Handling Bobcat Pelts - Part I
With the upswing in prices paid for bobcat pelts the last several years, a lot of new people have gotten in on harvesting them. I've been exposed to this surge in new trappers probably as much as anyone. We're involved with the cat portion of the fur industry from start to finish, from selling trapping supplies to buying Western cats for a major manufacturer of bobcat garments. I've personally been harvesting cats since 1983, and I've learned a lot about their care along the way. With the potential money involved for a lot of you, I thought I'd pass on some of what I've experienced and seen in the last 30 years or so.

First, bobcat pelts are generally not as resilient or tough as other skins, such as coyote. Bobcats are quick to spoil in small spots, which will usually create fur slippage. The biggest cause of this is the heat trapped inside the body of the cat. Bobcats have a fair amount of body mass, and there is a lot of heat inside all that muscle. Letting your catch ride around in the back of the pickup in warm weather can be a big gamble. I usually try to keep them in the shade as much as possible, to help keep the sun from making them any warmer than is needed. I also turn them over at least once while in the pickup, to let as much heat as possible escape out of each side.

Skinning in the field will help this, of course, and I do that fairly often on warm days. Cats skin fairly quickly and easily. I've also learned to leave the leather side out for a few minutes, to let the heat leave the pelt a bit. I usually do this while putting my skinning stuff away. You'll see the heat leave, by way of steam, and I feel this is important for a quality end product. I judge it for coolness by touching a few places, especially around the head, since that's the last part of the animal being skinned. The area around the ears, eyes, and lips are also places that will slip bad, and making sure the head isn't folded and trapping heat is a good idea.

After the pelt is cooled a bit and turned fur side out, you can usually get by with putting it in a plastic bag until you get home. I use white bags rather than black ones, because the black ones absorb too much heat if the sun hits them. An alternative is to simply roll up the skin, head first, and place it where it won't get any direct sun. I usually pick a corner of the pickup box.

You often read about placing dispatched animals in a plastic bag for spraying with flea spray. I've done it at times, but cats should be taken out of the bag after you feel the spray has done its job. In my experience, 10 minutes is long enough to kill any and all fleas. Cats don't cool off in the bag, and if left in too long, slipping can result. I've paid the price on that costly lesson a time or two over the years.

Skinning the cat ASAP sounds simple, but I can't over-emphasize it. If the cat is frozen a bit, possibly from a ride home in freezing weather, try to hang it so the air can evenly thaw the animal. The legs and head are usually the first to freeze in those situations, but the head is harder to skin with even a little frost. I know it's tempting to speed the thawing process out by hanging the cat where it's really warm, but that might not be such a good idea either. It's best to monitor thawing closely, feeling frozen areas to determine when it can be skinned, and skinning as soon as possible when ready.

Once the cat is skinned I give the leather side a quick inspection. That's the easiest way to make sure there's no potential problem with fur slippage, or scars or holes that need to be sewn. Critical places are easily spotted with a little practice, and knowledge of what to look for. If you see spots on the leather where it appears to be clear, with very little or no fur remaining on the fur side of the pelt, you have problems. These little 'windows' can be anywhere on the pelt, but are usually on the head area, or worse yet, on the valuable belly. I've seen them vary in size from small dots the size of a pea, up to patches as big as your hand. If you turn the pelt fur side out, you can visually inspect that critical spot and decide what course of action to take.
It's possible to cut a small bare spot out, and sew it shut. You'll have to turn the pelt back to leather side out to carefully cut it out. I usually use a pair of scissors for small repairs, but a sharp knife tip will also work. Carefully sewing up any holes is important, too. I've used dental floss for sewing up holes in furs for years, but other people use heavy thread of various types with good results.

Hopefully you'll never experience losing a larger patch of fur on a bobcat pelt. I've had circumstances that couldn't be avoided a few times, and I've watched a potentially high dollar fur turn into a 'slight', or damaged, fur, more than once. Almost always, it was something that could have been avoided by a little more precaution and care on my part.

The use of Borax in the process of finishing bobcat pelts has become really popular the last five years or so. The first time I ever saw Borax used was in 1983, when it was being rubbed into the leather of some coyotes that had been taken off stretchers too quickly. The pelts were smelling strongly enough in the auction house that potential buyers were avoiding some of the bundles. It was a shame, as they were Montana coyotes and worth good money. Borax was rubbed into potential trouble areas, especially around the ears and lips, as well as where the wire stretchers had been in contact with the leather. The Borax was being used with the theory that it would help 'set' the fur, or at least help preserve it enough to get it to the tan. I suspect all it did was hide the smell, and maybe help the furs appear a little drier than they actually were. The coyotes got sold at the auction, and I've often wondered how they came out of the tanning process. I have no doubt at least portions of the heads and sides slipped on some of them.

For years I, like a lot of other people, have used Borax at times to help an individual pelt along. It does help preserve a bad spot on a pelt at times, and there is no doubt that it speeds up the drying process. For the most part though, any evidence of the use of Borax was a red flag for fur buyers, and prompted them to inspect the fur a little better for potential problems.

The industry has changed some over the years, and the current use of Borax in the put up process has become standard for a lot of fur handlers. I'm no exception; I use it myself, although not to the extent that some people do. I'm walking a fine line here, and I want to be careful to get my point across clearly. Borax is a good aid in the put up of cat fur, but it does have its limitations. It is not a cure all, or a way to get around the proper fleshing, stretching, or drying of the pelt.

Next issue I'll discuss Borax more, especially what I see as a potential misuse.