SHOW: DATELINE NBC (9:00 PM ET) December 11, 2000, MondayHumane Society claims coats are made with skins of unborn lambs
For many women, a fur coat is the ultimate luxury, the ultimate gift. And at the top of many women’s wish list this year is a hot new fur called Russian broadtail. But is there something about this fashionable fur they’re not telling you? Chris Hansen reports a “Dateline ” Hidden Camera Investigation.
Fur buyer (laughing): “That’s perfect, I think it’s going to be a beautiful combination.”
Saleswoman: “And I love the coat. Turn around, turn around, show them…”
The fur is flying out of the stores this holiday season.
Saleswoman: “It’s just the most gorgeous, don’t you love the flow…”
The look, the feel, the luxury seem irresistible. Sales are up, and it’s once again being seen on the fashion runways and on Hollywood starlets. Shunned by stars just a few short years ago, the fur look is now flaunted by a new set of in-your-face celebrities.
“The MTV generation has embraced it,” says Fur Information Council spokeswoman Diva Lynch. “We had a 15 percent increase in sales in 1999 – I think that all points to the fact that people are wearing fur again.”
And helping to lead the resurgence is a classic fur look that’s become the next new thing: it’s Russian broadtail. Soft, shiny, and sensuous, it’s a fur thin and supple enough to be made into just about any kind of garment, and it’s being seen everywhere.
Designer: “It’s a broadtail, it’s a very small lamb, it’s all hand sewn.”
Stores all over the country are stocked for the holiday season with an estimated quarter of a million sleek broadtail coats, skirts, pants, jackets, vests and trim.
Designer: “It’s a big seller, it’s also high-priced.”
Designer: “The ultimate luxury…
Saleswoman: “La creme de la creme.”
Designer: “More like silk.”
We’re not talking about long and curly sheep’s wool, but the buttery, soft lambs fur that is subtly textured and ridged.
Carlo Teso: (designer in store) “This is the best of the best that you can possibly have.”
Fur has always been controversial, but lamb fur less so than say, mink or fox, because we know that lamb is used for food. The fur is simply left over, and so it’s put to use in clothing. But along with the increase in the popularity of broadtail has been an increase in disturbing rumors about just how broadtail is made.
Some animal rights groups charge that the lambs used for broadtail are just a day or two old – too small to be used for food. And they say it doesn’t stop there. The Humane Society of the U.S. alleges that unborn baby lambs are sometimes taken right from their mothers’ wombs… just to get more of those valuable broadtail pelts.
Zuki: “Nice to meet you.”
Dateline: “Hello, you have beautiful pieces.”
Zuki: “Thank you.”
But if you went shopping as “Dateline” did recently with hidden cameras, you might be told those rumors are preposterous. We went to trunk shows where designers themselves are on site to promote their latest fashions. They work with this fur, they know it. And everywhere we went, we were reassured. Listen as we question this designer, named Zuki, about broadtail.
Dateline: “How old is the baby before it…”
Zuki: “They are not baby. Don’t, don’t go that far.”
Zuki: “They are…”
Dateline: “Oh, she said it was a baby…”
Saleswoman: “…think they’re the young.”
Zuki: “I mean, they’re young. They look, I mean they call them young because they’re really small.”
Dateline: “Well, I also kind of want to know, if I’m gonna wear it, I want to say…”
Zuki: “Well, no, no, no. “It’s a lamb, that, probably somebody in Russia was enjoying those … dinner…”
Saleswoman: “The meat… somebody in Russia was…”
Zuki: “It was- it was- it was a dinner. Many dinners- for many people.”
Zuki: “They are raised [on a] ranch for- for the meat.”
Zuki: “And the pelt is a…”
Dateline: “A by-product.”
Zuki: “Yeah, a by-product.”
So Zuki tells us the lamb is used for food… many dinners, in fact.
At another trunk show, we asked Milan designer Carlo Teso whether unborn lambs are used to make broadtail.
Dateline: “I know it’s like the lamb is pregnant and they take the babies out?”
Teso: “No, no, no. That’s something that they say which is not true.”
So, where are all these supposedly wild rumors coming from?
Swain: “I don’t believe that any consumer with any bit of humanity or conscience could know how this product is made and then wear it.”
Humane Society investigator Rick Swain is the chief investigator for The Humane Society of the United States. Make no mistake, Swain and the Humane Society are anti-fur, and against killing any animal simply for fashion. But whatever your feelings about fur, Swain says this is different – he calls the methods used to produce broadtail barbaric, and says even fur-lovers will be appalled.
Swain: “As cruel and ugly as it is for minks and foxes both, it is nothing approaching this level of cruelty.”
Swain says the truth about Russian broadtail can’t be found in the designer stores or fur salons… you have to go to Russia and Central Asia. That’s where much of the world’s broadtail fur is produced, designed and manufactured. Earlier this year, Swain posed as a buyer for a chain of American stores, and made three trips to the region. And he toured a major broadtail production farm in the the former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan.
Swain: “This particular facility is fairly large size. They house approximately 10,500 sheep on this facility.”
Swain and his group were allowed to shoot video openly. Don’t worry though, we won’t show you anything that will make you turn away. But you will get a good sense of what goes on there.
Translator: “This one is no more than 10 days already…”
Swain says he learned that broadtail comes from Karakul sheep, a breed that stores fat in its tail – thus the name, broadtail. Swain says he was struck by the family-like behavior of the animals.
Swain: “The baby lambs stick very close to their mothers. There’s a very strong mothering instinct between the mothers and babies.”
Karkakul lambs produce a very soft and supple coat. But the coat thickens quickly, and after the baby lamb is three days old, it’s coat is too thick and rough to be used as fur. So the lambs are slaughtered – the younger, the better.
Swain: “The one-day-old baby taken from its mother is taken from its mother for the fur, period.”
Hansen: “So in other words, these animals are not being killed for food, and suddenly there is a fur left over, which fine, use it in the furs.”
Swain: “Absolutely not. The only worth, the only value in the animals is their fur.”
But as unpleasant as that may be, Swain says he saw worse.
Swain: “The most valuable broadtail pelts come from baby lambs that are taken from their mothers by killing the mothers anywhere from 30 days before their natural birth date, up to right the day before.”
Why would they do that? Because fetal fur is of higher quality than even day-old fur, and much more valuable. For example, a coat made of three-day-old lamb will bring about $5,000 in an upscale department store, while a full-length broadtail coat made of fur from unborn lambs can cost as much as $25,000. The principal difference in the coats? The quality of the fur.
Zuki: “Even better than a Rolls-Royce, that’s the difference.”
Swain: “A day can make the difference between being valuable and having no value whatsoever. If you cross that three-day mark, its value as a pelt is completely gone.”
But remember, fur from unborn lambs is the most valuable of all. So some lambs don’t even live for a day. Again, we’ll spare you from seeing any of the disturbing video – but “Dateline” did watch it all and Swain did tape the workers beheading the mother ewe, then cutting the unborn fetus from her womb after her death.
Swain: “This is where they’re gonna take the baby.”
Translator: “Thirty days before the natural birth.”
Hansen: “That’s hard to watch.”
Swain: “Yeah, yeah it is. But after seeing something like this, I mean, I don’t believe that any thinking, feeling human being could wear a coat made this way.”
We wondered why they would kill the mother in this process… Swain says breeders allow mothers to have as many lambs as possible, and only kill them for their fetus after they become too old to breed again.
Swain: “What you saw here is illegal – would be illegal here in this country.”
What does the fur industry think of the Humane Society’s charges? We showed Fur Information Council spokeswoman Lynch a 10-minute excerpt of the Humane Society video taken in Uzbekistan.
Diva Lynch: “If there are standards of humane care in those countries and they’re being adhered to that’s the authority. This is not an endangered species, these are bred animals for farm use. You know we are talking about sheep. This is a farmed animal.”
Hansen: “So if it’s OK in Uzbekistan, it should be OK here…”
Lynch: “I’m saying in the United States the product would not be able to brought into this country unless it reached a standard of care. And if the standard of care is… was met, then I don’t see the problem with it.”
Hansen: “The Humane Society says that the methods used to produce Russian broadtail have been kept secret from consumers here in the United States.”
Lynch: “Oh, I absolutely disagree with that. Their spin is to – ‘let’s show shocking video and let’s try to get everyone to see that this is inhumane.’ And we don’t know that. We don’t know that this is inhumane treatment.”
Hansen: “But wait a minute here. You saw on the videotape…”
Hansen: “A mother lamb being beheaded, its unborn baby being taken out to be skinned…”
Lynch: “And I think…”
Hansen: “Is that not by its very definition inhumane?”
Lynch: “We don’t know. We don’t know the condition of that animal. We don’t know whether the animal was sick.
And we don’t know what happened before that videotape and we certainly don’t know what happened afterwards.”
And in a letter to “Dateline,” an attorney for the Fur Council questions the authenticity of the Humane Society video, saying animals are not killed by beheading.
“In Uzbekistan, where animals which are put to death are also used for food…. under Muslim religious practice, slaughtering follows the Jewish ritual which is accomplished by a throat cut severing the jugular vein….”
And as proof, the attorney provided us with a 1991 sworn statement from the chief of the Uzbekistan sheep production union. But Swain insists Karakul sheep are not raised for food, and stands by his tape, which he says captures reality.
Swain: “I was there. I saw it. I smelled it… We walked in in the middle of some of the slaughter process. They weren’t waiting for us to start, they didn’t stop when we left… I’m confident what we saw in Uzbekistan is the way the industry operates.”
Remember the designers we met while shopping for broadtail fur? Zuki declined an interview request, saying the Humane Society has little credibility, and quote: “It is our understanding that all the furs we use are produced humanely, according to veterinary guidelines and government regulations.”
He also said, “It’s absurd to suggest that farmers would kill reproducing animals just to procure a single pelt.”
Designer Carlo Teso wrote that he is not involved in any aspect of fur production: “We simply buy fur in the open market, in compliance with laws and industry regulations governing the trade. Nor do we knowingly use fur made from lamb fetuses.”
But unlike Zuki and the Fur Council, Teso did not dismiss the allegations. He wrote, quote: “The company would back legal initiatives to prohibit production and use of such fur.” And at least one major department store – Bloomingdales – says it’s taking Russian broadtail off the sales floor, while it investigates the charges. The fur industry however, says it’s forging ahead – and predicts that during the cold winter months ahead, the warmth and fashion of fur will continue to be a sales winner.
Rick Swain and the Humane Society helped expose another practice many people found disturbing – dogs and cats in China slaughtered so their fur could be used as trim on toy figurines and coats. Earlier this year, Congress passed, and President Clinton signed, a new law banning the import of any products made from dog or cat fur.