Catty Remarks Aside, They're Back Big : * Pets: To their owners, Maine coons are smart and personable. To their detractors, they're an unsophisticated lot. But both agree, the cats are HUGE.

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After decades of derision and neglect, Maine coons are making a big comeback.

The key word here is big .

For people unfamiliar with felines, Maine coons have very little to do with the state of Maine, and almost nothing to do with raccoons. Maine coons are a kind of cat--in some ways they're like ordinary, everyday house cats. They have bushy tails and stand-up ears and come in almost every color of the cat rainbow except Siamese tan. But in at least one respect Maine coons are an entirely different breed of cat.

They're big--really, really big. While the average, run-of-the-mill, yowling-in-the-alley cat weighs about six or eight pounds, Maine coons average twice that--and some Maine coons tip the scales at 28 pounds or more.

Maine coon supporters contend that this breed is smarter than the average cat.

The origins of the Maine coon cat are somewhat shrouded in mystery. According to most sources, Maine coons were created when European longhaired cats brought to Maine in the early 19th Century got frisky with local shorthaired cats that had gone wild. Because of their long hair and enormous size, legend had it that Maine coons were a mix of cats and raccoons, a theory dismissed by biologists. Other people say the name Maine coon derives simply from the breed's geographic origins and the ringed tails of the early Maine coons.

Whatever their origins, Maine coons were highly esteemed in early America for their mousing abilities, for obvious reasons: A big cat can eat more mice than a little cat. But while they may strike terror in rodents, Maine coons are extremely gentle and affectionate with humans--"the gentle giants of the cat world," says Wini Keuler of the American Cat Fanciers Assn.

Maine coons were an extremely popular breed throughout the 19th Century; in fact, according to Carol Lawson of Casselberry, Fla., who is the Maine coon "breed committee chairperson" for the ACFA, a Maine coon won best cat honors at America's first cat show in 1898.

Shortly thereafter, however, Maine coons began to fall out of favor with cat show judges--Lawson blames this on the introduction of the haughty Persian breed--and Maine coons eventually disappeared from the cat show circuit. It wasn't until the late 1960s and early 1970s that Maine coons were once again recognized by the major cat associations.

Now, according to Lawson, Maine coons are the third most popular breed of registered cat in America, behind Persians and Siamese. Others dispute this, saying that Maine coons rank no better than fifth in popularity.

But most Maine coon owners seem to agree that it hasn't been easy for Maine coons to claw their way back to respectability in the cat world.

"We get called a lot of names," Lawson says. "A lot of people call it a barn cat."

The discrimination against Maine coons often is said to be regional. For example, according to Lawson, "in California it's been very difficult to win (at a cat show) with a Maine coon cat."

In fact, according to Anita Ballard of Long Beach, who breeds Maine coons, until last year there wasn't a cat club on the West Coast that was dedicated to Maine coons. Ballard and some other Maine coon partisans solved that problem by creating the Maine Event Cat Club.

"We try to have a nice, friendly club," Ballard says. "We try to keep the Maine coon politics out of it."

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