In a short Tetrapod Zoology online blog post of 13 August 2007 (click here), English palaeontologist Dr Darren Naish, who also has a longstanding interest in mystery animals, discussed a very eyecatching, enigmatic pelt owned by Big Cats in Britain (BCIB) founder Mark Fraser. As revealed by a colour photograph of it in his post, this most distinctive long-furred pelt sported a beautiful pattern of dark scallop-shaped markings resembling overlapping fish-scales, but which bore no resemblance to the pelage of any known mammal.
This interesting post swiftly attracted numerous responses from readers, most of whom favoured various feline identities, including king cheetah, aberrant leopard, and woolly cheetah (a freak cheetah form reported from South Africa during the late 1800s and represented by a living specimen exhibited at London Zoo during that same period), although viverrid and hyaena identities were also mooted. Alternatively, could it be a fake – but, if so, how was it done? After all, surely it would take great skill to paint a pelt so meticulously with such a detailed pattern...wouldn't it?
A chromolithograph from 1877 of the woolly cheetah briefly exhibited at London Zoo at that time (public domain)
In his blog post, Darren dubbed this mystifying pelt a Frasercot, in honour of its owner. He also noted that another pelt of this same type had been doing the rounds of antique fairs in Britain.
Moreover, in October 2009 Darren was in Libya, conducting some palaeontological fieldwork, and while visiting a market in Tripoli he was surprised to see a Frasercot pelt for sale there, hanging down on one of the stalls. It was too expensive for him to purchase, and in any case he was naturally concerned as to whether he would be permitted to bring such an item through customs, so he had to content himself with photographing it (a photo of it duly appeared in a Tetrapod Zoology blog article by Darren uploaded on 16 November 2009 – click here to see the photo).
Greatly intrigued by these pelts, in February 2012 I conducted some internet research concerning them. While doing so, I discovered a couple of photos of a smaller but otherwise identical pelt (alongside what looked like a second, larger one, but which was partly concealed from view by other furs) among the wares on the hand-cart of a fur vendor in Xiamen (aka Amoy), which is a major city in Fujian, southeastern China (these photos are viewable online here). The photos had been snapped on 31 October 2006 by a professional writer (name unknown to me) hailing from Mendocino in California, USA, but based in Xiamen during that time. Under her Flickr username 'Room With A View', she had later uploaded them into one of her online Flickr albums.
Further investigations revealed that such pelts were actually from domestic dogs but had been skilfully imbued in some way with the distinctive Frasercot-style scalloping in order for the traders to pass them off as exotic big cat pelts and sell them for lucrative amounts to unsuspecting Western tourists. When I contacted Darren concerning my findings, he confirmed that he had made the same discovery in relation to the Libyan pelt. Indeed, on 15 December 2010, one of his blog's readers, with the username NaturePunk, had provided the following highly illuminating response to Darren's post regarding the Tripoli pelt, verifying my own independent findings:
This is a dog skin that has been dyed to look like a cat skin. Common thing for vendors to do in Asian countries where dogs are killed for fur. I used to see this a lot when I lived there, and they would sell the dyed pelts along with pelts which were left un-altered. They see this sort of thing all the time at the Wildlife Forensics Center in Ashland [Oregon] where I live now.
Here are some links to photos of vendors selling dog pelts on the streets, trying to convince people that they're either wolf or big cat skins, a few of which are dyed with the EXACT same patterns as the pelt pictured above [i.e. the Tripoli pelt].
One of the links provided was the same as the one that I'd also discovered (and which I've given earlier here), to the photo of the Xiamen fur vendor with the pelts. A second one was to a photo that had been snapped and uploaded onto Flickr by Tennessee-born teacher Bill Benson, now living in Tianjin, northern China. It depicted another Chinese fur vendor, this time in Dalian (a big city and seaport in northeastern China's Liaoning Province), whose hand-cart bore a fully laid-out Frasercot pelt. Unfortunately, that particular photo is no longer accessible online (but I have a copy of it on file). Apparently, the vendor had tried to pass it off to Benson as a leopard skin (which it certainly wasn't – no leopard possesses the Frasercot scalloping pattern), but Benson affirmed that it was a dyed dog skin.
Even so, I was still unclear as to the manner in which such an intricate pattern was applied to the pelts, although I wondered whether it may involve a stencil or something similar in order to produce such a precise effect.
At much the same time, I learnt from British naturalist and taxidermist Jonathan McGowan that he had included on his website (www.thenaturalstuff.co.uk) a photo of the Frasercot pelt that had been doing the rounds of the antique fairs - he saw it at one in Lincolnshire. Of particular interest, however, was that Jonathan was convinced that this particular pelt on which the scalloping had been applied was not from a dog but from a large cat, probably a unicoloured species such as a puma. Memorably, the stall-holder claimed that it was from a rare species that she called a fishscale leopard! On 5 March 2012, Jonathan kindly provided me with the following additional details:
The pelt I found was at the RAF Swinderby antique fair in Lincolnshire about three years ago. I at first thought it was a painted dog pelt and asked the lady if I could have a look. On doing so I noticed the short legs with typical cat like short bristly fur on the ankles. The feet were cut off unfortunately but the head was on and it had typical cat shape with leopard like ears and big long whiskers, although few in number but not like small dog whiskers. The woman said that it came from South Africa and mentioned that even the dark scales have the skin underneath also black which proves that it is real! I replied that this does indeed suggest that it is a fake as dark pigmented skin does not correspond with dark hairs. It had nothing to do with it, but looking closely at it, only a few of the scallops had dark pigment under them anyway! And when I held the fur up to the light, I could see that each individual hair was black tipped correctly with lighter underneath. If it were a fake, I wondered just why some very skilled person went to the trouble of painting every individual hair just to produce this! However I am well aware of the Chinese ingenuity in regards to faking all kinds of things. Just maybe a mutant leopard did have such scalloping fish scale spots! I don't know but it is unlikely and I would rather see it as a hoax as a genuine thing. She wanted £200 for it and I had already spent my quota for the day.
Messaging Mark Fraser online via Facebook also on 5 March concerning his Frasercot specimen, I learnt that its head was distinctly dog-like in appearance rather than cat-like, and that he had purchased it from Coventry-based taxidermy enthusiast Martin Cotterill, who in turn informed me that he had bought it several years ago from a dealer at Swinderby Antiques Fair! In other words, exactly the same fair where Jonathan subsequently saw the one that he photographed.
As Mark's pelt is dog-headed whereas the one seen by Jonathan was cat-headed, they are evidently not the same specimen, but it seems reasonable to assume that they were from the same dealer – otherwise it is a truly formidable coincidence that two such similar yet extremely unusual pelts should come up for sale at the very same antique fair. If so, does this mean that the dealer had a regular supply of them, or had merely bought the two together as a one-off purchase? Whatever the answer, the very fact that a dog-headed pelt and a cat-headed pelt exhibited precisely the same highly-unusual scalloping pattern provided, I felt, conclusive evidence that the pattern was indeed applied artificially rather than being natural.
Mark uploaded some photos of his pelt's head and feet onto Facebook, and these were certainly canine rather than feline in shape. On 10 March 2012, moreover, I was able to confirm this directly, as well as ascertaining its total length (55 in from nose-tip to tail-tip) when Mark very kindly sent the pelt to me on loan in order for me to examine it. I was also able to see for myself that the artistic workmanship of the applied scalloping pattern was of an extremely high standard – but the biggest surprise, and revelation, was still to come.
I showed it to my mother, Mary Shuker, who had always been very knowledgeable regarding clothes and fashion in general, and she told me straight away that she'd seen real and artificial (faux) fur coats with this same pattern in the past, and also with other exotic-looking patterns. She then took out of one of her wardrobes a faux fur jacket with an extraordinary pattern on it, totally unlike that of any real species but which, when I examined it, could be seen to have been applied in precisely the same way as the pattern on Mark's Frasercot pelt – i.e. with the pattern visible on the upper surface of the hairs but not on the undersurface.
Moreover, when I asked her how such a pattern could have been applied, she told me that she knew how – because the person from whom she'd bought this jacket had told her, informing her that it was applied by a machine that physically stamps the pattern onto the faux pelt using a form of heated inked plate bearing the pattern. And so, with that all-important disclosure, my mother duly solved the mystery of the Frasercot pelts!
Meanwhile, for absolute confirmation of its taxonomic identity, Mark had kindly given me permission to snip some sample hairs from his pelt and submit them for formal trichological examination and identification. This I did, sending them to Danish zoologist Lars Thomas, based at the Zoological Museum of the University of Copenhagen, who has considerable experience in hair analysis. And to ensure absolute objectivity during their examination, I did not provide him with any information whatsoever as to the source of the hair samples.
However, when Lars provided me with his findings, and which here on ShukerNature are now revealed for the very first time online, I was extremely surprised. This was because his initial, provisional examination of them had indicated to him that they were definitely not felid, but likely not canid either, seeming instead to be most probably of mustelid origin, and, more specifically, from the genus Mustela (containing weasels, stoats, ferrets, and polecats). Yet he was far from happy about this, because the hairs had also presented him with various anomalous features that he had not anticipated finding.
In particular, their pigment granules looked very strange, and Lars wondered if they had received chemical treatment, because a lot of the colour in outlying regions of the hairs seemed unnatural, and therefore had possibly been dyed. Moreover, he mentioned to me that chemical treatment can make pigment granules split, thus making canid or felid hairs look like mustelid hairs, because pigment granules in the latter are clearly separate, whereas they are not in canid and felid hairs.
I then provided Lars with full details of the hair samples' origin, knowing that he had heard of (but never examined) the Frasercot pelts, and I also sent him some photographs of Mark's specimen. After receiving my news and pictures, Lars then conducted a more detailed examination of the hair samples, which included sectioning one of the hairs – whereupon he discovered that it was round in cross-section. Crucially, this eliminated mustelids, because their hairs are oval or elliptical in cross-section. He also discovered that some of the hairs showed signs of heat damage and of being compressed, some of them being completely flat in very specific areas, as if they had been under pressure.
Needless to say, this would be the case if the edge of a heated stamping device had been applied to them – which in turn is exactly what my mother had described concerning the artificial application of the Frasercot patterning on fur coats that she had seen. In addition, when Lars rubbed some of the darkest hairs with ethanol and various other solvents on a Q-tip, he was actually able to rub off some of the colouring. Consequently, he informed me that he now had no doubt that the hairs had indeed been somehow artificially treated and dyed.
An independent confirmation of his findings came unexpectedly when, while subsequently browsing online in the hope of finding further photos of Frasercot pelts, I revisited Bill Benson's Flickr albums and discovered that although his earlier-mentioned missing Frasercot pelt photo had not reappeared there, a second one was present in a different album by him. He had snapped it on 26 September 2006, and it shows an extremely large Frasercot pelt being held up by its street vendor, somewhere in eastern China (it is viewable here). However, whereas all previous Frasercot pelts seen by me have exhibited a pristine pattern, in this one the pattern is very patchy in appearance, with certain portions faded or even entirely worn off, clearly demonstrating that it had been artificially applied. Benson affirmed again that these pelts are indeed dyed dog furs, and he also noted that poor vendors from western China come to eastern China in the hope of selling their wares.
Just as the riddle of the Frasercot pelts finally seemed solved, however, a further mystery arose concerning them. Prior to receiving the results of Lars's examination of the hair samples from Mark's specimen, I had discovered online a photograph of yet another Frasercot-patterned pelt – but crucially, unlike all previous ones encountered by me, this was not a detached pelt. Instead, it was a live dog, yet whose fur bore the characteristic fish-scale scalloping of the Frasercot pattern!
The only information accompanying this remarkable, currently unique example was that the photograph had allegedly been snapped by a Mr Richard Brooks on the Indonesian island of Bali. I have spent considerable time trying to trace Mr Brooks, but all to no avail. And so, due to its great significance to the subject in hand, I'm including a small, low-resolution version of his photo here on a strictly Fair Use, educational, non-commercial basis only, acknowledging fully that Mr Brooks is its copyright holder.
Live dog allegedly on Bali exhibiting Frasercot fur pattern (© Richard Brooks – reproduced here in low-resolution format on a strictly non-commercial, educational, Fair Use basis only; despite considerable attempts, I have so far been unable to trace Mr Brooks)
Of course, in this age of readily-available photo-manipulation techniques, it needs to be stressed here that the worrying possibility of this photograph actually being the result of one such process cannot be ruled out, especially as its supposed originator has so far resisted all attempts to be traced and his name may therefore be fictitious, just a pseudonym.
What makes this living Frasercot-patterned canine specimen so fascinating if indeed genuine, however, is that clearly its pattern could not have been applied to it by a mechanical, heat-stamping device. So as the Frasercot pattern is of artificial, man-made design, it must have been applied to the dog's fur by being painstakingly painted upon it, and surely with the dog fully anaesthetised while this very delicate process was being performed (having said that, the spots on this live dog are rather bigger than those on all Frasercot pelts currently recorded, so it would have been less difficult to apply them to it).
The obvious question to be asked here is why anyone should wish to perform such an elaborate form of decoration upon a live dog anyway. But perhaps its Frasercot-adorned coat made it valuable or much sought-after as a pet, or even for sale as an exotic 'rare breed' to some unsuspecting tourist, and it is certainly not the first time that I have seen domestic animals with intricately-embellished coats.
Dog with fake spots in Kalimpong, West Bengal, India (© Sukanto Debnath/Wikipedia – CC BY 2.0 licence)
For instance, there are photos of many different examples online involving dogs, including tiger-striped, leopard-spotted, and even black-and-white giant-panda-rendered versions (utilising chows - click here for photos). Also, while visiting Tijuana, Mexico, in 2004 I saw one of the famous 'Tijuana zebras' – in reality, donkeys that have been painted with stripes in order to look like zebras – being used for photo sessions with tourists.
So it would seem that after perplexing cryptozoologists and mainstream zoologists alike for many years, the mystifying Frasercot pelts are finally a (Chinese) puzzle no longer.
My sincere thanks to Mark Fraser, Lars Thomas, Dr Darren Naish, Jonathan McGowan, Martin Cotterill, and above all my late mother Mary Shuker for their greatly valued contributions to my Frasercot investigations; and additionally to Mark for so kindly loaning to me his Frasercot pelt for examination.
EPILOGUE – 19 April 2017
Today I discovered here that Mark's Frasercot pelt was sold on the internet auction site Ebay UK on 28 June 2014, but at present I have no further details concerning this transaction or its new owner/whereabouts.
Photographed alongside me for scale purposes (I stand 5'10" tall) while on loan to me during March 2012, the Frasercot pelt then-owned by Mark Fraser (© Dr Karl Shuker)