COSEY, winner of the first cat show in the United States, in this 1895 public domain photo.

COSEY, winner of the first cat show in the United States, in this 1895 public domain photo.

This week’s article is one for all animal-lovers, myself included so please forgive the self-indulgence, that may provide some lesser known facts about one that is specifically native to the state of Maine.

The Maine Coon cat is among the largest and oldest natural domesticated breeds of cats in North America. Males can weigh from 13 to 18 pounds, females from 8 to 12 pounds. Height of adults can vary between 10 and 16 inches and they can reach a length of up to 48 inches, including the tail which is long, tapering and heavily furred. The body is solid and muscular, which is necessary for supporting their own weight, and the chest is broad. They are slow to physically mature; their full potential size is normally not reached until they are 3 to 5 years old, while other cats take about one year. It is a long or medium haired cat. The coat is soft and silky, although texture may vary with coat color. Some have lion-like ruffs around their necks. Minimal grooming is required, compared to other breeds, as their coat is mostly self-maintaining owing to a light density undercoat. Because of its size, it is known as “the gentle giant” and for its intelligence and playful personality — it is often cited as having “dog-like” characteristics.

They have several physical adaptations for survival in harsh winter climates. Their dense water-resistant fur is longer and shaggier on their underside and rear for extra protection when they are walking or sitting on top of snow or ice. Their long and bush raccoon-like tail is resistant to sinking in snow and can be curled around their face and shoulders for warmth and protection from wind and blowing snow and it can be curled around their backside like an insulated seat cushion when sitting. The extra large paws of polydactyl Maine Coons facilitate walking on snow and are often compared to snowshoes. Long tufts of hair between their toes help keep the toes warm and further aid walking on snow. Heavily furred ears help keep their ears warm.

There is speculation about the ancestral origins of the Maine Coon. One such folk tale involves Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, who was executed in 1793. The story goes that before her death Antoinette attempted to escape France with the help of Captain Samuel Clough. She loaded Clough’s ship with her most prized possessions, including six of her favorite Turkish Angora cats. Although she did not make it to the United States, her pets safely reached the shores of Wiscasset, Maine, where they bred with other short haired breeds and developed into the modern breed of the Maine Coon.

Another folk tale involves Captain Charles Coon, an English seafarer, who kept long-haired cats aboard his ships. Whenever these would anchor in New England ports, the felines would exit the ship and visit with the local feral cat population. When long haired kittens became appearing in the local litters, they were referred to as one of “Coon’s cats.”

A myth which is trait-based, though genetically impossible, is the idea that the modern Maine Coon descended from ancestors of semi-feral domestic cats and raccoons. This is likely based on the common color (brown tabby) and its bushy tail. The generally accepted theory is that the Maine Coon is descended from pairings of local cats and long-haired breeds brought overseas by English seafarers (possibly Capt. Charles Coon) or 11th century Norsemen. The connection to the latter is seen in the strong resemblance of the Maine Coon to the Norwegian Forest Cat which traveled with the Norsemen.

During the late 1860s, Maine farmers told stories about their cats and held the “Maine State Champion Coon Cat” contest at the local Skowhegan Fair. In 1895, a dozen Maine Coons were entered into a Boston show. On May 8, 1895, the first North American cat show was held in Madison Square Garden in New York City.

A female Maine Coon brown tabby named Cosey, was entered, owned by a Mrs. Fred Brown. Cosey won the silver collar and medal and was named Best in Show. The collar is housed at the Cat Fanciers’ Association’s Central Office in the Jean Baker Rose Memorial Library. Popular in cat shows in the late 19th century, its existence became threatened when long-haired breeds from overseas, such as Persians, were introduced. In the early 1950s, the Central Maine Cat Club was created by Alta Smith and Ruby Dyer in attempts to increase the popularity of the breed and for 11 years held cat shows creating the first written standards for the Maine Coon.

In 1985, the state of Maine announced that the breed would be named the official State Cat. The Maine Coon has since made a comeback and is now the third most popular cat breed in the world.

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