Fur flies over wild animal trapping. Canada's fur industry counterattacks efforts by animal rights groups
Ottawa — ``When you stop buying, they'll stop dying,'' says the Ontario Humane Society pamphlet. Below the slogan is a photograph of a lynx caught in a leg-hold trap. ``Say no to fur,'' says the bumper sticker from the same group, with the ``no'' caught by a trap. Such anti-fur efforts, and far more extreme measures by some animal rights activists, have prompted the nearly $1 billion (Canadian; US$800 million) Canadian fur industry to mount a major campaign to save their business - and the livelihoods of native people in northern Canada, Alaska, and Greenland - from possible extinction.
The animal rights organizations won the battle to stop the killing of ``whitecoats'' (baby harp seals) on the ice off Newfoundland. When the European Community banned the import of seal skins in 1983, the only significant market for these pelts was wiped out.
Last spring Ottawa allowed two large vessels to take part in the first offshore seal hunt in four years. Faced then with a threat by the EC to ban the import of Canadian fish, the Canadian government late last year banned all such commercial offshore hunting.
With this success behind them, hundreds of animal rights groups around the world are stepping up or launching emotion-laden campaigns against the whole fur business. The fur industry, caught off guard on sealskins, is determined to resist these efforts.
In Britain, animal rights activists persuaded Alan Clark, trade minister, to propose a regulation Feb. 8 requiring prominent warning labels on fur garments. The label, to be put on fur goods made from bobcat, coyote, fox, lynx, and wolf, would state: ``includes fur from animals commonly caught in leg-hold traps.''
``If the British minister succeeds with these regulatory measures, we believe the United Kingdom will introduce similar requirements in the European Community,'' says Dave Monture, secretary-treasurer of Indigenous Survival International, an alliance of aboriginal people of Alaska, Canada, and Greenland.
Five Cree Indian leaders from northern Quebec and Rhoda Innuksuk, president of Inuit Tapirisat (representing Canada's Eskimos), were in London last week to see Mr. Clark and others in an effort to stop the new regulation.
Mr. Monture's group has organized the sending of some 15,000 post cards by Indians, Inuit, and others to Clark reading: ``Your ill-advised proposal to tag some fur coats with a misleading warning will break the treaty promises made by the British Government to protect the rights of Canada's native peoples. This disgraceful act of treachery threatens the survival of a proud aboriginal people.''
Earlier, Canadian External Affairs Minister Joe Clark sent a strong letter of protest to Britain's Mr. Clark. The Danish and US governments have also objected.
The Fur Institute of Canada, set up with government and industry money to lead the pro-fur campaign, notes that letters to Clark and other British officials have been sent from the British Fur Trade Association, the Aboriginal Hunters and Trappers Federation of Canada, and members of the United States Congress and the Canadian House of Commons. The Rt. Rev. John R. Sperry, Anglican Bishop of the Diocese of the Arctic, wrote Queen Elizabeth, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and others to say labeling would ``condemn a whole way of life for a large majority of Canada's northern aboriginal people.'' It would be ``viewed by many of us as little short of an act of cultural genocide,'' he added.
The animal rights people show no sign of discouragement. John Walsh, Western Hemisphere regional director of the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), notes that an international campaign against the fur business will be launched at the society's biennial board meeting in Toronto May 13. The society is a confederation of 312 organizations involved in animal protection in 63 countries and includes the Humane Society of the United States and the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies.
``This is the beginning of what will be a long, hard fight,'' he said. His goal is an end to the wearing of wild animal furs, whether raised in a fur ranch or trapped in the wild. The campaign slogan will be ``Wearing fur is a moral issue.''
At the Toronto conference, the directors will be offered camera-ready advertisements and videos to use. These will show animals in traps or cages, some more graphic in their portrayal of cruelty than others, depending on local taste, says Mr. Walsh.
The pro-fur industry campaign strategy centers on three points:
An attempt to publicly discredit some animal rights activists and groups.
For instance, Monture of Indigenous Survival International calls their efforts ``organized intolerance. It is one people trying to tell another group of people how to live.''
The American fur industry set up the Fur Retailers Information Council to provide the news media information on the extreme activities of some animal rights groups. Thomas Riley, a spokesman, says many activists regard the fur trade as only their first objective. These groups, Mr. Riley asserts, eventually want to stop medical experimentation on animals, holding animals in circuses or zoos, and even the raising of animals for food, especially in so-called ``factories.''
(The WSPA's Walsh, who says he tries to be a vegetarian, does not expect people to stop eating animals ``in my lifetime.'' But he does hope that will happen at some point, noting the decline in meat consumption that has already occurred in the US.)
Riley lists a host of illegal measures by animal rights activists. The Animal Liberation Front is under investigation in California for allegedly causing $4.5 million in damage to animal research laboratories. The Justice Department passed on to Riley a booklet from the same group with instructions on how to make a bomb in a cigarette package. Five front members were charged with vandalizing a fried-chicken restaurant in Toronto.
McDonald's restaurants have had ``McDeath'' spray-painted on their buildings. Retail furriers have been harassed throughout the country, and have had windows shot out, even with customers in the store. Others have faced bomb threats and seen fur garments slashed with razors or sprinkled with acid.
A Jewish furrier in Minneapolis received a copy of one of his advertisements with words scrawled on it comparing the fur industry's activities to the Holocaust and using some anti-Semitic phrases.
An effort to show how the anti-fur campaign threatens the livelihood of many Indians, Inuit, or M'etis (mixed Indian and white) trappers and hunters.
``We have to present trappers and indigenous people as an endangered species,'' says Douglas Sirrs, the Department of External Affairs officer overseeing the effort to protect the industry. The government helped sponsor a major exhibit that opened last December in the British Museum on the aboriginal way of life.
Monture charges that some animal activists are more concerned with animals than human beings - including Canada's 105,000 trappers.
A recent article in the Toronto Globe and Mail from an Inuit community on Broughton Island in the far north spoke of a drastic increase in suicides among youngsters since the European Community ban on seal pelts reduced the hamlet's income. The author quoted the village mayor as saying: ``I was a lot happier when I was a teen-ager because I could go out hunting all day. Suicide was something that never happened.''
Bishop Sperry, who has been preaching in the Arctic for 40 years, admits that suicide, alcoholism, drugs, and other problems of the Inuit are not only the result of lost seal hunting, but of a people facing social erosion from the arrival of southern culture.
Speaking on the telephone from his Yellowknife office, he noted that no food can be grown in the north, that all food has to be shot, fished, or trapped. ``Trappers and hunters here can't understand why people in southern climes who kill millions of animals for their tables and for their shoes are attacking the only economic means they have to stay off welfare,'' he said.
Fur industry officials charge that animal rights activists both exaggerate the suffering of animals killed in the business and ignore extensive measures taken to reduce any such suffering. They point to special courses for trappers on the most humane methods and a research program at Vegerville, Alberta, aimed at devising more-humane traps, including padded leg-hold traps.
Sperry, who has walked many a trap line with members of his flock, says, ``I object to the charge it is diabolical or cruel.''
As the debate heats up, the US$2 billion fur trade in the US has seen a major change in its market. More professional women in their 20s and 30s are buying fur garments for themselves. The market used to be primarily mature women, with spouses footing the bill.