Switzerland finds a way to skin a cat for the fur trade and high fashion

From the outside, "Ark farm" does not look like a cat lover's nightmare. It is a collection of rustic wooden barns and a farmhouse situated in an idyllic valley in the foothills of the Swiss Alps. Its owners have created an Aladdin's cave for country craft enthusiasts: full of spinning wheels, wooden looms, scented candles, Tibetan lambs' wool scarves, llama wool blankets and even sheepskin steering wheel covers.

When it comes to cats, "Ark farm" boasts an array of cute children's black and white cuddly toy moggies and high quality colour postcards of kittens and their mothers striking poses designed to melt any cat lover's heart.

The only thing that upsets the atmosphere of feline harmony is the pile of cat pelts lying on a table in the middle of the store. Last week they were on sale along with sheepskins, whole calf skins, and fox pelts, for5 Swiss Francs (£2.50) each.

Switzerland is the last country in western Europe in which it is still legal for cats to be hunted for their fur which is used to make coats, jackets and bed blankets, reputed to be highly effective in combating rheumatism.

The practice has horrified the Alpine state's vociferous pro-cat lobby, SOS Chats which is fighting to have cat hunting and the trade in cat fur banned in Switzerland. Brigitte Bardot and Michael Schumacher are among the 131,000 people who have signed a petition in support of a ban.

Inside Ark Farm's crafts shop this month, a salesman insisted the cat skins had been brought in by an old woman "who did not know what to do with them." Picking out a grey striped, professionally tanned and perfumed cat pelt from a pile, he stressed: "These skins come from cats that were run over."

A similarly cagey response to inquiries about cat fur, was to be had at the local tanner's shop some two miles away in the country town of Huttwil. The store was festooned with pelts – from rabbits, horses, cattle and foxes – hanging on clothes racks. Asked whether the store also did a line in cat fur, the owner blushed, took one step back and insisted: "No nothing like that here. We don't do cats. Sorry can't help."

Yet perhaps the guarded reaction was to be expected. Late last year, an elderly woman at the same tanners shop was interviewed by French television and not only admitted that cats were skinned for their pelts but added it was also quite normal to eat what was left over. The traditional recipe on farms in the region, she said, involved cooking the cat with sprigs of thyme.

Reports like those have helped to create a public furore in Switzerland. The country's tanners and furriers are still smarting from a barrage of unwelcome publicity. Last year, television crews conducted a series of investigations using hidden cameras that exposed the cat fur trade. Tanners who denied involvement were caught in the act.

Switzerland banned all cat fur imports in 2006 because of concern about the allegedly cruel methods that were used by the exporting countries to slaughter the animals. But, at the end of this year, a ban on the production of cat fur will come into force throughout the European Union while Switzerland, as a non EU member, will remain unaffected.

The prospect SOS Chats which runs a shelter for some 200 stray cats near the Alpine town of Neuchatel. Tomi Tomek, its founder said that if the Alpine state remained exempt from the ban, she feared it would rapidly turn into a centre for a cat fur trade outlawed by its neighbours. "Switzerland would inevitably become Europe's leading supplier of cat fur, using its own dead cats," she said.

However the extent of Switzerland's cat fur trade is disputed. The Swiss Federal Veterinary Office argues it is insignificant. It has asked the country's tanners about production levels and concludes that the output is minimal. "It is hardly an interesting market," said Marcel Falk, its spokesman. "As far as we are aware, only a couple of dozen cat furs are produced annually in Switzerland," he said.

But campaigners such as Mrs Tomek, a strict vegetarian who will not wear leather shoes, are more than convinced that the country is doing a roaring trade in cat fur and that tens of thousands of cats are being killed annually for their pelts.

"For a long time, nobody believed us because we had no proof," she said, "But then we started calling the tanners and pretending we were interested in purchasing cat fur. We would say things like: 'My ailing mother desperately wants a cat skin blanket to help cure her rheumatism' and they would make us offers," she added. "We are not seen as liars anymore," she said.

She and her fellow activists say a cat blanket made up of six pelts would cost about €360 (£280). She has a wad of receipts attesting to the number of cat fur blankets, jackets, bags and other garments bought by her supporters. One tanner even supplied her with detailed instructions about how to go about skinning a cat. "They like feral cats most, and they should be about six years old, so that the pelt is of good quality and thick," she said.

SOS Chats says that, because under Swiss law it is legal to kill any cat when the animal is 200 yards or more away from its home, the trade flourishes. "In the autumn, cat hunters and the people who work for them go out and shoot the feral cats and all the other domestic cats that have strayed away from their homes," Mrs Tomek said.

Her assertions have been given added credence by Swiss cat owners such as Isabelle Nydegger from Lucerne, who has seen three cats – Zeus, Zorra and Merlin vanish in the past six months. Before the disappearances, Mrs Nydegger used to dismiss people like Tomi Tomek as extremists and, when her first two cats disappeared, she assumed they must have been run over or attacked and killed by dogs.

But when Merlin, her prized four-year-old white Siberian, went missing, she began to think otherwise "He was so well behaved that you could go for a walk with him and our dogs without using a leash. It is completely impossible that he would have wandered off."

Now she is convinced her favoured felines were either shot or netted by professional cat hunters who prefer strangulation as a means of killing the animal because it inflicts minimum damage to the pelt.

The steady flow of negative publicity about Switzerland's allegedly booming cat fur trade has started to concern politicians. Christophe Darbellay, the president of Switzerland's conservative Christian Democrats said recently he was alarmed by what he saw as growing international outrage over a cat fur trade still practised in a country that was renowned for its high standards of animal welfare.

His remarks have been echoed by Luc Barthassat, another Christian Democrat MP, who was confident that the Swiss parliament would pass laws banning the cat fur trade by the middle of this summer. "It is very personal for many people because cats are more than animals to them," he said.

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