Sunday, December 18, 2011

Maine Coons - That Yankee Cat

If you’ve ever seen a Maine Coon you probably ran through the list of comments and questions that many coon cat owners get all the time. Is that a wild cat? Is that thing tame? Is he a hybrid of something? Where do they come from? Wow, that thing is huge, how much does it weigh?  Of course, the list goes on.

These are all actually pretty decent questions, and as the answers have not been wholly adequate when posed in the past, they keep getting asked. Although the Maine Coon was only recognized as a pedigreed cat in 1973, its history actually extends so far back into our colonial era that it has now become a certified New England mystery. I only call it a mystery because there are so few verifiable pieces of evidence to explain the earliest origins of the coon type cat in New England. These long haired, bigger than average, wild looking, domestic cats seemed to have simply emerged from the primordial forests of New England just like Yankee culture.

It is precisely this mysterious quality, mixed with New England story telling and exaggeration, which has allowed the creation of so many legendary versions of the Maine Coon origin story. What we lack in historical evidence is certainly made up for in historical folktale.

In comparison to other cats, the Maine Coon is a bit larger. According to the breed standard publish by the Cat Fancier’s Association; the Maine Coon should be a medium to large cat. This generally seems to translate into a 15 to 25 pound (25 lbs being unusual) male cat, females would be proportionately smaller. This makes the Maine Coon slightly larger than the average house cat. In addition to their shaggy fur, tufted ear tips, long fluffy tail, and solid rectangular body shape, the Maine Coon can look quite large and wild. Undoubtedly, it is this wild appearance which helps to generate the majority of the Maine Coon origin stories.


In fact two of the most repeated stories about Maine Coons claim that they are the product of hybridization between either raccoons or the New England bobcat. Although a brown tabby Maine Coon superficially resembles a raccoon, it is impossible for a raccoon and any species of cat to hybridize, as they are not genetically closely related.

However, this fact did not stop New Englanders from believing that their coon cats might actually have raccoon origins. In an 1893 publication of the journal Science, a New Englander writes in with what must have been a common question. In his letter he wrote:
“I saw in a private house in Chicago recently, two cats which the owners called ‘coon cats.’ They had been obtained around the edge of the forest around Moosehead Lake, and it was claimed that they were hybrids, or descendents of hybrids of the common domestic cat and raccoons.”
The writer went on to explain that the cats were bigger than normal, had bushy coon-like tails, and they even ran around like raccoons. He even mentioned that one liked to climb on high things to stretch out for a rest. He seemed pretty convinced that what he had seen was a raccoon hybrid.

However, in a later issue of Science two readers also write in response to the original coon-cat letter. Both agree that a hybrid between a raccoon and domestic cat would be impossible. They state that these cats are common all throughout New England and most people believed that they were the result of long haired Angoras from Canada breeding with local domestic shorthair cats. This idea is at least more reasonable.

The idea that the Maine Coon is a bobcat hybrid is also implausible. Though many have recently claimed otherwise, according to a 2007 article published on the site Messybeast.com, there have so far been no proven hybrids between either the North American lynx or bobcat and a domestic cat. Not only would bobcats generally view the domestic cat as a meal option, but attempts at forcing the two to mate have so far produced no offspring.

To see a bobcat in comparison to a domestic cat, check out the following video. This would be cool, but scary.


So, if the Maine Coon is not a hybrid, where in the world did this wild looking cat come from? According to the Maine Coon breed profile belonging to the Cat Fancier’s Association, the Maine Coon is the native long haired cat of the United States. This is somewhat misleading, as North America is not the native homeland of Felis Catus, the domestic cat. Nor is it the homeland of the ancestor of the domestic cat, Felis sylvestris lybica, the African Wildcat.

African wildcat- which still resembles a modern tabby

According to a 2007 study published in Science, all domestic cats can trace their ancestry back to at lest five African Wildcats who may have been domesticated in the Near East roughly 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. From there, cats spread everywhere agriculture did. Like today, cats were used to keep rodents and other pests away from food stores. Since cats don’t generally eat grains or vegetables they could be used to control the pest species that did.

In addition, though Native American tribes had various types of domestic dogs, they did not keep domestic cats so far as we know. Therefore, the first domestic cats to arrive in the New World would have arrived with Europeans. However, when that might have taken place is precisely the mystery at the heart of another one of the most enduring Maine Coon stories.

It seems as though most early colonists did not write much about their cats. Historians know that settlers kept cats aboard ships heading to the New World to control mice and rats, but there just aren’t a lot of sources describing them. Some have posed that cats may have been introduced to North America by Norse explorers who may have come from Greenland and Newfoundland to New England around AD 1000.

Believers in this tale cite the fact that the Norwegian Forest Cat, which is another so-called naturally occurring breed from Scandinavia, looks remarkably like a Maine Coon. However, the Norse explorers did not leave any record of the cats they may or may not have brought with them on their trips to Iceland, Greenland, or Newfoundland.
Norwegian Forest Cat - They do look like Maine Coons
Yet, in Ring of Seasons: Iceland - Its Culture and History, author Terry G. Lacy states that a DNA connection has been found between cats from Iceland and the cat populations in other places that have or may have experienced Norse visitation. She lists New York and Boston as being two of these areas. However, she also states that there have been no archeological findings to support this connection so far. Therefore, the theory is interesting, but so far unproven. If remains of cats are found in areas of Norse settlement in North America or more DNA research is done to find connections between Maine Coons and Norwegian Forest Cats, I’d be happy to look into this idea further.

The earliest colonial record describing the domestic cat, at least in the New England area, seems to be William Wood’s New England’s Prospect, originally published in 1634. In his book, Wood describes how colonists struggled against the ravenous population of New England squirrels, something anyone with a birdfeeder knows something about. Wood States that colonial farmers were forced to carry their cats into the cornfields to fend off the rodents.

Although he doesn’t mention anything about what their cats might have looked like, from this source we know that the domestic cat had arrived in New England sometime before 1634. In fact they probably arrived in New England with the Plymouth settlers in 1620, but the early Puritans did not make reference to them. In addition to Wood’s source, archeologists have also found that Jamestown settlers ate their cats during the Starving Time between 1609 and 1610.

Between the 1600’s and 1800’s there are many sources describing the presence of cats in the developing New England colonies. Of course many of these sources are connected to Yankee superstition and the fear of witchcraft. Some Puritans believed that witches could take the form of cats to harass and injure their victims. However, there are no references to coon cats or Maine cats as a particular type until at least the nineteenth century.

In fact, according to an 1883 article in The Boston Journal, a coon-type cat by the name of Angora Dick was shown by a Mr. Robinson of Bangor Maine. The author describes the cat as being a savage looking animal of fourteen pounds. In 1895, at the first national cat show held in Madison Square Gardens, a coon-type cat from Maine won first prize for best long haired cat. It’s apparent that in these early cat shows, cats were not classified by breed, but by type. A New York Herald article covering the 1895 cat show lists among the prizes, first place awards for best short haired tiger cat, largest and heaviest cat, best pair of kittens, and best short haired cat.

Cosey- winner of the 1895 cat show
So, sometime between 1630 and 1880, coon-type cats began showing up in New England. By 1883 they seem to have become very well known. In Frances Simpson’s 1903, The Book of the Cat, a chapter is dedicated to the mystery of the Maine cat. The chapter is authored by F.R. Pierce, a resident of Maine.

In her chapter, Pierce offers some insights into the history behind the origins of the Maine Coon. However, even she seemed a little unsure. According to Pierce:


“As to how and when they came, I would say, like Topsy, they just ‘growed,’ for their advent reaches far back beyond the memory of the oldest inhabitants.”
Hence, it seems that even the residents of Maine didn’t quite know how their coon cats came to be. However, Pierce offers what must be the most believable and probable origin story of them all. According to Pierce, Maine was one of the largest ship building states in the mid eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. She states that captains and their crews imported many different types of animals freely, from seemingly everywhere in Europe, Africa, and South America. Among these imports were many different types of cats from all over the world. These cats would earn their keep in a similar fashion to the original domesticated cats of the Near East, by killing the rodents aboard ships.

Many of these cats were brought back to Maine, where they were basically left to live freely. From this large genetic stock of felines, Mother Nature selected only the most fit to survive and breed. New England’s harsh environment more or less naturally selected a larger than average, long haired cat.


Early Coon-type cat
Pierce states that these cats were once more prevalent within Maine coastal towns, but were soon gifted to relatives further inland. The cats continued to spread and dominate the feline populations of these areas until the coon-type cat became quite common throughout New England.

There are, of course, several other legends attributed to the development of the Maine Coon. One of the more probable states that an early English sea captain by the name of Coon often kept cats aboard his ship. These cats would often mingle with the local short haired cats when the ship was at port. Eventually, so the story goes, these cats came to be called Coon’s cats.

Another of the more improbable stories connects the development of the Maine Coon to the execution of Marie Antoinette. This story states that the former Queen of France, when faced with execution, loaded her most prized possessions aboard a ship captained by a man named Samuel Clough. Sadly, Marie Antoinette was killed before being able to escape. Captain Clough then brought his ship to Wiscasset, Maine, as per the original plan. Aboard this ship were six of Marie Antoinette’s Turkish Angora cats, which mingled with the local short haired Yankee cats, thus creating the Maine Coon.

If this were true, which I doubt, I don’t think six more long haired cats adding their genetics into a population, which already included possibly hundreds of other long haired cats smuggled into Maine by other ships, would make much more of a difference.

Although Maine Coons enjoyed success in the early American cat shows, its popularity began to decline in the later twentieth century. By 1950, it was believed that the Maine Coon had actually become extinct. However, with the creation of the first breed standard by the Central Maine Cat Club, the coon cat began making a come back.

Despite having to apply three times for recognition to the Cat Fancier’s Association, an organization created in 1906 as a registry for pedigreed cats, the Maine Coon was finally accepted in 1975. In addition, in 1985, the state of Maine declared the Maine Coon would become its official State Cat.

The Maine Coon continues to be a popular pedigreed cat. In 2010, it was the second most popular breed of cat behind the Persian. In addition, in 2010 a Maine Coon named Stewie earned the world record for being the longest ever domestic cat, at 48.5 inches from the tip of his nose to the tip of his tail. The article states that the average cat is only about 18 inches long, which makes Stewie pretty impressive.

Longest cat in the world

Researching the origins of the Maine Coon proved to be pretty fascinating. I must admit I have only seen a Maine Coon a few times in my life, each time I thought they were large, handsome, and impressive cats. Although most of my friends and family have cats (we’re animal people), few people I know actually have a pedigreed cat of any sort. My fiancĂ© and I have three cats (Cosmo, Coors, and Jaime), all of who have no pedigreed background of any note. However, like most Yankees, they seem to share this mixed un-specified, yet wild, background with the original coon type cats of New England, the ancestors of the pedigreed Maine Coons of today.

1 comment:

  1. In standard units, the Maine Coon would weigh from around 7 to 11 kg, with the average cat around 45 cm in length, while the longest cat was more than a meter long at 123 cm.

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