A Push to Stop Swiss Cats From Being Turned Into Coats and Hats
Nicolas Righetti for The New York Times
Tomi Tomek at her home, a 260-cat shelter, in Noiraigue, Switzerland.
By STEVE FRIESS
Published: April 1, 2008
LUCERNE, Switzerland — Had just one of her cats disappeared last October, Isabelle Nydegger would simply have assumed it had lost its way in the nearby forest or been attacked by a dog or wild animal.
But first Zeus, a 2-year-old black tabby, vanished. A few days later it was her 2-year-old black and white tabby, Zorra. And, finally, the prize of her brood, 4-year-old Merlin, a fluffy white Siberian whose perky visage remains in her mobile phone six months later. All were gone within the first couple of weeks of the fall hunting season.
The cats, Mrs. Nydegger and others are convinced, were shot by hunters near this central Swiss city and sold to tanners for their fur, which is used in garments and blankets in the last western European nation where such a trade is still legal.
Legal, that is, but increasingly stigmatized — and soon Switzerland is likely to outlaw the practice.
That the first country to outlaw it, Italy, did so only six years ago reflects the long European history with cat fur and how quickly the public has soured on its use in the face of an international campaign to redefine a centuries-old practice borrowed from traditional Chinese medicine.
While it is legal in Switzerland to shoot feral cats as well as domestic ones that stray more than 200 yards from their homes, it is not clear how many cats are hunted every year here and across the border in France, where residents have also complained about disappearing felines. One government official put the number at a couple of dozen. Luc Barthassat, a legislator with the Christian Democratic People’s Party, said about 2,000, but members of S O S Chats, an advocacy group, say tens of thousands are killed.
Estimates of the value of each pelt vary wildly. Mr. Barthassat said he had been told by tanners that they pay only about $5. But animal rights advocates say that hunters make much more than that, noting that some blankets made from 10 pelts sell at retail for more than $1,700.
But the numbers almost seemed beside the fact this fall, after a series of TV reports created a public furor. Three TV news crews from Switzerland and France conducted hidden-camera investigations that caught tanners who had officially denied trading in cat fur actively doing so and, in at least one case, explaining that cat meat was also available.
Soon S O S Chats had collected more than 123,000 signatures urging the government to ban the practice. Brigitte Bardot and Michael Schumacher, the popular Formula One driver, signed the petition, as did leaders of animal-rights groups around the world.
“This is probably the most popular subject we are dealing with this year,” said Mr. Barthassat, who has introduced a bill that would ban the import, export and domestic commercial trade in cat fur. “By this summer, it will be resolved. It is very personal for many people because cats are more than animals to us.”
Regardless of how common it is, news media reports over the past year across Europe portraying Switzerland as a cat-slaying haven have helped S O S Chats press its case. “The politicians must be careful what they say, but that they are helping us is a good thing,” said Tomi Tomek, the director of S O S Chats, who has lived since 1981 at a 260-cat shelter nestled in the rugged western Swiss mountains near Neuchâtel. “All of this publicity has driven the trade underground, and that is good, too.”
The matter would most likely have reached the Swiss Parliament in some form this year regardless of the activism and publicity because the European Union has required member states to prohibit the import and export of cat fur by the end of 2008 anyway. Switzerland is not a member of the Union but does have treaties that require it to adhere to many of its rules on trade matters. Mr. Barthassat’s effort to end the domestic trade, however, is a step beyond the European Union’s demands.
Ms. Tomek said her organization had spent a decade trying to bring attention to the use of cat fur and the theft of domestic cats. She said one of the biggest problems her group faced was to convince people that there really was a trade in cat fur.
“For a long time, nobody believed us because we had no proof,” she said. “We would call up the tanners and tell them who we were and ask them, and they would never admit they did this. Then we started just pretending we wanted to order some cat fur, and they sold to us. Now we are not seen as liars anymore.”
Armed with a thicket of receipts showing purchases by S O S Chats of cat fur garments as recently as last August, Ms. Tomek approached journalists from across Europe, persuading several to look into the matter.
Until she saw the news reports, Mrs. Nydegger herself dismissed Mrs. Tomek and others as radicals. But the loss of her third cat, Merlin, was particularly shocking because he was so loyal and well behaved, often taking walks with her and her dogs without a leash. That Merlin would have wandered off, she said, is “just completely impossible.”
No less than Christophe Darbellay, the president of Mr. Barthassat’s own party, has said he is alarmed by the growing international outrage over the trade in a Western European nation otherwise known for its high regard for animal welfare. The Swiss are a pet-loving people, more than 60 percent of whom have a dog or cat, he said. Companion animals are often seen sitting with owners in restaurants and on public transportation.
“Switzerland is becoming the place where the most cats are being killed for the import and commerce to sell the cat fur,” Mr. Darbellay said. “We don’t like to be seen this way.”