Friday, July 1, 2016

Mishkin the cat

Mishkin, a Maine Coon, circa 2000. Blue eyed cats don't photograph any better than blue-eyed people.

Most people seem to prefer either cats or dogs (or neither). I grew up in a household where both dogs and cats lived from time to time, and I learned to like both, having accepted the fact that they are just different. If you are a dog lover, you might think that cats can never be as friendly, playful or loyal as dogs, but I have known one cat that combined the best traits of both creatures. About twelve years ago, Mishkin, then eighteen years old and suffering from organ failure, was put to sleep. It is not surprising to me that, despite my sadness over the loss of both previous and subsequent pets, Mishkin remains especially missed.

Mishkin was a long-haired Maine Coon mix with enough markers to qualify as mostly if not entirely Maine Coon. Susan named him after Prince Myshkin, the hero of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic novel, “The Idiot.” Literary critics have long described Prince Myshkin as being so kind and gentle and wise that he was almost Christ-like. (If such a characterization seems excessively hagiographic for a cat, I will nevertheless argue here that it has, at least, some merit.) Mishkin was born, if not in a manger, perhaps in a barn or shed, in Sullivan County, New York, at the end of the 1980s. (I am being fudgy about dates throughout this post because I have long since lost my ability to keep track of dates with much precision.) My partner, Susan, and her son, Karl, picked out a kitten from among the many wild cats congregating in the backyard where Mrs. Helen Hubert (Susan’s mother) fed them. They took him home to the Albany area where he lived for over a decade. After Mishkin and I met at the end of 1998, he graciously, and with characteristic tolerance, moved with Susan and me to Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1999.

Mishkin not only loved being around all people, but he was my best buddy for over half a decade. He would wake me up in the morning and follow me wherever I went, if I would let him. He was playful and extremely tolerant of seemingly unreasonable if well-intentioned interference by humans. (Nobody likes being made to take medication, but Mishkin took it.) He was an intelligent mouser when he got the chance to be. I have since met other Maine Coons, and they all seem to be loving and loyal toward their humans and equally friendly with strangers.

Unfortunately, Maine Coons are not easy to come by. Since 1976, they have been recognized as an official breed by the Cat Fanciers’ Association, and, consequently, are expensive. When you find them available at animal shelters, it is often because they have an incurable disease.

A little known fact: Though popular around 1900, the Maine Coon not only subsequently lost popularity but was declared extinct by some authorities by the middle of the last century, although the Central Maine Cat Club vehemently contradicted this declaration (and they were evidently correct in doing so).

Another little known fact: Yes, the Maine Coon can be traced to the state of Maine, but its origins prior to that seem to be shrouded in myth, including the origin of its name. Some have said that the creature is a cross between a cat and a raccoon, which is biologically impossible since a cat and a raccoon cannot breed. (I shudder to imagine someone trying to prove that.) Another explanation, which is probably closer to the truth, is that this type of cat was brought over to Maine from Europe by sea captains (who kept cats on their ships in order to kill rats), and among these seafarers was one Captain Charles Coon. When Mainers recognized a new breed popping up in their cat population, they said, “Why, that must be one of Coon’s cats.” So the story goes.

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