Animal skins are being embraced by designers amid a push to make the lives and deaths of captive creatures more humane. This story by Richard Conniff appears in the September 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine. Photos by Paolo Marchetti.
Top Models who once posed for ads with slogans like “We’d rather go naked than wear fur” have gone on to model fur. Fashion designers who were “afraid to touch it” 15 or 20 years ago have also “gotten past that taboo,” said Dan Mullen, a mink farmer in Nova Scotia. Many in the fur trade now readily acknowledge that activists who protested so loudly had a point: Farmers were not providing a decent standard of care for their animals. But they add that the trade has changed, though activists dispute this. In any case, many people now seem to regard wearing fur as a matter of individual choice. In some cities you are more likely to be glowered at for texting while walking.
Fur farms dominate the trade, and production has more than doubled since the 1990s, to about a hundred million skins last year, mostly mink and some fox. Trappers typically add millions of wild beaver, coyote, raccoon, muskrat, and other skins. That’s besides untold millions of cattle, lambs, rabbits, ostriches, crocodiles, alligators, and caimans harvested for food as well as skins.
But you hardly need the numbers. Just look around. Once the resolutely conventional winter-fashion choice of Park Avenue matrons and country club partygoers, fur has gone hip-hop and Generation Z. It turns up now in all seasons and on throw pillows, purses, high heels, key chains, sweatshirts, scarves, furniture, and lampshades. There are camouflage-pattern fur coats, tie-dyed fur coats, and fur coats in an optical illusion M. C. Escher box pattern. There’s even a fur pom-pom that’s a Karl Lagerfeld Mini-Me, created by the designer in his own image and dubbed Karlito.
So how has fur made such a comeback from the intense social ostracism of the 1990s? Or for that matter, from the notoriety of the 1960s, when the cartoon character Cruella de Vil hankered after the fur of Dalmatian puppies, and the real-life trade was threatening the survival of leopards, ocelots, and other species in the wild? New restrictions in the 1970s ended the use of endangered species in fashion. But the current revival is a story of the fur trade responding to its critics and often outmaneuvering them, combined with increased demand from the newly wealthy in China, South Korea, and Russia.
I suppose I should acknowledge here that I come to this story from a tangled perspective. My great-grandfather was a fur trapper, and I have a lingering sense that the intimate knowledge from hunting, fishing, and working with living things has a value largely lost in our urbanized lives. At the same time, my wife and I once inherited an ocelot jacket, and its 15 pelts haunted us until we finally donated it as an educational tool to a national wildlife refuge. So tangled, yes. I set out to see for myself.
I headed north in a snowstorm to Nova Scotia, a center of the trade. Mullen had invited me to see how his mink live and also how they die. “We’re very aware that we have to maintain a social license to do what we’re doing,” he said.
Mullen grew up in the old style of mink ranching, with long, narrow, open-sided wooden sheds and a row of tight little cages on each side. When he went into business for himself, he opted for the larger cages now required in Europe, housed six rows across under translucent plastic roofs in barns the length of a football field. “You’ll probably think it stinks,” he warned. “But I go in there, and it’s the smell of my childhood.” He drew in a long breath and exhaled: “Ah, mink.”
A worker drives a feed wagon down the rows multiple times a day, depositing a scientifically formulated meal that looks like raw hamburger atop each cage, portioned out by computer. A frost-free line provides 24-hour-a-day drinking water, and a trough underneath the cages automatically sweeps away wastes to be processed into fertilizer or, via a biodigester, into electricity.
These changes have come largely in response to pressure from animal welfare advocates. But they have often worked to the benefit of the farmers too. Mullen’s cages, for instance, each contain an elevated shelf for the nursing mom to get away from her kits—and it turns out that less harried mothers rear healthier young. Toys in the cage—as simple as a length of plastic pipe—reduce stress and seem to translate into better quality pelts. The peculiar result is that people in the trade now often boast of the reforms their old adversaries forced on them. Frank Zilberkweit, a London fur retailer, balked at the confrontational methods activists use but added, “They have made us aware of what we do. And so, for that, thank you. Why not?”
Mullen’s mink were surprisingly large and healthy looking—twice the weight of their wild counterparts, with broad, curious faces. They were, of course, also doomed. I had arrived to see the killing. Farmworkers, wearing welding gloves to avoid being bitten, went from cage to cage, lifting each animal by the base of the tail. Some animals screeched in protest, but most seemed accustomed to being handled, up to the moment they dropped, like packages into a mailbox, through the swinging door of the carbon monoxide killing box. They were unconscious within a minute and dead a few minutes later.
“If you were to watch other types of livestock being killed,” said Mullen, “they’re usually taken from their homes, trucked hundreds of miles to the slaughterhouse, and it’s bloody and horrific. This is the most humane form of killing of livestock there is.” The next day we visited a processing plant, where machines sliced the skin away from each carcass and pulled it off in a single piece, like a T-shirt.
For the world’s largest fur auction, at Kopenhagen Fur in Denmark, an assembly line of robots, x-ray machines, vision technology, and a human had sorted 6.8 million pelts, bar-coded to identify the farmer, into 52 different skin types and then into thousands of bidding lots. In the auction room, buyers consulted their catalogs, bantered, and maneuvered for the lots they wanted.
At Kick, an atelier for Kopenhagen Fur, a designer from Beijing named Ran Fan was working with a furrier’s knife to cut a mink pelt, dyed lavender, into a latticework for a lightweight vest. “I love fur,” she said, and so do her customers, often in bright colors and unusual patterns. Chinese consumers now buy almost half the world’s fur products, so she had come to Kick to learn new techniques.
Much of the fur trade’s recovery stems from its strategic wooing of young designers like Fan and, in turn, young customers. The leading fur auction houses began bringing in designers and design students at the height of the antifur movement. The ambition was for all designers to have “flirted with the material” early in their careers, said Julie Maria Iversen of Kopenhagen Fur. The aim has always been to move beyond furrier shops and fur departments, and make fur just another fine fabric, available wherever clothes are sold.
These zealously cultivated relationships have paid off, as designers have learned to use fur in ways conventional furriers never imagined, aided by innovations in dyeing that can produce fur in whatever color happens to be hot this season, from airy blue to green flash. New sewing techniques have also helped, yielding more garment from less fur. Affordability, a word not formerly associated with fur, serves what Iversen called “the fur journey.”
“We start with the young consumer buying a fur key ring, then maybe a little later she has more money for a fur bag,” she said. “Eventually she buys a full coat.” It’s “all part of the agenda, to inspire the upcoming generation of women.”
So how should we feel about the resurgence of fur? Should the upcoming generation of women be inspired? Or should they be outraged, as animal rights activists insist? Should we applaud the advances the fur industry has made in animal welfare? Or do such measures merely “make us feel better about exploiting animals,” as Gary Francione, a Rutgers University law professor who advocates ending all human use of animals, has argued?
Like pig or chicken farming, fur farming is about keeping animals in captivity their entire lives and then killing them. It entails practices many people would consider unthinkable. Some fox farmers, for example, kill their animals by anal electrocution. It’s supposedly the quickest practical method, though with what one farmer described mildly as “a perception problem.”
Industrializing our relationships with animals has also created problems. Many fur farmers manage to provide humane care on a large scale, but others can’t or won’t. And in the auction house sorting process, pelts from as many as 300 farms, good and bad alike, can end up together in the same lot. That’s a problem for any designer label wanting to assure customers of its reliance on humane, sustainable methods. The European fur industry says it is working on a fix, but its new WelFur program must first inspect and grade thousands of farms.
When I visited a mink farm in Denmark with Steen Henrik Møller, an Aarhus University agronomist helping to develop the protocol, the inspection was dauntingly thorough. He checked the nest box attached to each cage for size and the amount of straw for winter insulation. He examined the animals for body condition, injuries, and repeated back-and-forth motions that indicate stress. He inserted a tongue depressor in each cage to see if the animal responded with fear, aggression, or curiosity. A WelFur visit requires about six hours to inspect a 120-cage sample for 22 features. “I hope we don’t find anybody in the worst category,” the farmer ventured tentatively, and Møller replied, “I hope we do, because if the system cannot distinguish among farmers, it doesn’t work.”
Either way, will people who buy fur actually care? “You’ll get a much different answer if you ask in Shanghai or in Zurich,” said Tage Pedersen, chairman of Kopenhagen Fur. “But in the future more and more people will care. Not just for fur, but for everything we buy. They will ask at the shop, Is the animal welfare OK? And if the retailer says yes, they’ll ask, How do you know that?” Pedersen said the fur business won’t be able to afford the inspection process if customers are unwilling to pay a premium for the WelFur label. But he believes they will.
I came away with a contrarian idea. The ambition in the animal rights movement has always been to ban fur farming. The United Kingdom, Austria, and Croatia have done so, and the Netherlands is working on a ban. But banning doesn’t stop people from wearing fur. It just moves production to areas where no rules apply. At the auction I asked a broker who has a mink farm in China if that country has made much progress on animal welfare. He bristled, then tersely answered, “Not much.”
Banning fur farming also does nothing about other livestock farming we take for granted. It’s a gesture that affords us moral righteousness without actual sacrifice, since most people have never bought a fur product and probably never will. Yet most of us go on eating meat, drinking milk, wearing leather shoes, and otherwise exploiting animals, as humans always have, on a scale that makes the fur industry a sideshow.
People in the fur trade like to dwell on the implied hypocrisy. “I just read that Americans consumed 1.3 billion chicken wings on Super Bowl Sunday,” said Zilberkweit, the fur retailer. “I can do the math: That means 650 million chickens were killed for one day’s entertainment.” At some point almost everyone in the fur trade notes that other livestock producers have not had to improve their practices nearly as systematically as they have. “We knew we could have a ban if we didn’t,” said Pedersen. “Other animal producers haven’t been afraid of that.”
So here’s my idea: Instead of banning fur production, keep applying pressure to push out the worst farmers. Then take the most progressive fur farmers and the improvements they’ve made that are not only feasible, but even at times profitable—containment of agricultural runoff, measures to reduce stress, better housing, routine welfare inspections—and make them the model for all the forms of animal production on which our pampered lives depend.