March 14, 2003
LONDON -- Since 1815, Britain's Foot Guards have topped their ceremonial uniforms with tall bearskin hats, in memory of their victory that year over the French Imperial Guard at the Battle of Waterloo.
But now officers are looking for alternatives after animal rights campaigners complained to Queen Elizabeth II.
In a letter to the monarch on behalf of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Miss Great Britain, Yana Booth, called the hats "the world's cruelest crowns."
Finding a bearskin substitute is not proving easy. The foot-high hats need to keep their shape and color in all weather, and must be able to repel Britain's frequent showers and not give off static electricity.
"We've tried a number of artificial fibers we hope will look and behave like bearskin," said Lt. Col. Peter Dick-Peter, an army spokesman. "But so far, industry has not been able to come up with an alternative."
Among the alternatives tried so far, according to Dick-Peter, "some have looked red in harsh light, others soaked up so much water that they got heavy, others lost shape or built up static electricity," And some "just looked like a very bad hair day. This is no good, as the Guards are on show," he added.
There are about 2,500 Foot Guards in the British army. They include soldiers who perform the popular tourist attraction in front of Buckingham Palace known as the Changing of the Guards.
Their hats are made from the fur of Ursus Americanus, Canada's black bear.
Dick-Peter said all are made with fur from culled bears, which proliferate in parts of Canada.
He said a manufacturer in Yorkshire has come up with an alternative made of a combination of animal fur and artificial fibers.
"I haven't seen it yet, but maybe it's the one," Dick-Peter said.
Today's cap was introduced after the First Regiment of Foot Guards, having defeated Napoleon's Guard at Waterloo, was allowed the privilege of wearing bearskin.