Boston — For five years Wim Dekok and his colleagues have campaigned against the sale of furs in Holland. They've devised anti-fur posters and songs carrying such stinging messages as ``This is a secondhand coat - the first owner is dead.'' And the campaign has paid off, according to Mr. Dekok, a tall, angular young man who serves as international secretary for the Dutch Anti-fur Committee. Over the last three years, he says, ``admitted,'' or open, sales of furs have decreased by 80 percent in his country.
``At the moment,'' adds Dekok, ``people in Holland don't buy fur anymore.'' The splashy ads for furs in American newspapers and magazines ``look so strange to me.''
On the other hand, in the United States sales of furs have risen sharply over recent years, according to American Fur Industry, a trade organization. Retail sales in 1986 were in the neighborhood of $1.8 billion. The industry attributes this to greater interest in furs among younger career women and among men.
Dekok was in the US recently to compare notes with activists here. The goal, he says, is to ``orchestrate'' his activities with those of other anti-fur campaigners.
He notes that much of the protest on this side of the Atlantic had centered on the use of leg-hold traps to catch wild fur-bearing animals. In fact, he contends, the central issue should be the numerous fur farms or ranches where mink, fox, and other animals are raised for their pelts.
Such farms are far from eliminated in Dekok's own country. Though the Dutch buy few fur coats, ``we have quite a huge production of furs still in Holland,'' he says. By his figures, some 300 fur farms operate there, with most of their output going to export.
Worldwide, some 34 million pelts are produced for fur clothing each year, according to Bob Buckler, head of the Fur Farm Animal Welfare Coalition, most of whose members are US fur farmers. The leading producer is the Soviet Union, followed by Denmark, he says. The United States produces 4.4 million pelts yearly.
Animals like the mink suffer far longer in the cramped quarters of a farm than in the jaws of a trap, according to Dekok.
``It's hard to imagine the suffering of those wild animals in captivity,'' he comments. ``They're used to [being in] water, or to roaming over five square miles.''
Mr. Buckler, however, strongly disputes allegations of cruelty.
``The fact is,'' he contends, ``mink have been raised in domestic circumstances since the 1860s. ... The mink industry is a farm industry.''
To compare a farmed mink to a wild one is like comparing a hog to a wild boar, in his view.
Over many years, he explains, these fur-bearing animals have been bred for specific characteristics, such as pelt color and litter size, just as other species have been bred for qualities that enhance a farmer's production.
The size of the pens allow the animals to move about, Buckler says. It's in the farmer's interest, he continues, to ``have an environment that would leave the animals free from the stress that can hurt pelt quality, as well as litter size.''
This debate boils down, perhaps, to vastly different views of how human beings should treat animals. Animal-welfare and animal-rights people like Dekok see the fur industry as crassly sacrificing living beings to produce what many people would consider an unnecessary luxury.
Rick Parsons, executive director of the Fur Retailers Information Council, on the other hand, views anti-fur activists as extremists who ``hold as a belief that mankind has no rights to use animals for any purpose whatsoever.''
Dekok's organization has distributed posters proclaiming ``Fur Farming Prohibited,'' and its efforts have been featured in TV news programs on the subject in the Netherlands. Some broadcasts have shown animals being electrocuted, a common method of killing on fur farms, according to Dekok.
Buckler says the preferred method in the US is the use of pure carbon monoxide gas. It's no crueler, he says, than the methods used by animal shelters to put unwanted cats and dogs to ``sleep.''
Concerning the success of the anti-fur campaign in Holland versus that in the US, Dekok observes, ``In Holland, a small country, it's easier to get the message across to the whole country.
``A lot of people say that Europeans, or the Dutch anyway, have a different attitude toward animals and toward social welfare problems in general. But I don't feel you should say organizing an anti-fur campaign is impossible here.'' For one thing, he says, the potential for raising money and launching a campaign is much greater here.
``We feel if we weren't involved, fur sales would be even higher,'' comments George Cave, director of Transpecies Unlimited, a Pennsylvania-based animal- rights group. His group has staged acts of civil disobedience, such as sit-ins at stores where furs are sold. It also massively distributes leaflets to the public on high-volume shopping days, like the day after Thanksgiving.
John Grandy, with the Humane Society of the United States, says the Humane Society has been placing anti-fur ads in popular magazines for five years.