THE CAT FUR TRADE
2003 - 2005, S Hartwell
In May 2003, BBC News reported that cats were being farmed for their skins in the European Union in spite of assertions from EU officials that there is no cat or dog farming inside the EU. Hundreds of thousands of cat and dog skins are traded in Europe each year and since the US banned the trade of cat and dog skin in 2001, the European market has expanded. A Belgian furrier appeared on video displaying a fur blanket apparently made from cats farmed in Belgium. He claimed that stray cats and dogs in the area were rounded up and skinned. What horrified pet owners was the likelihood of family pets being rounded up or even stolen for the pet fur trade.
A LONG-STANDING HABIT
The wearing of cat fur is by no means new. The 13th Century Nun's Rule "You shall not possess any beast, my dear sisters, except only a cat" sounds cosy, but is thought to mean that nuns could use cheap cat fur in their garments while expensive furs were reserved for higher church officials. Sayings associated with cat fur form part of the English language, for example "more than one way to skin a cat" (also attributed to catfish) and "what can you have of a cat but her skin?" (although the pine marten was historically known as "tree cat"). The Russian Blue was once highly prized for its blue-grey fur.
In modern times, the farming and slaughter of cats and dogs (pet species in Europe and the USA) and the trade in pet fur is considered repugnant. Investigations into Far Eastern suppliers of cat and dog fur have uncovered highly inhumane conditions. That pet fur farming is apparently occurring within the EU is seen as a worrying and offensive development. Some pelts originate from countries where feral cats are dealt with as a pest species. While fur farming and pest control are legal-but-distasteful sources, some cat skins are believed to originate from much loved family pets which have vanished along with numerous other similar-coloured cats in an area of a few square miles (Missing Cats and Stolen Cats). The fur from a missing pet's back may now be adorning someone else's back.
PET FUR - WHO BUYS IT; WHO SUPPLIES IT?
The import and sale of cat fur is not illegal in the UK or EU states (except Italy), but pet fur is often traded under false or misleading labels. As well as being traded as house cat, cat fur also masquerades as wild cat, katzenfelle, rabbit, goyangi, mountain cat or is even sold as "fake fur". I received a gift of an ornamental fur cat which had been sold as "fake fur". Because solid colour cat fur is similar to rabbit fur, it is easily passed off as coney in garments and trim and like coney it can be dyed. Meanwhile, patterned cat fur (tabby or spotted) replaces that of ocelot, leopard etc and tortie fur is considered attractive in its own right. Restrictions on seal culling have led to an increased use of cat fur in the manufacture of cuddly toys and ornaments.
Although the label may be misleading, DNA tests can identify the source species. In the USA, DNA tests can be used to determine whether furry ornaments (ironically of cats) are made with cat fur (usually from Chinese fur farms); most such ornaments are simply labelled "real fur". In 2003, DNA tests on fur-trimmed garments in Italy proved that they were made from domestic dog and not from wolf, fox or racoon dog. In addition to being morally repugnant to most Europeans, the pet fur trade is consumer fraud, albeit through the peculiar double standards which finds the fur of trapped wild animals and that of farmed rabbit, mink or fox acceptable.
In a few countries, pet fur is clearly labelled. Visitors to Germany have found "therapeutic" cat pelts for sale from petrol filling station forecourts. These 'Medicat' pelts are superstitiously believed to prevent arthritis, rheumatism and slipped disks (spinal problems). In reality, cat pelts are no more therapeutic than any other fur or than a fake fur fabric with similar weight and thermal qualities so the trade is driven by the placebo effect. Individual cat skins complete with eye-holes, paws and tails can also be bought in Barcelona
In Britain in 1984, I saw a tabby cat fur three-quarter length coat and also a patchwork cat fur coat (though these were being worn, not offered for sale). Tabby cat is considered a cheap and plentiful substitute the patterned pelts of CITES protected species. At around the same time I spoke to a furrier who had been given a coney (rabbit) fur jacket for cleaning. He identified the coat as being made from cat fur which had been falsely labelled and sold as coney.
The European Commission claims it lacks the power to ban the pet fur trade and it is up to national governments to implement and enforce individual bans. Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have accuse the European Commission of lacking the will, rather than the clout, to fight the pet fur trade. In Feb 2003 MEPs demanded an import ban on pet fur products. Only Italy had banned pet fur products although mislabelled fur could still find its way into stores. In Britain, fur items from major stores have also been DNA tested.
Many pet fur products are imported from fur farms in the Far East where investigators have found animals being reared and slaughtered in inhumane conditions. Investigators found significant levels of imports of dog and cat fur to Germany, Italy and France with China being the main exporter of pet fur. Other exporters of pet fur include Thailand, Korea and the Philippines. Scandinavia, Australia and, surprisingly, Britain are also cited as suppliers of cat fur.
An estimated 2 million cats and dogs are slaughtered every year with 12-15 adult dogs or 24 cats required for each fur coat. The fur is also used in hats, gloves, shoes, blankets, boot and coat lining, stuffed animals, toys and ornaments. Of those 2 million animals, some are reared in breeding farms, others are strays rounded up from the streets and some are likely to be kidnapped family pets. One cruel irony was that cat fur is being used in increasingly popular fur-covered figurines of whimsical cats bought by cat lovers (my ex-husband brought back such a figurine from Italy in 2000 - having been told that it was fake fur).
A two year investigation by the Humane Society of the USA (HSUS) found that cats were kept in cruel conditions in animal farms, and that many were skinned alive to prevent the furs losing their condition after the animals' death. Either reared in cages or simply tethered outdoor by wire, farmed cats were killed by methods which caused minimal damage to the fur but maximum distress to the cats, to the point of being skinned alive. Even their carcasses could be recycled as food for other fur-farmed animals. Undercover investigators in Asia filmed cats being stabbed, beaten, choked and throttled to death before being skinned. Some were still breathing as they were skinned while cats were seen being strangled with nooses one by one in a small wooden cage.
In 2005, the UK charity Care for the Wild International published a report called "Fun Fur?" on animal welfare inside fur farms in north-east China. China is the world's biggest exporter of fur clothing. It is the largest centre for manufacturing and processing fur products. The animals seen mainly foxes and raccoon-dogs (a wild dog) along with some other small mammals. Investigators surveyed 8 farms near Beijing, 2 wholesale markets and a major slaughterhouse. It was not an undercover operation, but included open interviews with staff. Animals were kept in small barren cages 25% smaller than the EU's recommended minimum. The animals were seen to show extreme fear and self-mutilation. Conditions on many Chinese fur farms make a mockery of the most elementary animal welfare standards. However, the cruelty of their housing was nothing compared to the slaughter methods. Animals were stunned with a blunt object or were swung by their hind legs head-first against the ground. Many animals were fully conscious while being skinned, and remained fully conscious for up to 10 minutes after all their skin had been removed.
In Australia, a country with a huge feral cat population, cat fur is considered a potentially marketable product with the income helping to fund feral elimination programmes. In addition, anti-cat individuals flaunt flat cat hats in public and other cat fur products (e.g. friezes made of multiple tabby/spotted pelts) have been displayed. Australian cat owners are warned to keep their pet cats safe. In the late 1990s/early 2000s it was reported pet cats were disappearing around Perth, Western Australia. One possibility was that cat haters and others looking to make a few dollars were catching and killing pet cats to sell the pelts to John Wamsley of Earth Sanctuaries. Wamsley, a noted cat-hater (he accuses those who like cats of being peculiar and wildlife haters), was reportedly paying bounties for cat skins and apparently preferred pet and pedigree cat skins for their colour, quality and texture. According to the Australian TV show Burke's Backyard, "The sanctuary sells cat skin rugs and cat skin hats. They are in need of cat skin suppliers and will pay $20 each for properly tanned cat skins." Whether true or not, such a statement would immediately encourage cat theft and endanger pets.
While the trade in cat fur is perfectly legal in a number of countries, the danger is that some of those cats were stray pets or were stolen specifically for their fur. As well as being used for garments or trinkets, cat pelts are believed to be efficacious against rheumatism and joint pain ("Medicat") and are also used in some regions for traditional musical instruments.
CAT FUR AND CAT THEFT
The tales of cats being stolen for fur are not a recent phenomenon. Back in the 1970s a popular children's book was "The Hunting of Wilberforce Pike" featuring a cat thief stealing pets and strays for their fur. It has long been believed that a cat fur trade exists in Britain, possibly supplying continental markets.
Since 1983, a charity called Petwatch mounted intensive investigations into the problem of vanishing cats. They found that the patterns of disappearances were strongly indicative of organised cat theft. Certain breeds or colours of cats vanish in considerable numbers from small areas in a short time frame. The numbers are such that coincidence can be discounted. For example in Luton, England, 7 cats vanished from a single street in one afternoon while 21 cats vanished from a nearby village and 200 cats vanished over a 3 month period. Theft black spots were areas well lit at night.
Over many years in the UK there have been reports of skinned cat carcasses being found and of cats vanishing "by colour". During the 1990s in Chelmsford, Essex, there were waves of cat disappearances characterised by the fact that the disappearing cats are all one colour. One month black cats have vanish en masse. A few months later most of the tabby cats in one housing development have vanished. They vanished either late at night or very early in the morning when let out to do their business in the garden. In some cases, attempted thefts have been witnessed or thwarted by the owners.
In 1995, cat owners in Clevedon, Somerset, England were advised to keep cats indoors, after around 100 cats, nearly all being black cats, were reported stolen over the previous twelve months. In March 1995, ten disappeared in a single day. It was believed that they were stolen for their pelts, which are sold abroad or passed off as rabbit.
According to a 1985 National Petwatch survey, the British Fur Trade Association use only cat skins from legal sources. The Fur Trade Association had previously stated that cat skins were not used at all. At various times, the Fur Trade Association have previously offered rewards of up to £3000 to anyone who can prove beyond doubt a connection between vanishing cats and the fur trade. Unfortunately, by the time prepared cat skins reach the legitimate fur trade, any identifying material will have been removed, including microchips (under skin) and tattoos (on ears). Modern DNA techniques might identify a pelt as previously being a person's cherished cat provided that the pet's DNA is available (e.g. tissue biopsy).
Some pet lovers might be surprised at what sources are considered legal. Imported farmed fur is one legal source. Other legal sources may include pelts taken from the bodies of pets destroyed at vets, animal shelters and dead animals picked up at the roadside by local cleansing departments. Admittedly rare, it is apparently legal for these to be sold to skin merchants. During the 1980s, a British tabloid newspaper carried reports about UK veterinarians who passed cats and dogs presented for euthanasia to laboratories.
There will always be dealers willing to buy pelts and/or carcasses in tens of thousands (often bales of fur sold by weight) on a 'no questions asked' basis. These pelts will have come from one of the above sources or from stolen cats. According to the reports, cat skins may be processed by London furriers or the carcasses may be sold directly to foreign buyers. Manufacturers abroad admit that the best suppliers of cat pelts are Scandinavia, Australia (as part of feral cat extermination programs) and Britain.
From time to time, quantities of skinned cat bodies or heads and paws have been discovered. During the mid 1980s, I spoke with an Essex policeman who claimed to have found skinned cat bodies in dustbin bags. Veterinary/taxidermy waste is incinerated or, more rarely, rendered. The fact that the carcass is discarded gives a very convincing picture of what is going on.
In 1992, a spokesman for the Fur Education Council (the propaganda arm of the British fur trade) said that there had never been any evidence to suggest that animals were being taken for their fur. In other words, the existence of theft is neither denied or acknowledged, but there is no evidence to link the Fur Trade Association to suspicious disappearances of cats. Any pelts could simply be mixed in with legally obtained pelts and any accompanying documents can be falsified so that pelts from stolen cats are 'laundered' like money among pelts from legal sources.
Even the ongoing problem of missing or stolen cats seems not to be taken seriously in Britain. While major animal rescue organisations claim that vanished cats have simply strayed or killed by traffic, there have been witness reports of attempted cat thefts.
Where disproportionate numbers of certain coloured cats vanish while others do not, it indicates that certain colours are targeted. It is true that black and tabby are common colours and that it is statistically likely that more of these will be reported missing (i.e. simply because there are more of them around). However, it is most unlikely that all the black cats in one small area (a few streets) will go walkabout within 48 hours while all the other coloured cats stay at home. This is stretching coincidence too far.
In a few cases, there have been witnesses. I personally found one case where a Springfield, Chelmsford resident gave chase after an attempt to snatch her cat from her garden. In another case the owner witnessed her tabby cat escaping from a small van. People have been seen enticing cats towards vehicles; in Chelmsford, there were once several reports of youngsters collecting cats and taking them to a white van. Although dismissed as an urban legend, it was taken seriously enough that warning notices were placed on vet and pet shop notice-boards.
In areas where cats are "vanishing by colours" suggests that they were indeed being taken for their pelts. That the fur trade in Europe is thriving and growing causes greater suspicion that the fur from a missing pet's back may now be adorning someone else's back.