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What the Fur-k? June 23, 2008

Posted by Andreas in Environment, Life, Politics, Society.
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I wrote this for Elle magazine a while ago:

What the Fur-k?

Andreas Späth ponders the continuing debate over fur in fashion: passé or morally reprehensible?

Fur is back. For those of us who hadn’t noticed, Jean-Paul Gaultier’s collection at this year’s Paris Fashion Week was a graphic eye-opener: almost every garment contained some fur, including the bits that even fans of fur may find a little, well …creepy: bushy tails a-dangle and fox heads draped over brows. What a change from the 90’s, when every supermodel worth her admittedly inconsequential weight was eager to pose bareback on billboards the size of small flat blocks shouting “I’d rather go naked than wear fur”.

Is wearing fur in the Noughties simply no longer an ethical issue, because the global fur industry’s PR machine has put owning a mink coat on a par with strapping yourself into a pair of leather boots? Or are we merely witnessing a trend turn-about by the famously fickle fashion industry?

PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), the world’s largest animal rights group which has become synonymous with aggressive anti-fur campaigns, remains adamant in its opposition to the fur industry in its entirety. As one of their many evocative slogans puts it, for PETA, “fur is worn by beautiful animals and ugly people”.

There are equally outspoken voices on the opposite end of the debate. According to London-based journalist Brendan O’Neill, “what really lies under the skin of today’s anti-fur hysteria is a discomfort with man’s domination of nature and beast.” He believes that “As a fashion item, an animal acquires significance far beyond its own natural existence. Indeed, the only true ‘purpose’ in the life of a mink or rabbit is that bestowed on it by the hunter, skinner and fur-maker”.

What about those of us who do enjoy the odd fillet and frites, but feel decidedly uncomfortable with O’Neill’s cold calculus of “beast” and “man”? If we are happy to wear dead animal skin as shoes and jackets, but shy away from fur, are we simply hypocrites?

Humans have used furs literally since they figured out how to wield a wooden club. Today the fur trade is a multi-billion dollar global industry that kills 40 to 50 million animals annually. Some 85 percent of all pelts come from fur farms, while the remainder are sold by trappers. Worldwide, the most commonly farmed fur animals are minks, followed by foxes. Others include chinchillas, lynxes, rabbits and even hamsters. Within the last decade, China has become the world’s largest exporter of fur clothing.

Since the late 80’s and 90’s, when the fur trade was in a slump, the industry has worked hard on its tainted image. Today, designers like John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Emanuel Ungaro are using fur without an audible public outcry and celebrity style icons from Kate Moss and the Olsen twins to Snoop Dogg and Kid Rock flaunt fur in public without the fear of being doused in red paint by PETA activists. Global fur sales are up.

The industry’s worldwide PR strategy is aimed at dispelling the moral stigma attached to animal fur. The Fur Council of Canada’s “Fur Is Green” campaign, for example, promotes fur as “the ultimate eco-clothing” that is renewable, durable, recyclable, biodegradable and non-polluting.

At the end of 2006, the International Fur Trade Federation (IFTF) launched a labelling programme to help consumers identify the species of fur they are buying, but opponents assert that the globalisation of the industry has made it impossible to know for sure where many products originate and what species of animal they come from. They insist that while the fur trade may be reasonably well regulated and monitored in Europe and North America, this is not the case elsewhere, especially in China, a country with few legal provisions for animal welfare.

Animals that are farmed for their fur spend their entire lives in the confines of small wire mesh cages that allow for little movement. A family farm in China can have as few as 20 or 30 cages, whereas large commercial operations may involve 20 000 animals. Although the IFTF emphasises that its members adhere to strict codes of practice for animal welfare, undercover investigations by activists and journalists have frequently exposed poor conditions on fur farms across the globe. Prevented from exhibiting their natural behaviour patterns farmed animals frequently exhibit cannibalism, self-injury, such as tail and pelt biting and infanticide.

The methods used to kill the animals include poisoning, gassing, neck breaking and electrocution. The practice of genital electrocution, deemed “unacceptable” by the American Veterinary Association, for instance, is still used on chinchilla farms. Animals are exposed to an electric current for one to two minutes via clamps attached to an ear and their genitalia. This induces a massive heart attack, but often doesn’t lead to instantaneous death. Animals have been known to wake up while being skinned (see sidebar).

Fur enthusiast Karl Lagerfeld may believe that “as long as we eat meat and wear leather, I don’t even think there is a subject to discuss”, but likening fur farming to the commercial meat and leather industry is disingenuous. Cows and pigs have been domesticated for thousands of years and while most leather is a by-product of meat production, the vast majority of farmed fur animals are grown exclusively for their pelts.

Fur farming is less than 150 years old and none of the animal species in question are domesticated. In the wild, minks, for example, are solitary and territorial, semi-aquatic animals that spend up to 60 percent of their lives in water hunting for prey. On a fur farm they are confined to small cages in close proximity to hundreds of other individuals without access to their natural habitat.

As many as ten million animals are trapped for fur every year, most commonly using so-called leghold traps, the spring-loaded steel jaws of which clamp onto the animal’s leg by biting into the flesh. Caught animals can be stuck for days before dying and up to one in every four escapes by chewing off its own foot. To kill the animals without damaging the fur, trappers typically strangle, stomp or beat them to death. Traps are also notoriously indiscriminate and accidentally kill millions of non-target animals every year.

In the end, there are no easy answers in the ongoing fur debate and we’ll each have to rely on our personal moral compasses to come up with our individual positions on the issue.

This is a shortened eye-witness account from the fur market in a Chinese town called Shangcun published in the Beijing News in 2005:

The wooden club in the woman’s hand swings down onto the [raccoon dog’s] forehead. […] Ten or more minutes later Qin Lao approaches the raccoon dog with a knife. His job is to skin the animals. The raccoon dog is suspended upside down from a hook on the overhead bar of a motor-tricycle and the area around the hind legs and anus is scored with the knife. There is a ripping sound as the skin is torn completely from the hind legs and the animal struggles to turn away, crying out. […] The whole fur is finally ripped from the raccoon dog’s body. The animal is thrown onto the back of the truck, steam rising from its blood-red body. It tries to stand up again, lifting its head and glancing down at its own body. Without blinking it tries once more to turn its head and then falls still“.

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