THE CAT FUR TRADE - HISTORICAL AND MODERN
2003 - 2005-2015, 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 Gogol’s short story "The Overcoat," (1842) an impoverished clerk needs a new overcoat. Saving for it takes a long time, but eventually he scrapes together the necessary sum. He and his tailor go shopping for the best cloth and a good collar. Marten fur proves to be too expensive, so they select cat fur as a substitute. In Low German, cat was "beunhoas" (loft-hare), "dakhoas"(roof-hare) and balkhoas (beam-hare). Perhaps these were also used as a substitute for hare's fur. Cat fur was widely traded in the 19th century and the practice of skinning live cats was debated when anti-cruelty legislation was being introduced.
Excerpts from minutes of evidence from the House of Commons, published on Aug. 1, 1831, report on a debate about the proposed 1832 anti-cruelty legislation referred to the practice of skinning cats alive. More on the practice was described by TS David in "Every Body’s Album: A Humorous Collection" (1836) published in Philadelphia by Charles Alexander. “Cat-Skinning is said to be a lucrative profession with many people in London. A late English paper says these vile wretches are mostly women; and adds, that in a respectable neighbourhood in London, a short time since, the inhabitants were alarmed by the continued and melancholy moaning of some cats; and on one of them going down stairs, he found three fine large cats completely skinned, and skewered down to the ground. It appears that the fiends who pursue these iniquitous practices, as soon as they skin the lower extremities, transfix the poor animal to the earth, then tear off the remainder with great rapidity, leaving the cat in the most horrible torture.”
Often constables only found carcasses when they visited suspected skinners, and because the carcasses could not be identified the animals' owners could not be traced, which meant the perpetrators were released without charge as it was impossible to prove the animals were stolen. in a case in 1830, two men appeared before Bow-Street magistrates for possessing the skins of a black cat and a very large dog. A search of their rooms had revealed three dog carcasses and five skins all belonging to valuable dogs. Because the dogs' owners could not be identified, the men could not be imprisoned and publicly whipped for theft and had to be discharged.
Cats were usually skinned alive according to the historian Alfred Rosling Bennett. It was believed that the fur taken in that fashion kept its lustre longer and commanded a higher market value. The 1850s-60s cat-skinner placed the cat between his knees and spiked the back of its neck to keep it still, then with 'dexterous and cunning incisions’ he cut the skin and reversed the animal with a jerk to remove its ‘skin and fight,’ but leave it otherwise ‘uninjured' (as if being flayed could be considered uninjured). Bennett added that stories were told of these pussies in this deplorable condition running home and mewing to be let in. One such cat was said to reached the drawing room where its mistress was holding a reception and jumped on her lap in that flayed condition.
The chapter “London Courts and Alleys” from “Low-Life Deeps,” by the social historian James Greenwood, (1875) describes the trade: “Strange trades are carried on in these slums, and occupations are followed which in civilised parts are never dreamt of:, except it be in exceptionally bad dreams. One does not like even to hint at the way in which scores of poor wretches in the locality pick up a living, nor would I myself have believed it had I not been told it as a fact, by a gentleman whose veracity is unimpeachable. There is an awful little alley, for instance, in the neighbourhood of Hales's tallow factory, consisting of about twenty houses, inhabited almost entirely by folk who collect the ordure of dogs, which is used for tanning purposes. I say that the alley in question is occupied almost entirely by this class, and, repulsive as the trade is, it is preferable to that of the dreadful exceptions. There are but few left there now, I am informed, but not very long since the residents of this delectable spot consisted chiefly of "cat-flayers" - whose sole means of living was to go out at night with their sacks and sticks, hunting for cats to ha slaughtered for the sake of their skins. It is a business at which money may be made, since the furriers will give 12s. a dozen for big and little cat-skins, as many as may be brought them. It is unfortunate, however, that to be saleable the hide must be taken from the body of the animal while it is in existence, and still more so that the villainous cat-flayers are not deterred by this difficulty. I was further informed that the neighbourhood used to be scandalised by the presence of the flayed carcases of poor grimalkins lying about, but that now that indecency is avoided by an economical arrangement on the part of the flayer. He now puts his dead cats in the copper, and makes further capital of their bones and fat.”
The case of “AN EXTRAORDINARY CAT COLLECTOR” appeared in the Dundee Evening Telegraph, 9th August, 1878: One of the strangest cases of cat collecting on record is that of an old woman residing in Gibson's Court, Hull, who was recently disturbed in her operations by the police. The inhabitants of the neighbourhood have of late been losing cats wholesale a very mysterious way, and from the conduct of Miss Todd, the lady in question, they suspected that she had hand in the disappearance of the pets. Strange smells which issued from the house increased their apprehensions, and a visit was one day made by a neighbour who saw no less than 15 live cats in the house. The patience of the neighbours was last exhausted, and they complained to the landlord. The aid of the sanitary authorities was also invoked, and this led to the removal of the furniture, a process which took place Tuesday. When the house was entered the smell which greeted the persons who were charged with the task was fearfully strong, but nothing which would produce was noticed. The woman's property was of an extraordinary and miscellaneous character. There were several chests of drawers made of good mahogany, and other articles of furniture to match, numerous statuettes, and no end of apparently valuable old china. There was large, quantity of rags, together with Hull election cards, many of them bearing the words, "Vote for James and Wilberforce;” and on everything there was a thick coating of dust. At last the searchers come to the garret, and here the smell, which was worse than ever, was found to proceed from the bodies of a large number of cats, which were deposited bags. It was almost impossible to estimate the number, for some of them were greatly decomposed. It was, however, evident they had been skinned. Disinfectants were freely used, and the dead bodies were removed as quickly possible. One extraordinary feature of the affair that when Miss Todd removed to this house she is said to have brought a number of dead cats with her, and is said she occupied her previous residence for twenty years.
Luckily for the cat, this practice was banned and the trading of cat (and dog) fur became seen as unacceptable. Meanwhile, in Canada, beaver was used in the felt industry. The hair was chopped up and mixed with cheaper hair such as rabbit or cat. Under the pressure of the felting process, the barbs served to bind the whole together and made for strength and quality.
From 1905 comes this account: "When the late Queen of Denmark was preparing the trousseau for her daughter, now out Queen, she took great pains to have a very fashionable outfit, and it included a cloak lined with cat-skins for travelling. At that time there was a good trade done with America and Denmark in cat-skins, but the idea was new in England, and the cat cloak was scarcely valued as it ought to have been. The older Ameer of Afghanistan did a good trade in furs, and annually sent large quantities to Europe. Each consignment contained about 7,000 skins, and the journey of the agents who collected them and shipped them took three or four years, so that the Ameer had been in his grave long before the bargain was completed." (Banbury Advertiser, 12th October, 1905)
And in 1920, the "Globe" published this short note: The big demand for fur has been followed by a raid on the suburban cat, and many householders are mourning the loss of their pets. Does this explain the increased supply of that type of fur coat described as “Roof Tiger ”. (21st January 1920)
And in July 1952, “Look out for the Man with a Sack” appeared in “Our Cat”:
"Have you encountered him yet - the man with a sack ? Several of our readers in various parts of London (reports The Animals' Magazine. the official journal of the P.D.S.A.) appear to have done so. He is usually lounging at the corner of the street, a sleek young man with padded shoulders and a dangling cigarette. He is a man who has a way with cats and a big sack to put them in. Yes, that's the Cat Spiv and he's very busy just now. So doubtless, are a number of the less reputable sort of " fur fakers " who buy his wares knowing well how they were obtained. Even the fur trade has its black sheep. Indeed, without them, the Cat Spiv would find even the comparatively mild exertion of enticing a cat into a sack hardly worth his while. They form of course, a negligible fraction operating on the fringe of a highly respectable trade but their profits are not inconsiderable. We are not primarily concerned with the ethics of these ghoulish transactions or with their profits, but we wonder if these gentry when they survey the results of their skilful faking are ever troubled by the thought of the suffering from which they are making those Profits. Do they ever think of the wretched and terrified cats, stuffed three or four in a sack and then brutally killed to provide a work-shy degenerate with a few shillings and his clients with material for their faked furs ?
But of course they wouldn't know anything about that ! They just bought the skins in the ordinary way of business. How could they be expected to know that the skins were those of stolen cats, of cats callously butchered by a degenerate brute for the sake of a few shillings blood-money ? They can get away with it every time but fortunately the Cat Spiv does not always enjoy the same immunity. One of them, at least, will have ample time to reflect on. the fact that it is the receiver who makes the profit and the thief who carries the can. For at Stratford Magistrates' Court one of a pair of these wretched cat-snatchers was sentenced to two months' imprisonment and the other to a fine of nine pounds. Well, keep your eyes open for the man with the sack. The June  issue of Miss Kit Wilson's "The Cat Fancy" also draws attention to the increase in cat stealing. Breeders of white cats are particularly warned to make careful enquiries when asked to supply breeding pairs or kittens. Ermine will be greatly in demand for the Coronation and white cat skins can be easily faked, it is stated."
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.