight. You can maintain any body weight you want to maintain but you have got to have a balanced caloric intake because moving that body weight around requires more energy than moving a smaller body weight around. The size of an animal will be determined then by the availability of food to some degree. That certainly would have been true in Maine. We have also got to remember that small rodents were rather prolific and small rodents have a great survival capacity. Before mankind began to evolve methods of rodent control and animals were left to do their own balancing, there was a considerable amount more food available in Maine than there is now. We shouldnít say just Maine, though Maine may be the name you have got on your cat, that whole area of the North Atlantic coast along there certainly was involved in the evolution of this cat. It didnít just occur in Maine.
MH - Do you think the large size would tend to slow the cat down?
DS - When we are talking about size, we have really got to talk about whether the size is due to bone and muscular weight or whether the size is due to mass of fat tissue. A large animal who has long, strong, sturdy bone structure and good long, firm muscles on that bone structure can move as rapidly as a slender animal. What they do not have, perhaps, is the agility. That is the capacity to turn sharp. But as far as forward movement is concerned, muscular and bone mass is not going to be a tremendous impedance to forward movement. It will impede agility. The Maine cat had a situation of both to cope with - agility and forward movement over heavy terrain were important for survival. So they had to reach a balance between how fine they wanted to be to keep the necessary agility to dodge, to dart, to twist, to turn and, at the same time, keep the capacity to move, to stretch out, to get over logs, over bramble, over snow, over heavy terrain in a forward motion system. They had to be balanced and that is a nip and tuck thing.
MH - We have discussed a number of facets and features of the Maine Coon cat, would you care to stick your neck out and make a declarative statement as to what was the origin of the Maine Coon cat?
DS - I would say the Maine Coon is an evolution projection of the feral cat that escaped from explorers that explored the North Atlantic coast. Probably from the time that the Nordics hit before Columbus up to and including the landing of Columbus. Probably there was even some input after colonization. I would say that the same stock that the Norwegian Forest Cat comes from is basically the same stock that the Maine Coon comes from. I am not saying that it itself is the progenitor, I am saying that the same kind of stock which evolved into that cat is the same kind of stock that was brought here, and under similar circumstances evolved into a very similar cat.

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