Switzerland’s silent genocide

Accumulating dust in the backroom of nostalgia sits the Razor scooter, the most sought-after toy for a few years of my childhood. It is a fad etched permanently into early 2000s pop culture and a relic of the last days of relatively lawsuit-free horseplay in suburban USA. In all my years playing with that scooter and leaving permanent skid marks on the basement floor, never once did I consider it a viable means of transport. There were cars, trains, and bikes for the city dwellers, and reliable feet if need be when all other options were out. Geneva has made me revisit these childhood assumptions. On a daily basis, as I walk across the polished marble of the train station, businesswomen and old men—some well into their 80s—whiz by on scooters, leaving a breezy wake for those of us on foot. Hidden underneath restaurant tables, tethered to the chair leg, or clutched tightly under arms, you will see the occasional scooter, collapsed down into a little rectangle, portable and taken along with pride to all occasions from the casual drinks to a UN meeting and all things in between. Obesity has bred innovation in the field of scooting in the US, as we have seen a rise in Segway tours and mall cops perched pitifully atop motorized scooters, but the Swiss remain true to the efficient, compact, manual Razor, putting it on equal footing with the bike or skateboard as a perfectly appropriate and mature way to get from A to B.

Constantly astounded by the irregularities and absurdities of Swiss culture, I have uncovered yet more laws which put the no-peeing-upright-after-10pm types to shame. While, to many, these strict and bizarre statutes that infringe on basic personal liberties and bodily functions lean too far over the line between tranquility and fascism, others, like myself, are happy to oblige the antiquated customs just out of sheer fascination and the future ability to say that I lived in a place which had these laws. The idea that national legislative bodies discuss some of these issues is absolutely stunning, given the American context of debt crises, deficit spending, and Congressional self-importance.

With the help of a friend and fellow fan of cultural oddities, I uncovered a Swiss 2008 law which regulates the practices of those who own what are deemed “social animals.” The Sunday Times released an article on the law, saying:  “From guinea-pigs to budgerigars, any animal classified as a ‘social species’ will be a victim of abuse if it does not cohabit, or at least have contact, with others of its own kind.” That is right, you cannot own just one guinea pig unless you provide adequate interaction with other guinea pigs—lest you be charged with ABUSE. For those who cannot schedule sufficient play dates, it seems, then, that they are backed in a corner of perpetual pet ownership, lest an accident befall both animals simultaneously. A government website confirms that these small critters in particular deserve the protection provided by the law: “Guinea-pigs are very sensitive social animals. They are interesting to look at, but not at all appropriate to be cuddled or carried around by children.” While I have not perused the website that provides such useful tips, I can say that the law went even further into the realm of you-can’t-be-serious when discussing the social malady of cat-napping (pun intended).

This particular law conferred the title of ‘social species’ to the housecat, unarguably a fair extension of the rule, but regulations on cats caused quite a stir among Swiss society. Apparently until quite recently, Switzerland was one of very few countries which tacitly allowed a flourishing, but increasingly illicit, trade in cat fur products, purported to sooth the symptoms of rheumatism.

Even the media big boys, the New York Times, caught wind of this meow. A 2008 article dug a bit deeper into the bizarre black market for housecat pelts: “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.” Yes, cat MEAT! Really, I have yet to see a single stray cat in Geneva, so I do not doubt that this trade still exists, though I do question who would be able to wear, in a dignified manner, a cardigan made out of house cat. While I do not in any way belittle the suffering caused by rheumatism, it is undeniably strange to think about wearing what could otherwise be your neighbor’s pet. It’s like putting a dead squirrel in your freezer (Tufts kids, you know what I mean). You may have a reason for doing it, but that by no means will absolve you or free you from justified judgment.

A xenophobe’s self-fulfilling case study, Switzerland’s legal system allowed hunters, or poachers, to shoot (or kill in any form) otherwise-domestic housecats if they were more than 200 meters from their home property, making Switzerland the last country in Western Europe to allow such practices. Indeed this determination is at best, flexible, and would be hard to enforce in any dispute between a bereaved cat owner and he who sought kitty’s skin. Perhaps the fact that Swiss cats must now go in twos, or in groups that are on their government-ordered playdates, will allow for a strength-in-numbers approach to fend off cat hunters, who, really, must be an incredibly strange and dying breed of Swiss mountain people or desperate vagrants who float down the illicit rivers of whatever country they temporarily inhabit.

Cat sweaters, hats, and full blankets can still be found according to online stories, and every so often there are reports of cats disappearing from French border towns. Geneva, a feline Sleepy Hollow, continues to mystify me with its absurdities and nuance, engaged in a battle to root out its secret trade in cat meat while it simultaneously remains home of the UN.

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