John Harney and John Rimmer
Magonia 43, July 1992
You’ve probably heard stories about dogs, rats and cats disappearing through the back doors of Chinese or Indian restaurants, and being slaughtered, stewed, and served with curry and rice. Police and RSPCA inspectors have wasted a great deal of time investigating such allegations and, so far as I am aware, not a shred of worthwhile evidence has ever been found to support them.
But have you heard that there is a foreign country where cat fur is the height of fashion? I don’t mean big cats, such as leopards, but ordinary household moggies. This country is ……….. [Fill in the name of your least-favourite country.]
You don’t believe it? Well, that’s what it says in my local paper (Bracknell News, 21 May 1992). It’s the lead story, under the banner headline: ‘Fur Traders Target Cats’.
Some weeks previously, a resident of Bracknell, Berkshire had called the police after seeing two men trying to entice a cat into a black plastic bag. Since then “the number of cats going missing locally has soared”. It is rather irritating, though, that we are not given any indication of the number of cats involved. The matter is being pursued by an organisation calling itself Bracknell Petsearch, which has uncovered some startling ‘facts’.
The ‘massive increase in the number of cats going missing’ is ‘easily explained as a blip on the statistics until” – I really like this detail – “it is noticed that each month the colour of the eats going missing changes. Last month tabbies and tortoiseshell animals were being reported lost. So far this month black cats are in the majority.”
Yes, but how do we know they are being captured by fur traders? The main evidence is a black plastic bag full of skinned cats found at the local junction with the M4 motorway. This revelation came from Bracknell Petsearch co-ordinator Lynda Martin who said the discovery had been made by ‘a local RSPCA volunteer’.
“That information came from a very good source,” she said: “Nothing was officially reported because it is difficult to do anything with a bag of dead animals.” Mrs Martin believes the traders have targeted Bracknell recently, stealing the cats, skinning them inside a van, and then fleeing with the pelts to their base in London along the M4. “Those pelts would then be smuggled out of the country to dealers abroad.”
There are other curious details in this story. The reporter alleges that “Scotland Yard reckons a trade in cat skins is raging in London, with the pelts being flown out to unscrupulous fur traders abroad.” If this were true, the tabloids would be full of it, but they don’t seem to have noticed. Local police and RSPCA officials have received no evidence of skinned cats and made the usual non-committal statements when approached by the paper.
It will be interesting to see if this story spreads to other areas. Keep an eye on your local paper — and don’t believe everything you read in it. - John Harney
John Rimmer continues: But surely we can believe everything we read in the Barnes Mortlake and Sheen Times, after all it is owned by one of our most respected media dynasties, the Dimblebys, no less. Well judge for yourself. The 19 June 1992 edition carried the front page headline “Cat Snatch Fear After ‘Spate’ of Missing Pets” accompanied by a photograph of local pet-owner Victor Schwanberg holding an appealing looking cat who is not otherwise identified.
The story conforms to the Bracknell pattern, complete with a mysterious “woman who was seen stroking a cat and then snatching it and putting it in a bag”, according to vet Donald Cameron, “someone has also reported seeing five dead cats laid out on the pavement”. The vet declares: “Cat fur fetches a high price abroad,” – in those mysterious countries which have no cats of their own? – “it is used to make gloves and small toys”. High-priced small toys presumably.
The only real fact of the story seems, as in the Bracknell case, to be some alarm about the number of cats going missing in the area. Now I can confirm that there are often small, sad notices attached to trees in this neighbourhood appealing for the return of lost pets (including dogs), but I have always assumed that this was due to the number of very busy roads and the amount of open spaces, parks and commons in the area. Mr Schwanberg, one of whose cats went missing, lives on the Upper Richmond Road, part of London’s notoriously dangerous and grossly over-used South Circular Road.
The item concludes with a quote from a Mrs Joan Wearne of an organisation called Petwatch (it is not clear whether this has anything to do with Bracknell’s Petsearch) who claims that the cats are skinned and their fur sold in Italy and Germany, but the police “do not want to know”. As if to confirm her claim a police spokesman commented “we would not record stolen cats, but we are not aware of a problem”. Obviously evidence of a cover-up!
Shortly after reading this I discovered that the latest issue of Folklore Frontiers discussed a report which appeared in the 24 April 1992 issue of The Mail, Hartlepool, where Mrs Wearne also puts in an appearance. Warning of the dangers of the catnappers she reverts to an older, racialist, theme. She announces that a ‘Yorkshire printer’ found the remains of several cats next to a mincing machine in the basement of a building which used to be an Indian restaurant, while a ‘Manchester policeman’ (highly specific these descriptions) found 200 dead cats in a skip.
So what is going on here? I rang the Barnes and Mortlake paper and spoke to the reporter who had written the story. I was particularly concerned, because in the following week’s paper there were letters from obviously distressed pet-owners in the area. Unfortunately she seemed unimpressed by the thought that she may have been sold a pup (sorry!) on her front page scoop. “I was only reporting what people told me” she explained.
I had always thought that journalists considered `printing things people told you’ mere public relations, and journalism involved going out and finding the facts. I pointed out the startling coincidence of a virtually identical story appearing in three local papers in different parts of the country and the unliklihood of catnappers in both Barnes and Bracknell leaving dead cats neatly lined up at the sides of the road. “Maybe that’s how they operate”, she said. Well maybe, but didn’t she think that in view of this extra information she might consider taking the story a little further, if only to reassure anxious local cat-lovers? No, but if I wanted to write a letter to the editor, they would publish it on their correspondence page.
I find it disturbing that after playing on many local peoples’ fears with a front page lead story presented with all the authority of Dimbleby Newspapers, the reporter was not prepared to do any further checking when presented with new evidence that made the story look decidedly dubious, and was prepared to leave any further coverage to the vagaries of the letters column.
So what it going on? Why do cats in the North-East end up in the curry, whilst cats in the South-East are skinned and their pelts flown hundreds of miles across Europe? Could it be because these alarmists feel that traditional racist slurs about Indian restaurants are unlikely to be taken seriously in the liberal climate of Richmond and Barnes, whereas concern about the fur-trade and ‘animal rights’ might produce a greater sense of shock? And in how many more local papers have variants of this story appeared?