The legend and history around this cat started in the 1600’s when it is determined that the breed first started to evolve. The Maine Coon is a very large cat and was considered the blue-collar worker of the cat breeds at the time. Because of their size, strength and skill seafarers and warehouse owners valued these cats as they could take on the big wharf rats and larger vermin and keep the numbers down. One thing that was noticed in some of these cats, above the size, they can go up to 20 pounds, was their toes. The natural anomaly, the double dewclaw. Some had mitten paws or thumbs that could be manifested as six or seven toes on the front feet and an extra dewclaw on the back feet. They used their paws almost as a hand when hunting and playing. This was considered a great asset for these cats. These were the Maine Coon Polydactyls.
It is estimated that roughly 40% of the Maine Coon population were polydactyls. In the 1800’s the cat gained recognition as a show cat and references have been made to some that were shown in Madison Square Garden. The Maine Coons enjoyed this time in the limelight but it was due to come to an end with the introduction of the Persian, another extremely beautiful cat. They fell back into the shadows for a while, but breeders kept the breed alive and around the mid 1960’s formed an organization to have them recognized. This organization also recognized that the Maine Coon and the Maine Coon Polydactyl should be preserved as Americas natural breed of cat, after all they were both Maine Coons. The obstacle they had to overcome was getting acceptance with cat associations to get the cat into the show ring. They made proposals and submitted data on the cat. The one thing that was decided at the time though, was not to include the Maine Coon Polydactyl in this standard. Getting the breed accepted was challenge enough and it was supposed that in time the MCPolydactyl would follow. Some breeders continued to breed the MCPolydactyl patiently waiting the day they too were accepted.
It is very important to remember the time and era that this was happening. We can all remember things that happened then that would never happen or be allowed to happen today. It was just the times. Just as we now can see the amazing advances that have been made in the areas of knowledge, technology, medicine, human rights and tolerance. The list can go on.
Genetics knowledge at this time was very lacking and here is where things unintentionally started to go wrong for the Maine Coon Poly. Breeders were following pedigrees and tracking the backgrounds of the cats to try to make sure they were getting the correct breedings. The dedication to this breed or any breed by the breeders is amazing but some things were not in their control.
Cats used for the foundation of the breeding stock were in actual fact regular cats that met the breed standard and there was no knowledge of what lay in the cats past. Extra toes were just that, extra toes. Unfortunately that is not the case. The anomaly of the Maine Coon Polydactyl is the extra or double dewclaw. There are other toe patterns such as a split toe, but these are not forms of polydactyl. It was thought that any additional toes were the same trait and every foot variation got lumped into the “polydactyl” category. People unknowingly used whatever toe structure they had. This was not a deliberate act but a mistake. Unfortunately, this lack of knowledge led to the birth of some kittens that had bad leg deformities and the problems caused by these breedings were extrapolated to all of the Polydactyl anomalies, not just those ones that caused problems.
The Maine Coon poly breeders were put in a tough position. They wanted to preserve the cat but not at the expense of innocent kittens and were protecting the quality of life of the cat. They were confused and didn’t want to go through the heartbreaks even though the affected kittens were not Maine Coons. Some breeders chose not to continue with the polydactyl breeding programs. This did not happen with all breeders. Those that were successful choose to preserve the trail for future generations. It was unfortunate that at this time there was no Internet and instant communications like today, where people could share their information easily.
Bad news travels very fast, especially in associations that are as close as cat breeders and fanciers. It seemed that many breeders had their own horror story to tell about the polys and the myth and misinformation grew. The Maine Coon polydactyls were now mistakenly branded as a deformed and crippled cats and no ethical breeder would breed them. They would not be accepted in the breed standard. End of topic. End of discussion.
Breeders that were successfully breeding the genetically correct Maine Coon Polydactyl were now in a very difficult position. Politics plays a big part in associations. Their hearts told them to continue and preserve the cat, but they also had their reputations as ethical breeders to consider. The pressure was on them now to conform or else. Still some did not conform but they did not advertise the fact they still had the polys and continued to keep this aspect of the breed alive. Time moved on, and the myths were passed along from breeder to new breeder seeming to get worse with each telling of the tale. It was now seen as cold hard fact.
With the advancement of science and technology some of the Maine Coon Polydactyl breeders and fanciers started doing research and gathering scientific data. This lead to more interest in the anomaly and very slowly people started coming forward with their cats and breeding programs. They were few and far between. They accepted the challenges and pushed forward regardless. Some have met with animosity, discrimination and out right nastiness. Subtle threats, rumors about their fitness, ethics and catteries, memberships declined are some of what these dedicated people face. Why? Because people are misinformed and afraid of what they don’t understand. It is easier to hold onto a fear than learn the truth.
In the past year the question about the Maine Coon Polydactyl has been raised again in different groups of people associated with cats. I know this, as I was the one raising the questions. I joined different cat groups and asked for information and offered to share new information that could be informative. A very few were receptive but it was made perfectly clear, by some that seemed to be in a position of authority, that this was not a topic for discussion, the cat was never going to be allowed, don’t mention it again, topic closed. Period.
I was completely amazed at the strong emotion my few questions caused and even further amazed at the closed minded attitudes of some of these people. Never having belonged to a cat fancy before I was unprepared for the reaction. It was time to do some more research. I discovered this type of sentiment was world wide within cat associations, firmly ingrained and very little tolerance to anyone who challenged it.
What started out as research that was asking why, was now turning into a cause, that as I saw it, needed to be fought. How could organizations discriminate against an animal to the point where breeders were culling them close to extinction and totally accepting and ignoring fatal anomalies that were documented as such?
Together with another lady, who had tried in the past, I suggested the revival of the small group of Maine Coon polydactyl owners, breeders and fanciers. My friend had already fought a long hard battle for years but was willing to try one more time, to satisfy the quest of a beginner. We revived a group that went from 6 or 7 postings a month, into a group of people with postings of over 400 per month, and growing. This may not seem like much by some standards but it was wonderful to see this group pick up.
People started joining from all over the world as friends told friends and MCPoly lovers told MCPoly lovers. A new organization has now been founded for the preservation, protection and acceptance of the Maine Coon Polydactyl. Our goal is to educate. Through education we believe that we can break down the myths, create an awareness and give this animal the chance it deservers with out the stigma attached. Our organization believes we are at a critical and pivotal time for the preservation of this unusual and distinctive feature of America's only native cat. This anomaly was derived from nature and nature selected the polydactyl as a survivor. Man is trying to impose his own rules of what is normal, natural and beautiful on this cat with, we believe irreversible consequences. Times have changed from long ago. New factual and scientific information is available and we would like this anomaly to be given the respect and honour it deserves before it is lost forever.