Gipsy was just six months old when he disappeared from his home last November. A European shorthair cat with a gray coat, Gipsy had just been settling into his young life with Walery Osowiecki and his two daughters, aged five and eight at the time. Gipsy was the Osowieckis' first cat, and he’d never wandered more than 50 yards from their house in Colombiers, Switzerland.
Eventually, he showed up at Walery’s doorstep, battered, bloodied, and with a bullet lodged in his body. Gipsy died hours later during emergency surgery.
"There are a lot of cats that disappear in this neighborhood."
Walery and his daughters will never know what motivated the killing of their cat, though their story is far from unique. "There are a lot of cats that disappear in this neighborhood, " Walery, 49, said in an interview with The Verge. "That's a little bizarre to me."
Bizarre, but not inexplicable. In Switzerland, where animal welfare is protected under the national constitution, shooting cats that stray more than 200 meters from their homes remains perfectly legal. Environmentalists argue that the law helps protect endangered birds from feline predators, but animal rights activists say it’s fueling a far more sinister operation: Switzerland’s underground cat-fur trade.
Cat blankets can retail for more than $1, 700
Tomi Tomek, co-founder of advocacy group SOS Chats, spearheaded Switzerland’s anti-cat-fur campaign in 2007, when she used hidden cameras to film several tanners willing to sell her feline hides under the table. Tomek says the price of a single fur ranged between 50 and 100 Swiss francs, though some were combined into blankets comprising of as many as 12 different cats.
All told, her investigation exposed 21 different tanneries scattered across the country. In some areas, she discovered that farmers were breeding cats explicitly for sale to local tanners, with some cat-fur blankets selling for more than $1, 700 a piece.
Late last month, the Swiss Parliament introduced tough new penalties for people convicted of selling cat fur, after implenting a full ban on the trade in January. Under the law, anyone found to be intentionally selling a cat pelt is subject to a maximum fine of 20, 000 Swiss francs (approximately $21, 700).
In Switzerland, cat fur's appeal largely stems from the traditional belief that wearing blankets or other garments made from felines can cure rheumatism. The centuries-old practice was adapted from traditional Chinese medicine, but experts say it has no scientific merit.
"They’re very nice about it. It’s disgusting."
"I would go in and I say, 'Oh, I'm sick and my grandmother says cat fur will help me, do you have any?'" Tomek said in an interview with . "And [the tanners] would be very nice, saying things like, 'Oh, you poor thing, what kind of cat do you want? What color? We can get it for you.' They're very nice about it. It's disgusting."
Tomek's investigations, coupled with similar documentaries from French and Swiss TV networks, helped bring more media attention to the trade, and played a critical role in pressuring lawmakers to outlaw it. To date, an anti-cat-fur petition Tomek started five years ago has garnered more than 270, 000 signatures, as well as support from high-profile figures such as French actress Brigitte Bardot and Formula One driver Michael Schumacher.
Selling cat or dog pelts has long been illegal in the US, and was outlawed across the EU in 2007. Switzerland, a non-EU country, has been slower to adopt similar measures. Cat fur imports were outlawed in 2006, but domestic sale and production remained legal until 2008, when the country first passed its ban.
The size of Switzerland's cat-fur trade is almost impossible to ascertain
As with most black markets, the size of Switzerland's cat fur trade is almost impossible to ascertain, and estimated street prices can vary wildly. Frank Schmidt, a campaigner for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) in Germany, says the size of Switzerland's cat-fur economy certainly pales in comparison to China's, where an estimated 2 million cats and dogs are slaughtered for export every year. But for a country that prides itself on its strong animal rights legislation, the cat-pelt trade has been widely seen as an embarrassment.