Furor Over Fur Coats Heats Up

Rights groups are using aggressive tactics to demand more humane treatment of animals. ANIMAL RIGHTS

IT'S a bitter cold day. The shopping district is packed with shoppers, sidewalk hawkers, and workers on lunch breaks. In the middle of the bustle, protesters are fighting against fur coats. Their ammunition: big signs that say ``Don't Wear Fur,'' leaflets telling of the atrocities suffered by animals before they become clothes, and a megaphone through which the ringleader chastises people - mostly women - wearing fur coats and hats.

``It takes vain, cruel, selfish people to wear dead animals!'' shouts Louise Dell'Amico, organizer of today's rally and executive director of Citizens to End Animal Suffering and Exploitation (CEASE), based in nearby Cambridge, Mass. ``You should be ashamed!''

This rally is one of thousands that have taken place around the world in the past year as the animal-rights movement has grown more vociferous and more demanding. Today's activists go beyond trying to protect the welfare of animals to demanding that people recognize inherent rights of animals - which they say are equal to those of humans.

THE largest national group to defend animal rights is a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which launched the first major antifur campaign two years ago. The 10-year-old PETA has 300,000 members in the United States, plus a few thousand overseas, according to Dan Matthews, director of special projects.

There's strength in numbers - not only to inform (and intimidate) on the street, but also to fund a media blitz across the country. The message is based on emotion, sometimes to shame but usually to distress with graphic scenes of animal brutality. In Boston, billboards of animals' eyes plead for an end to slaughter.

Bumper stickers are everywhere: ``Fake People Wear Real Furs.'' National magazines carry advertisements with photos of trappers clubbing creatures to death and minks and foxes in cramped cages freezing in winter weather. The activist environmental group Greenpeace shocked British TV viewers with an ad of a woman modeling fur, spraying blood on the runway and audience.

While CEASE is on the street with signs and messages, PETA is getting at fashion's roots, convincing modeling agencies, photographers, and stylists to refuse to work with furs. Three major designers - Bill Blass, Georgio Armani, and Norma Kamali - have stopped using furs, although not specifically due to the prodding of PETA.

Public figures are supporting the cause. ``People listen to celebrities,'' says Mr. Matthews who lauds First Lady Barbara Bush (lover of faux pearls) for refusing to wear a fur that a designer offered to loan her for the inauguration; she wore her wool coat instead.

Next month, residents of Aspen, Colo., - where the rich and famous love to ski - will vote on a measure that would ban the sale of fur coats there.

Coming soon from PETA: A money-raising record called ``Tame Yourself,'' with songs donated by rock stars like Belinda Carlisle (formerly of the Go-Gos), k.d. lang (a country singer who still wears leather) and the B-52's (who shun all animal products).

Is all this having an effect?

``Absolutely,'' says PETA's Matthews, pointing to fur industry growth, which has been flat for the past three years. Pelt prices for wild furs - obtained by trapping - have been cut in half. Matthews quotes a fur industry magazine that documents the falloff: A fox pelt that might have brought $70 a year ago now goes for $30.

The three largest publicly traded furriers - Evans, Antioch, and Fur Vault - all have reported losses in the millions of dollars since 1987.

Yet fur industry insiders refuse to credit the animal-rights movement. Instead they cite other reasons: Furs are cheaper, winters have been warmer, buyers are skittish about such investments, and furs aren't as much in fashion.

According to Bob Miller, president of the Fur Vault, a retailer in New York, dollar sales this year are below last year's, (35 percent lower in the first quarter) because fur prices are 20 percent cheaper (minks average $2200 to $2500, down 20 percent from last year); shearlings are growing in popularity, but are less expensive than furs, averaging $800 to $1000 each.

Overall, however, the fur industry has grown from $375 million in sales in 1976-77 to more than $1.8 billion in 1986-87.

But, says Miller, unit sales are up, which means that more women are choosing to wear fur. Most fur customers are first-time buyers. ``Furs are not like razor blades,'' Miller says. ``You don't buy one every year.'' Since last Thanksgiving, when temperatures dropped across the country, sales have surpassed those of the previous year, he says.

Retailer Peter Farwell, vice president of Corporate Communications for the Neiman Marcus Group, (which owns Neiman Marcus stores and Bergdorf Goodman) blames the downturn on fashion. ``They're just not as fashionable as they were five years ago,'' he says, adding that his highest priced coats are still selling well. (Most Neiman furs are purchased in Houston and southern California, where weather isn't as important a factor as fashion.)

At Fur Age Weekly, the industry's trade journal, executive editor Marc Rubman insists that fur sales are sluggish because of the economy. ``When there's a lack of faith in all markets, people don't spend their dollars,'' he says.

All this is making mink farmers nervous. Pelts are bringing in much less, forcing some farmers out of business. And the farmers think this isn't fair.

``We take a lot of pride, like other agricultural people, in the animals we raise,'' says Harold DeHart, a northern Wisconsin mink farmer whose family has been in the fur business for more than 60 years.

Mr. DeHart is president of the Fur Farm Animal Welfare Coalition, begun four years ago in Minneapolis. The group sets guidelines and certification programs to ensure that minks are treated properly by farmers. Says DeHart: ``I view PETA as an organization that promotes animal rights ... in the sense that would be equal with human rights. But we're an organization that promotes animal welfare, animal care. We don't view animal rights as equal with rights of people.'' And it's always in the farmer's best interest to treat the animals well, says DeHart. He is upset by a public perception that farmers are inherently cruel.

``What strikes a lot of farmers that I know - it doesn't make any difference if they're veal, mink, or dairy farmers - is the fact that we are concerned about our animals' welfare and our animals' well-being. You wouldn't be in the business of raising animals if you didn't care for them.'' The destiny of the animals, says DeHart, is not an issue. ``Every agriculturist raising an animal ultimately knows that the animal will be killed.''

CAN people draw the line between what's OK to kill, and what isn't?

The cold shoppers in Boston were not so certain. Most were concerned about the haranguing tactics taken by the animal-rights group, accusing them of hypocrisy, sexism, and bullying.

Replies one woman who was verbally abused, ``I think it's juvenile and immature, but they have the right to say what they want.''

``Look at them shouting about animals, and they're wearing leather boots!'' says a young woman wrapped in a long mink.

``I'll bet they go home and eat chicken soup,'' says another.

But giving up animal products happens gradually, says PETA's Matthews, who took five years to rid himself of leather products. ``The animal rights movement is not a contest to see who can become Gandhi overnight,'' he says. ``Change doesn't happen like that. It's all a process. People have to take it at their own pace.''

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