This cat costs pounds 400. It chases labradors: Tim Wapshott goes on the trail of the latest in consumer collectables, and finds himself face to face with the Maine Coon, monster moggie

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Indy Lifestyle Online
TUCKED away in the classified section at the back of the men's style monthly GQ is an advertisement that draws attention to itself with a photograph of a large cat. The only listing under the 'pets' heading, it reads: 'Maine Coons. The authentic big cat from America. Wild-looking, intelligent, extrovert and very loving. Behaves like a dog. All colours. Kittens ready now.'

For cool cats of the human kind, the next collectable to add to the list begun with Filofax, mobile phone and Boss accessories is the monster moggie. This small advertisement found its way into this particular magazine by design, not default, as the breeder behind it explains.

'It's the gentlemen who like these cats, because they're so wild-looking,' says Anita Rowsell, who claims to have been the first Briton to import the long-haired felines for serious breeding purposes. She began nine years ago and now has a house in Lewes, East Sussex, that is overrun with more than 20 of them.

Living up to the claims in Anita's billing is not easy. In her kitchen, two litters of kittens look out from grey metal cages either side of an Aga. Although clearly not unloved, these tiny creatures look sorry enough to grace Boots greeting cards. 'They look like little scrag bags at this age. But they're like cygnets which grow into swans,' adds Anita.

At six months, the balls of fluff have grown into large, heavy-boned cats but not, perhaps, as big as an over-active imagination hopes for. A healthy adult Maine is about the size of a small poodle or jack russell terrier; measuring as much as 36in from the base of the tail to the padded front paws, which can be 2in across and look just like lion's paws in perfect miniature. The beasts can weigh anything up to 20lb and come in variations of three colours - ginger, tabby and grey. Other characteristic features include high cheek bones, firm chin, long whiskers and upright, pointed ears.

Myths abound as to the origin of the Maine Coon, which derives its name from the state of the same name and has been prowling around America for an estimated 450 years. Some believe them to be indirectly related to escapees of Marie Antoinette's cherished cat collection, shipped to the New World in the fall of her reign, which bred with the wild cats of the east coast. Others say they are the extraordinary descendants of cats mated with bobcats, lynx or even racoons. Their thick coats, it is said, evolved to endure the harsh winters they faced in the wild. By the mid-19th century, however, they were caught and domesticated by farmers to catch rodents. Now they are enormously popular in America and are known as the State Cat.

Anita cites as advantageous selling points a host of features unique to the breed, a cat and dog rolled into one fur coat. As independent as any cat, they can nevertheless be trained to walk on a lead, come when called, wag their tails when happy, love travelling in cars, fetch balls and toys, love water and pant when tired. Maines will even perform pointless tricks, like standing on their back legs and twiddling around in circles.

'Their appeal is their wonderful temperament; they're not neurotic, not highly strung, don't cower under tables or hide under chairs. They're very demanding, very persistent. If there's food on the table they keep jumping up again and again. They want to know what you're doing and, just like a dog, they follow you all day long to find out. Maine Coons are extremely powerful and particularly fast,' says Anita.

On the minus side, some moodier Maines deserve the nickname 'pitbull pussies' for their potential ferociousness. A worried or frightened Maine that lets out a growl rather than a hiss, is said to be impossible to hold; blood-letting swipes at owners are not unheard of, and they'll even chase off labradors or hounds encroaching on their territory. 'Rather like a dog, they don't like being handled by strangers, so no one bothers to steal them,' Anita adds.

Between them, Anita's 10 breeding queens and three studs (she has another five adults, purely as pets) produce 15 or more litters a year, averaging five kittens each. If you want to buy a kitten to keep as a pet it will cost you pounds 400, but if you plan to breed, the price rockets to pounds 700. Anita's home-based breeding business grosses in the region of pounds 40,000 a year and, despite the slump, business remains brisk. She has even exported the cats to Spain, Germany, Sweden and Australia. 'The demand is amazing; they say there's a recession, but you wouldn't think so. People are coming along and buying two at a time; one man has bought seven from me.'

And it isn't just cash Anita's customers must find. You walk away with one of her kittens only if you sign a 13-point contract, covering everything from not allowing the cat to roam wild to promising her first refusal to have the cat back if, at a later date, you decide to sell or even give it away. Yvonne Griffiths, of Worthing, West Sussex, has signed Anita's contracts three times. She says: 'My partner and I are not rich, and when we tell friends what we've paid for our three cats they think we're completely mad. You've got to be nuts to pay pounds 400 for a cat when you can get one for nothing so easily in Britain. We drive around in two old bangers and our cats are worth more than both cars put together.

'We live in a town and although I really wanted to get a dog I saw the Maine Coon as a much more suitable substitute. Far less demanding. They are chunky and aesthetically very beautiful. They've got the most wonderful tails, which look like boas and quite incredible personalities.'

The cats live for 20 years on average and, despite a tendency to claw soft-furnishings, they are proving particularly popular with pubs and old people's homes, where they have a calming effect, absorbing all the tactile affection on offer. But being a 'Dog called Kitty' can have drawbacks. 'Our eldest one, Rupert, is a bit grumpy,' admits Yvonne. 'He walks around the house growling to himself. I'm not frightened of him, but he frequently gets his claws out and draws blood; nevertheless he's still a great character to have around the place.'

(Photographs omitted)

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