Animal activists vs. furriers: now it's all in the label

California ballot initiative wants fur, for the first time, to include a warning label detailing how animals are killed.

In a third-floor back office stacked with boxes and voter petitions, a tiny TV flickers.

Caught on undercover videotape, salesmen at five top local fur salons explain to buyers how fur-bearing animals are "put to sleep like family pets."

The comments are juxtaposed against the fur industry's own documents detailing how they actually kill the animals.

Blocks away on world-famous Rodeo Drive, furriers who have been fighting animal-rights activists for years are now nervous about a new threat: the nation's first fur-labeling initiative destined for the March ballot here in Beverly Hills - America's fourth-largest fur market. Filing of the initiative comes a week before the biggest single day of fur sales - the day after Thanksgiving.

Signed by some of the hottest names in town - Jay Leno, Larry King, Pat Boone, Vidal Sasson, - the citizens' initiative would mandate a credit-card-sized notice on fur products like mink, fox, and lynx. The consumer notice reads: "This product is made with fur from animals that may have been killed by electrocution, gassing, neck breaking, poisoning, clubbing, stomping, or drowning and may have been trapped in steel-jaw leghold traps."

"People who come in here to buy furs are really cut off from nature," says Paul Matsumoto, a sales clerk at Edwards/Lowell, a leading furrier in Beverly Hills. "A label like this reminds them where the product came from and how it was procured."

Destined for the March, 1999 ballot, over 5,000 signatures supporting the proposed law were turned in last week, double what was needed. The measure is being watched closely by national animal-rights groups as a model likely to be copied in other American, fur-retailing centers, including Chicago and New York.

"We are elated at the measure because it will help the US public better understand the cruelty that goes into making fur a fashion," says John Grandy, senior vice president for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), the nation's largest animal protection organization. "We feel that if a glamourous community like Beverly Hills can make the statement that it matters how animals are treated, then other American cities will more easily follow suit."

Moves to raise public consciousness about the abuse of fur-bearing animals achieved national headlines 10 years ago, after HSUS, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), and other animal-welfare organizations began heavy campaigns against the fur industry.

By one measure, the killing of mink has dropped from about 17 million in 1988 to about 3 million this year. By another, only 1,350 retail furriers now operate in the US, down from 2,400 in the mid-1980s.

But activists say they are worried by new signs indicating younger buyers need to learn the same lessons. "There is a whole new generation of young people we have to teach all over again," says Gretchen Wyler, president of the animal-protection organization, The Ark Trust Inc.

Those who represent retailers, as well as fur trappers and coatmakers, say the proposed labels are unnecessary in an industry that is already heavily regulated.

"Are we going to start putting similar labels on shoes, sushi, beef, and chicken?" asks Teresa Platt, spokeswoman for Fur Commission USA, which represents the fur industry. She says the killing methods are legal, that there is no evidence of consumer demand for such a label, that this initiative might spark other laws to expand the measure, such as intrusive and costly monitoring.

"There are already layers and layers of regulations on these people by government agencies," says Ms. Platt. "We don't want the additional involvement of people who don't want animals used for anything involved in this process."

The initiative was started by Terri Macellaro, a Beverly Hills resident who purchased a raccoon jacket after being told the animals were "put to sleep like a pet dog." Ms. Macellaro later found the raccoons had been trapped in leg-hold traps and then clubbed to death. Upset that she was lied to, she became the main proponent of the Consumer's Right to Informed Choice Initiative.

Observers on both sides of the issue feel the label will have a dramatic deterrent effect.

"We absolutely think the tag will be a deterrent to sales," says Lisa Lange, director of public affairs for PETA. "Many people think wrongly that federal law would prohibit these methods of killing. This will prevent those who might already feel comfortable from making the purchase based on false information."

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