Hanging On

The fur trade has been surprisingly hard to stamp out. But the tide may be turning.

WALKING INTO NEIMAN MARCUS on a Sunday afternoon in January, I had a singular mission in mind: I was looking for fur. It didn’t take long to spot some. I’d hardly entered the store when I noticed the central ground-floor display in front of the escalators — one that nearly anyone walking into the department store would surely pass. It consisted of two mannequins, both styled in cropped pants, heels, collared shirts, and yes, fur outerwear. My first thought was, They might be faux — I was at a mall in the San Francisco Bay Area after all. But they were luxuriously soft. And a quick look at the tags confirmed their authenticity: The trendy vest on one mannequin, dyed a yellow-green color described as Kiwi on the label, was made of fox fur, and the preppie jacket in cream and pastels on the other had mink and rabbit fur tufts interwoven with the textile.

I headed up the escalator to see what else the store might hold. As my eyes leveled with the second-floor, I found myself in front of a fur salon. The small department had dozens of furs, from coats and vests to capes and stoles. There were red furs and white furs and leopard print furs. There were reversible fur jackets, puffer jackets with fur-lined hoods, furs with chevron prints, and furs decorated in beads and sequins. There were mink furs, rabbit furs, and fox furs. There were furs marked down to $800, and full price furs for upwards of $10,000. At one of the cashiers, I found a rabbit and fox fur vest on hold for a customer.

I did some quick math. Given that each fur garment was probably made with somewhere between 10 and 100 pelts, depending on the type of animal and the length of the item, I was looking at pelts from hundreds, likely thousands, of animals. Despite decades of fervent campaigning by animal welfare activists, it seemed fur was still in fashion, and in the Bay Area no less, a region known for left-leaning politics and warm climates.

The coats and vests I found in Neiman Marcus that day — and to a lesser extent, in Macy’s and Nordstrom as well — are part of a global fur industry that consumes pelts from an estimated 100 million animals every year. An industry that begins with the trapping of wild animals and the raising of animals on farms, and then moves through pelt auction houses, to fashion houses, and ultimately, to the homes of consumers. An industry that sends hundreds of millions of animals to their deaths.

Trappers and fur farmers are quick to note that the trade has deep roots in North American tradition, and that we can expect it to persist for the foreseeable future. But wildlife conservationists and animal welfare advocates say that, in an age when fur clothing and accessories can hardly be called a necessity, the industry can no longer be justified.

THE FUR TRADE does have deep roots in North America. Before European colonization of the continent, Indigenous peoples in North America traded furs among themselves. When European fishermen arrived along the coast of Newfoundland in the early 1500s seeking cod, they began trading with First Nations almost immediately, exchanging things like knives and textiles for furs from the “New World’s” bountiful animals.

What started as a small-scale, informal trade between fishermen and Indigenous peoples quickly became a much bigger business. French traders established permanent outposts in Canada, soon to be joined by the Dutch. And in the modern-day United States, the trade has early roots as well: The first English settlers at Plymouth, facing a poorer cod fishery than they had expected, turned their sights, too, on fur.

By the early 1600s, Europeans had established trading posts at key locations along North America’s Eastern seaboard, and had begun sending traders inland to secure more pelts. In 1670, what would become North America’s biggest fur trading company’s — the Hudson’s Bay Company — was founded, and over the next 150 years, several other ventures were established, including the North West Company, American Fur Company, and Missouri Fur Company. They were all competing for pelts. That meant competing for alliances with Indigenous peoples, who provided much of the fur to sustain the trade, and who in many cases became economically dependent on it.

The North American fur trade was driven almost singularly by demand for one type of pelt: beaver. Europeans had hunted their own beavers to near extinction just as the pelts were becoming coveted for stylish felted hats.

The exploration and colonization of much of North America can be traced to demand for these humble, semi-aquatic rodents. As Ben Goldfarb writes in his recently published book Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, “More than timber, cod, or any other natural resource, beavers help explain just about every significant American geopolitical event between European arrival and the Civil War.” He points to the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Louisiana Purchase as evidence of the role of the beaver.

photo of sierra leone
Beavers were once so valuable that the Hudson’s Bay Company used “made beaver” as their unit of currency. A made beaver was a superior beaver pelt that had been worn for a season, ideal for making felt. Photo by Rodney Campbell.

This thirst for beaver pelts led to their near-extirpation from the continent: It’s estimated that anywhere from 60 million to 400 million beavers roamed North American waterways when Europeans arrived. By the early 1900s, there were an estimated 100,000 left. Changing fashions in Europe may be to thank for the survival of the species — by the mid-1800s, felt was out and silk was in, and with that, beaver prices plummeted.

Nonetheless, the fur trade had been firmly established, and the trapping and trading of fur had taken a prominent place in the North American psyche. Though the scale of the trade in the US and Canada is no longer what it once was, it continues to this day, much to the consternation of animal rights advocates.

“I THINK MOST PEOPLE ARE generally unaware that commercial trapping is still happening around the United States,” says Camilla Fox, founder and director of Project Coyote, an Earth Island project that promotes coexistence with wildlife.

The US, in fact, still has quite a thriving fur trapping industry. Most wild-caught animal pelts that make their way to the global fur market come from three countries — Russia, Canada, and the US. During the 2014-2015 fur hunting season, the US had more than 175,000 licensed trappers, according to Responsive Management, a public opinion and attitude research firm. That’s up from an estimated 142,000 in 2004, but still well below the 800,000 Americans trapping in the early 1980s.

For those who are aware of the industry, but not especially familiar with it, the image of the average trapper may skew towards something like a modern-day Daniel Boone. Rugged outdoorsman. White. Inclined to living the solitary life out in the woods. One of the only profiles, compiled in 1987, suggests that at least back then, most trappers were white men. But according to Bruce Vandervort, a fur trapper who heads the Washington State Trappers Association, many don’t fit that profile these days.

It is not uncommon for animals left in traps for prolonged periods to gnaw off their own foot in an effort to escape, or to be preyed upon by other animals, either of which might have been the case with the animal, most likely a lynx, that was caught in this trap. Photo by Flickr user Travis
It is not uncommon for animals left in traps for prolonged periods to gnaw off their own foot in an effort to escape, or to be preyed upon by other animals, either of which might have been the case with the animal, most likely a lynx, that was caught in this trap. Photo by Travis / Flickr.

“People generally get an idea of trappers — they picture them as some grizzled guy with a bushy beard,” says Vandervort. “But in our trappers association, we have people from all walks of life, all the way from that old bushy-bearded guy, to nurses, doctors, and veterinarians. If you went down the line and found out what each one of them does for a living, you’d have a broad spectrum of society. [You’d have] men, women, children, all different age groups, all different ethnicities. I mean, we are really diverse.”

Vandervort, who turns 64 this March, notes that trappers feel a unique connection to the land and tend to have a conservation ethic based on the desire not to deplete animal populations. He adds that interest in trapping seems to be growing in Washington. Trappers in places like Pennsylvania and Michigan have also reported growing interest in the practice in recent years.

It’s hard to determine how many wild animals these trappers catch every year — there are no federal reporting requirements in the US. The most recent nationwide data, from two decades ago, estimates that some 4.6 million animals — including raccoon, fox, bobcat, opossum, nutria, muskrat, coyote, wolves, and more — were trapped during the 1998-99 season. Due to the lack of data, trapping opponents often put the annual number of trapped animals at a relatively vague “several million.”

Part of the difficulty in coming by firm numbers in the US has to do with the patchy way trapping is regulated. Aside from a few federal requirements regarding animals protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), trapping is largely regulated by states. And few states keep detailed trapping-related records. According to Born Free USA, which works to end wild animal cruelty, two-thirds of states don’t require trappers to fully report what or how many animals they kill.

Lack of reporting isn’t the only regulatory gap. Wildlife conservation and animal welfare groups say that in many states, lax rules around trapping permit unnecessary animal suffering. They’ve been pushing for years to end commercial fur trapping, or at the very least, strengthen the regulatory framework in a way that would improve animal welfare. “Trapping itself is cruel, but there are ways of mitigating some of the pain and suffering animals experience in traps,” says Angela Grimes, acting CEO at Born Free.

Grimes is referring to rules about the types of traps permitted, trapper licensing and education requirements, and mandatory trap check-times, all of which also differ from state to state. Some states, like Iowa and Wyoming, have hardly any restrictions on the types of traps allowed, the use of bait with traps, or the frequency with which traps must be checked. Others, like California and Washington, have more stringent regulations aimed at mitigating animal suffering.

Several million animals, including bobcats, coyotes, foxes, and beavers, are trapped every year in the US.

In Washington State, for instance, Vandervort and his peers are limited to using cage and box traps, which trap animals live without gripping their body. Most states, however, still permit leghold traps, conibear (body-gripping) traps, and snare traps. These traps grip animals, often painfully, by the leg, neck, or other body part. As of 2017, fifteen states still permitted use of steel jaw leg-hold traps with teeth, a mechanism so grievously injurious — it can break bones and tear tendons — that 100 countries have banned it.

“Darwin spoke of the inherent and incredible cruelty of steel-jaw leg hold traps, and the pain and suffering that they cause to individual animals,” says Project Coyote’s Fox, who co-authored Cull of the Wild: A Contemporary Analysis of Wildlife Trapping in the United States. “And today we know through scientific research that … the standard body-gripping traps used in commercial trapping and animal control trapping, are inherently non-selective, and that they can cause tremendous pain and suffering to individual animals, even leading to animals gnawing off their paws. It’s not unusual for people to report seeing a three-legged coyote, for example.”

Carter Niemeyer, a wildlife biologist and former commercial trapper, says that in a world where trapping is permitted, trap type and check time practices can go a long way towards improving animal welfare. “Traps have been researched, modified, and improved dramatically just in my lifetime,” he says. “If people would use the new traps and check them every morning, a lot less harm would be done.”

Mandatory trap check times can help reduce a trapped animal’s suffering by ensuring that animals aren’t left stuck in a trap for prolonged periods, during which time they could be exposed to the elements, preyed on by other animals, or suffer from dehydration or starvation. In total, 22 states, including Washington and California, require trappers to check their traps every 24 hours. The rest allow trappers to leave their traps unattended for longer periods, typically 48 or 72 hours, but in some cases up to 96 hours.

And then there’s the killing. Only ten states restrict how trapped animals can be killed. That means that in most of the US, wildlife caught in non-lethal traps can be killed through “pelt-preserving” methods. That is, they can be crushed, or drowned, or strangled.

Just a handful of states, like Hawaiʻi, Colorado, and Arizona, restrict trapping on public lands, and the majority of states don’t require trappers to report deaths of non-target species. In other words, if a mountain lion is caught in a trap intended for a bobcat, wildlife agencies may never hear of it.

ACROSS THE COUNTRY, wildlife advocates are pushing hard for trapping-related reforms. In Montana, they are concentrating on the indiscriminate nature of traps. In 2016, for instance, the Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) sued the US Fish and Wildlife Service over how bobcat trapping in the state is harming endangered Canada lynx, which sometimes get caught in traps set for bobcats. WELC celebrated a partial victory last year, and FWS is now in the process of reevaluating how it might continue to permit the export of bobcat pelts, which is regulated under CITES, while decreasing the harm on lynx.

photo of sierra leone
The Western Environmental Law Center sued the US Fish and Wildlife Service over the impact of bobcat trapping on endangered Canada Lynx (pictured). Photo by Bastian Sander.

In other cases, advocates are casting a wider net, trying to do away with trapping itself. Bills to ban most trapping in national wildlife refuges have been introduced in Congress several times over the past decade, though they haven’t passed. At the state level, Trap Free New Mexico, a coalition of wildlife conservation groups led by WildEarth Guardians, has for years been campaigning for a near-blanket ban on trapping on New Mexico’s public lands. The coalition points in particular to the cruelty of trapping, as well as the risk trapping poses to pets and humans enjoying the state’s open spaces, noting that trappers aren’t required to post warnings regarding the presence of traps. The coalition is supporting a 2019 state bill that would ban commercial and recreational trapping on public lands. Similar bills were introduced in 2013, 2015, and 2017, but none made it through. As part of the campaign, the coalition recently began running billboard ads in Albuquerque and Las Cruces that feature a gruesome photo of a bobcat in a leg-hold trap, with the text “Trapping is Torture: Protect Public Lands.”

“Most New Mexicans don’t know that trapping occurs,” says Chris Smith, Southern Rockies Wildlife Advocate with WildEarth Guardians. “Along with making clear the problems with trapping — it’s cruel, it’s inherently indiscriminate, it’s the commercialization of a public resource, and it’s a public safety hazard — we want those messages to resonate, but often we are just telling people that it happens, and that’s eye opening to them.”

Smith also points to the ecological impacts of trapping. Between December 2018 and January 2019, four endangered Mexican grey wolves were caught in traps in New Mexico, which allows body-gripping traps. Two of them died. At last count, there were just 114 of these wolves left in the US. In other cases, trapping animals like foxes, beavers, and coyotes can have implications for the broader ecosystem. “Especially in the high-desert Southwest, a number of these species are key ecosystem architects,” Smith says. “They are keeping other species in check.”

Then there are the economic considerations — the hook on which California wildlife advocates are hanging their bid for a blanket ban on trapping. The state — which banned steel jaw and leg-hold traps in 1998, and did away with bobcat trapping in 2015 — has seen declining trapper numbers in the past several decades. According to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the state issued just 133 commercial trapper’s licenses in 2017. Of those, 68 trappers reported catching 1,568 animals, primarily muskrats but also grey foxes, coyotes, beavers, badgers, and minks. They sold 1,241 pelts for an estimated total of $4,531.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, says California taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for the trapping program given that the revenue from trapping license fees doesn’t even cover the cost of running it. In January she introduced a bill that would prevent the state from issuing trapping licenses. The bill notes that “the minimal revenue generated by the sale of the furs of the animals killed by trappers is dwarfed by the millions of dollars that nonconsumptive wildlife watching generates in California’s economy.”

Smith mentions similar financial considerations in New Mexico. “If I want to access public lands to hike or camp, I have to pay $35,” he says. “A New Mexican pays $20 for a trapping license, which entitles them to kill as many furbearers as they want.”

Most US trappers aren’t getting rich off the trade though. The 2015 Responsive Management survey found that, of 6,668 respondents, only 21 percent said that trapping had been either a “very” or “somewhat” important source of income during the past three years. The vast majority, 78 percent, said it had “not been at all important.” Usually, commercial trappers are simply earning a little extra cash, or covering the cost of fuel and trapping equipment, with the money they receive for their pelts. They are, as Fox of Project Coyote puts it, “hobby” trappers.

Fox says that, in the 1990s, as pelt prices fell, many commercial trappers turned to animal control trapping for state governments and the federal Wildlife Services program for financial reasons. This “animal control” trapping, which targets invasive species, “nuisance” birds, and predators like wolves and coyotes that prey on livestock, can sometimes be tied to the international fur market as well. Though many animals killed through these programs don’t have commercial value, furbearing species like bobcats, coyotes, and foxes do. In at least some cases, their pelts are sold, either by the trappers themselves or the government agencies they turn the pelts over to.

Many of the wildlife conservation groups pushing for commercial and recreational trapping bans also point to the shortcomings of these lethal wildlife management programs, which they say are usually carried out at the behest of the agricultural and hunting industries. But in a lot of ways, that’s a broader fight — and both the California and New Mexico anti-trapping bills contain certain exceptions for government wildlife managers.

TRAPPING THOUGH, represents just one part of the international fur industry, and in the scheme of things, a rather small part. Globally, the big players are fur farms. Roughly 85 percent of all pelts that make their way into the global fur market come from farmed “wild” animals. Most of these fur farms are in China and Europe, but the US and Canada also have substantial industries.

If trapping sometimes finds itself in the public spotlight because of the death of a beloved dog, or the unintended killing of an endangered predator, fur farms tend to get more attention for undercover photos of animals in cramped cages, or the occasional animal liberator who trespasses onto farm grounds to set mink free. These activists may represent the more extreme end of the fight against fur farms. But they are not its only critics.

As the Humane Society puts it on its website, “animals bred for their fur such as foxes, rabbits, raccoon dogs, and mink are confined in small, barren, wire cages for their entire lives. Unable to express their basic natural behaviors such as digging, roaming large territories and, for semi-aquatic mink, swimming and diving, these naturally active and curious animals have been shown to display the stereotypical behavior of mental distress such as repeated pacing and circling inside their cages. Such confined spaces can also result in animals self-mutilating and fighting with their cage mates.”

Animals raised on fur farms — like this fox on a fur farm in Finland — typically live out their short lives in small, barren cages. Photo Oikeutta Eläimille
Animals raised on fur farms — like this fox on a fur farm in Finland — typically live out their short lives in small, barren cages. Photo Oikeutta Eläimille.

Most farmed animals are killed at a very young age — mink, for example, are often killed at just six months. In the US and Europe, they are typically killed by electrocution or gassing. Elsewhere, practices can vary. The Humane Society has reported foxes being clubbed to death on Chinese fur farms, and rabbits being killed by blows to the head. In some instances, they say, animals are skinned while still showing signs of life.

Animal welfare advocates say fur farms aren’t well regulated either. While the EU has minimum requirements for fur farming, activists say they are just that — the minimum. In the US, fur farms aren’t subjected to federal regulations at all. Instead, as with trapping, rules vary by state. A few states have adopted measures to somewhat ameliorate animal suffering at these farms — animal housing requirements in California make mink and fox farming cost prohibitive, and New York has banned the electrocution of furbearing animals. Other states have done less, though farmers can elect to follow industry guidelines and participate in “humane care” certification programs.

Of course, animal rights advocates say there’s no such thing as humane fur. “The only humane fur, the only cruelty-free fur, is faux fur,” says Ashley Byrne, an associate director with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). “If you want to put it in perspective, the practices that go on at ‘humane’ fur farms would result in cruelty charges in the United States if dogs and cats were the victims. And you still find outrageous abuses … It’s just greenwashing”

Roughly 85 percent of all pelts that make their way into the global fur market come from farmed animals.

Fur farmers like Joe Reuf, a second-generation fur farmer who produces about 40,000 mink a year, push back against the grim image of their operations. “Things have changed over the years,” he says, referring to how fur farms are operated these days. “I can talk about sustainability and how green we are all day long.” Reuf explains how the mink at his farm are fed on food waste, including carcasses of egg-laying chickens that have passed their commercial prime. Once the mink have been killed and skinned — or “pelted,” as it’s more commonly referred to in the industry — their bodies are turned into fertilizer. Mink coats are biodegradable, Reuf points out, though the point is unlikely to get him far with those who don’t think mink should be made into coats in the first place.

Reuf says he feels a sense of responsibility towards the animals he raises, and to him, the debate on fur comes down to consumer freedom. Comparing the decision to wear fur to the decision to eat a hamburger, he says: “If a person chooses to wear fur, fine. If they don’t choose to wear fur, that’s fine, that’s their choice. Where it gets us upset is when they decide to take away that choice from the consumer.”

WALKING DOWN NEW YORK City’s Madison Avenue this winter, I couldn’t help but notice that some consumers in this country still are making the choice to wear fur. I passed several women wearing what seemed to be authentic — and expensive — fur coats, and noticed fur-trim in more than one window display. A scan of the offerings of nearly any major department store turns up plenty of fur options too, be it coats with fur-trimmed hoods, fur pom-poms on key chains, or fur infinity scarves — items that, as Fox says, consumers may not “connect to the animal in the way that they do with a full-length coat.” Globally, fur generated $30 billion in retail sales in 2017, $17 billion of that in China alone, the largest retail market for fur. Activists note, however, that global fur sales have dropped since 2014, when they were reported at nearly $36 billion.

Though it’s clear that demand in some places, including China, remains high, elsewhere, signs suggest that we might be on the brink of a downward trend when it comes to fur. In just the last few years, a long list of well-known fashion brands have made fur-free pledges. Eight major designers — Chanel, Coach, Diane von Furstenberg, Burberry, Bottega Veneta, Donna Karan, Furla, and Versace — made fur-free commitments in 2018 alone. Donna Versace, long known for fur-forward fashion, told 1843 Magazine of the decision: “I am out of that. I don’t want to kill animals to make fashion.” And Chanel took its pledge a step further than most, committing to do away not only with fur, but with all exotic skins — including crocodile, lizard, snake, and stingray.

A staff member works on a sable coat at a fur factory in Duesseldorf, Germany. More than a dozen European countries have banned or are phasing out farming of fur. Photo DPA Picture Alliance Archive / Alamy Stock Photo
A staff member works on a sable coat at a fur factory in Duesseldorf, Germany. More than a dozen European countries have banned or are phasing out farming of fur. Photo by DPA Picture Alliance Archive / Alamy Stock Photo.

Arguably, it’s easier than ever for designers to join the faux fur wave. Industry-insiders say textile alternatives have improved dramatically in recent years — they look better, and are lasting longer than they used to (the shorter lifespan of faux fur is a common critique from the fur industry). What’s more, innovators are figuring out how to make plant-based fur and leather alternatives, rather than plastics-based ones that raise environmental concerns. Just this past February, the first all vegan fashion week in Los Angeles boasted apple leather gowns, pineapple leather shoes, faux shearling coats, and even a puffer jacket made entirely of recycled plastic take-out bags.

It’s not just designers eschewing fur. Yoox Net-a-Porter, a leading online, high-end retailer, said goodbye to fur in 2017. InStyle magazine officially announced that it would neither photograph nor advertise fur products in 2018. And last fall, London Fashion Week became the first international fashion week to go completely fur-free.

“Whenever we start having these conversations with companies, they all want to … sell humane fur,” says PJ Smith, director of fashion policy with the Humane Society, who has been credited as a major player behind recent industry shifts. “That’s where they start approaching it.” The rub is that there really is no humane fur, Smith says. “When you show them that there is no transparency, that there really are no standards that are good … they all find that they just can’t find a humane source.” Smith thinks shifting standards among Western designers could have an outsized impact on global trends as well, including in China. “I would say that the number [of fur consumers] is going to be decreasing,” he says. “Big luxury brands are really important to the Chinese consumer, and pet ownership is going up. So awareness of animals as individuals could raise awareness around fur.”

“The practices that go on at ‘humane’ fur farms would result in cruelty charges in the US if dogs and cats were the victims.”

Christina Sewell, assistant manager of fashion campaigns with PETA, says this is already happening, pointing to the organization’s online presence in China. “Right now, PETA Asia [has] one of the most viewed websites in China,” she says. “And our WEBO account is also really popular … We’re already seeing that trickle effect.”

Elsewhere, changing public perception is reflected in the increasing number of nations enacting anti-fur legislation. The United Kingdom and Australia banned fur farming all the way back in 2000 and 2004, respectively, and several countries have followed suit. The Netherlands, the EU’s second largest mink producer, banned mink farming in 2012. Norway, once the world’s largest fox producer, banned fur farming in 2018. In total, more than a dozen European nations have banned or are phasing out fur production, and several more — including Ireland, Poland, and Lithuania — are currently considering bans. Other countries, like New Zealand and India, have recently enacted bans on fur imports.

At the same time, several cities have set their sights on the sale of fur goods. These include São Paulo, Brazil, and several California cities: West Hollywood, Berkeley, San Francisco, and just this February, Los Angeles. California could become the first state to enact a statewide ban — late last year, assemblywoman Laura Friedman introduced a bill to ban fur sales throughout the state.

Realistically, we may not see federal bans on trapping or fur farming in the US in the near future. And for the time-being, fur may continue to hold out in some parts of the world. But the more locales that ban the production, import, and sale of fur, and the more anti-trapping and anti-fur campaigns that capture public attention, the more we may come to see fur as a thing of the past — a commodity with a long history, yes, but one that can easily, and more ethically, be replaced with faux alternatives. And perhaps, down the line, a material we no longer aspire even to imitate.

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