Simon Ward is a veteran environmental journalist and communicator specialising in the sustainable use of renewable natural resources, and in particular wildlife. From 1998 to 2011, he was communications director for Fur Commission USA.
For an autobiographical account of Simon’s development into a conservationist, see From animal activist to adult: a personal journey.
Contact Simon at [email protected]
The fur trade is criticized by activists for killing animals “just for their fur”, when in fact the list of… Read More
The fur trade is criticized by activists for killing animals "just for their fur", when in fact the list of by-products is long and diverse. Carcasses are made into fertilizer, bio-fuel, pet food and crab bait, while rendered fat is used in leather tanning and cosmetics. And don't forget (cue drum roll) muskrat stew!
City-dwellers find it hard to swallow that furbearers taste good, and in some cases they're right. Opossum, skunk and coyote will never make it onto a gourmet menu. But there's still plenty of fine dining to be had!
So without further ado, here’s our list of Top 5 Tasty Furbearers.
#5: Roast Bear
At number five in our countdown comes bear. We’d rank it higher because just one animal can feed a village, but laws governing the sale of wild meat mean you can't just walk into your local store and buy bear.
Eating bear has a long history in North America, and "roast bear was on the menu for more than a few state dinners during our nation's youth," writes Holly A. Heyser in The Atlantic. But beware. The saying goes, you are what you eat, and it's never truer than for "insanely variable" bear meat. "Eat a bear that had been dining on berries and manzanita and you are in for a feast. Eat a bear that had gorged on salmon and it'll taste like low tide on a hot day. Ew.”
But there's a bonus, no matter how your bear turns out. Save the fat because eggs and beans fried in bear fat – yum!
Coming in at number three is muskrat, for two reasons. First, because muskrat stew tastes great. And second, because North Americans consume so many of them. Muskrat fur is not as wildly popular today as it once was, but it’s still the most trapped furbearer, accounting for 35% of animals taken in the US and 28% in Canada.
Just remember that muskrats are named for their musk glands. Fail to remove these properly and you're in for an “unpleasant dining experience”, but clean it right and cook it right and it’s “delicious”.
#2: Succulent Seal
At number two comes succulent seal, and it might have come in first if it weren't for one sad fact: Americans are not allowed by law to enjoy this culinary delight.
What we really like about seal meat is that it’s not a “by-product” of harvesting fur, but a product in its own right. Seal meat has been an important source of protein for Canada’s Inuit since the dawn of time. It’s also important to the economies of all sealing communities, especially since the EU joined the US in banning almost all seal products.
With very little fat, seal meat is extremely healthy, and its mild, briny taste means it can be prepared in many ways – smoked, tartare, seared top loin, mixed with pork for a sausage flavour, and so much more. So it’s also growing in popularity with city-dwellers looking to combine healthy living with fine dining.
#1: Beaver Tail
And at number one in our countdown comes ... beaver! Once a favorite of Mountain Men, it's still popular today and widely available. We also like that one large animal can feed a family. And provided you take great care in removing those smelly castor glands, it can pass for brisket. Here’s a recipe for beaver stew, and one for pot roast.
But the clincher for us in naming beaver our favorite furbearer feast is the tail. It's made almost entirely of fat, and is the part Mountain Men wanted most of all to keep them warm through the long winter nights. We must be honest, though; part of its appeal is that it's notoriously easy to mess up. Do it wrong, and you'll think you're eating Styrofoam, but cook it right and it will melt in your mouth like butter!
Mink oil is a by-product of fur farming with a curious history that is hugely under-appreciated today. Once touted as… Read More
Mink oil is a by-product of fur farming with a curious history that is hugely under-appreciated today. Once touted as a magical tonic for skin and hair, it’s now mostly used for less exotic purposes like leather conditioner and bio-fuel. But if you know where to buy, you can still give your complexion the treat it deserves.
Mink oil comes from the fat on a mink's abdomen. Most of the fat remains attached to the skin during pelting, and is removed during the "fleshing" process as it can "burn" the fur if not thoroughly scraped off before the pelts are stretched and dried. Each mink yields 200-300 grams (7 to 10.5 ounces) of fat. Just handling this fat tells you it's special as it melts into a pale-yellow oil that softens and soothes your hands. It's even more appealing when it's been purified and deodorised.
Native Americans would have been the first to notice how soft mink fat made their hands, but our story begins in the 1950s. After World War II, mink fur emerged as a fashion favourite, eclipsing the pre-war favourite, fox. Mink farming took off and a steady supply of mink oil was available for the first time. But who would buy it?
An obvious market was soon identified, leather conditioner, and that’s still a major use today. But the marketers had something more exciting in mind: cosmetics. Mink fur already had the luxe image, yearned for by any woman who could afford it or persuade her man to buy it. So the marketers pinned the luxe label on mink oil too, and a new range of beauty products was born.
Mink Oil Beauty Products
This was in keeping with the times. In Europe, the centre then and now of the cosmetics industry, companies were paying chemists to try anything that might unlock the secret to youth, including animal fats and a range of questionable animal extracts – hormones, embryos, placentas. So it really wasn’t surprising when, in 1949, a Paris-based company called Stendhal launched “L’huile de Vison” (The Oil of Mink).
The market was cool at first. Department store R.H. Macy introduced a mink oil cream in 1951 but found it a tough sell, and wondered if women might fear growing fur on their faces!
But things took off in the early 1960s with Stendhal’s "La Ligne Vison" (The Mink Line), featuring mink oil in pure form and in sunscreen, eye shadow, skin cream and soap. Competitors followed suit, adding mink oil to lipstick, cleanser, moisturizer and hair products.
Mink oil supplemented human sebum (our natural skin lubricant and waterproofing) very well because its composition is so similar. Our skin absorbs it quickly and deeply because it passes through the pores rather than the epidermis. Our skin is moisturized and nourished, and left velvety to the touch, never sticky or oily. Hard spots are softened, and wrinkles are prevented.
Mink oil was not associated with any allergies so it was perfect for hypoallergenic cosmetics.
Mink oil formed a barrier that slowed the loss of both water and sebum from the skin. This meant your skin remained moist for longer after applying makeup.
Conditioners and sprays containing mink oil increased hair body, suppleness and sheen, and improved the texture of damaged hair.
Pure mink oil was so stable it could be used for two years after opening a bottle. Cosmetics containing it also stayed fresh longer.
The mink was the "only animal in the world exempt from suffering any kind of skin diseases," and this "outstanding ability to heal on its own and their luxurious fur is distinctively related to its nourishing substance stored in its subcutaneous (under the skin) fatty layer of their skin."
We're not sure about that last one, but if mink oil cosmetics are so great, why are they hard to find these days? Maybe modern, high-end cosmetics work just as well and are cheaper to make or have a longer shelf life. Maybe also it’s because mink fur lost some of its near-mystical celebrity status in the 1990s, so mink oil’s greatest marketing strength faded too. And perhaps also it's because consumers, while still valuing natural ingredients in their cosmetics, now often prefer plant extracts to animal sources.
Whatever the case, most mink fat today has a less exotic destiny.
As any livestock farmer knows, efficiency is the key to profits, so it is important to use as much of the animal as possible. While it's rare for farmers to be paid for mink fat or oil today, they appreciate that the value of this resource lowers the cost of handling mink carcasses. The mink carcasses are usually composted into fertiliser – either on-farm or in separate facilities – or used to make bio-fuel. Mink oil is also used for bio-fuel, either alone or mixed with other animal fats. (The fat may be composted too, but it slows the process down.)
In regions where mink farms are clustered, the steady supply of fat is especially prized. Bio-fuel producers know that its protein level is higher than other animal fats, and that means more energy per unit. A good supply also makes refined and purified mink oil a viable business for use in cosmetics, leather conditioning and other purposes.
And that’s why North America’s biggest mink oil producer is based in Nova Scotia, the heartland of Canadian mink farming. Spec Environmental Solutions, which also composts mink carcasses, renders the fat at 70°C, producing some 500,000 lbs of mink oil last year.
Spec refines some of its mink oil for specialty markets but sells most in raw form to companies that further refine it for sale to end users. Most ends up with tanneries to make leather pliable and waterproof, but consumers also buy it to condition leather saddles and baseball mitts, to waterproof boots, and other uses. These are niche markets, but they can only grow with the growth of on-line shopping.
In Europe, another centre of mink farming, the story is a little different. Strict EU regulations governing the disposal of carcasses mean that almost all mink carcasses, along with the fat, are turned into bio-fuel. Composting is rare. There are a few producers of mink oil, though not on the scale one might expect given Europe's position as the centre of the world's cosmetics industry and its biggest market. In the Netherlands, we're told, there are a handful of producers, and there's at least one each in Belgium and Iceland.
In Iceland, the Einarsson family farms horses, sheep and, for the past 34 years, mink. But it's always been a problem knowing what to do with the mink carcasses, since there's no local composting or bio-fuel production.
Making pet food is an option they're considering, but their breakthrough has been production of mink oil conditioner for leather shoes and saddles, and a range of lotions and creams, under the brand name Gandur.
Gandur had an unusual start in life, resulting in two product lines, one for humans and one for animals. "It all started when my mother decided to try to make a lotion for our horses, for when they develop sores around the hooves," explains Einar Eðvald Einarsson to the Iceland Monitor. "My brother is a vet and through him we tested it on more horses. One thing led to another and we started selling it."
Then humans started using horse hoof lotion for their own "various skin conditions" and a new product line for humans was born. Today, Gandur mink-oil products for humans are sold in pharmacies in Iceland, Sweden and Denmark.
"This is not a question of a great profit," Einarsson tells Truth About Fur. "This is a question of finding a use for a material that would otherwise be thrown away here in Iceland. We firmly believe this is of benefit for our environment."
So how does he feel about the merits of mink oil? Mink fat is high in omega fatty acids, he says, and more like the fat of a fish than that of a land animal. “The fat of the mink is much like our own fat, different from most other animal fats. The chains of fatty acids are very long and that’s why they are able to penetrate the skin so well. “
And there speaks a man who knows. Don't you owe it to your skin to find out for yourself? In the case of mink, it seems, beauty is indeed more than skin deep!
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A Visit from St. Nicholas ‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the houseNot a creature was stirring, not… Read More
A Visit from St. Nicholas
'Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro' the house Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse; The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, Full poem
Everyone believes in Santa, but few count themselves lucky enough to have seen him. For those blessed few of you, did you notice something odd? His red cloth jacket and pants, and black leather boots, were nowhere to be seen. He was dressed, from head to toe, in nothing but fur!
Something most Santa fans don't know is that his true appearance, and character, were not discovered until the early 19th century, with New York the centre of enlightenment.
Historically, Saint Nicholas was depicted as a stern holy man, and this tradition was exported to New York by Dutch colonialists. But a group of writers and scholars, led by Washington Irving in his 1809 book A History of New-York, began to question Santa's dour image. What they discovered would rock the world, and especially the Dutch. Christmas would never be the same again!
Far from being a mirthless humbug who punished naughty children with the rod, Santa was a jolly fellow who delivered presents down chimneys from a sleigh pulled by reindeer.
In 1823, Clement Moore of New York's Protestant Episcopal Church described Santa in more detail than ever before. In A Visit from St. Nicholas (aka Twas the Night Before Christmas), Moore said that Santa's "cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry," his beard was "white as snow", and his belly "shook like a bowl full of jelly". What's more:
He was dress'd all in fur, from his head to his foot
And why not? Given that Santa spends the whole night flying around in the dead of winter, fur is the logical choice.
Then along came Thomas Nast, "Father of the American Cartoon", who churned out so many depictions of Santa, he ended up making a book of them. Through the pages of New York-based magazine Harper's Weekly, he also had nationwide reach.
Nast's problem was that he had never seen Santa, and considered A Visit from St. Nicholas a work of fiction.
Like a young girl dressing her Barbie doll, Nast decided Santa needed a complete wardrobe. He might go for sheared fur, or no fur at all, but it was his red cloth outfits with Arctic fox trim that captured the public imagination. Though Santa has never been seen in such an outfit, we're now supposed to believe that's all he ever wears!
Well, now you know better :) Which leaves just one question: what type of fur does Santa wear?
Of course, no one knows what he prefers when at home, but as a reindeer-herder, reindeer fur seems an obvious choice. Nothing beats it for warmth.
Sensationalized videos claiming to show “animal abuse” are sadly a fact of life these days for animal agriculture, and they’re often… Read More
Sensationalized videos claiming to show “animal abuse” are sadly a fact of life these days for animal agriculture, and they’re often promoted (if not actually filmed) by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. One such video, dealing with wool production from Angora rabbits, premiered in 2013 and has gone unchallenged - until now. An Angora farmer in the US contacted us to raise some real concerns about this video, which we think are worth sharing.
Before dissecting the video, let's start with a backgrounder on Angora wool production.
There are two distinct types of Angora rabbit: those that moult, and those that don’t.
Those that moult have their wool plucked every three or four months, just before moulting begins. Plucking produces the best wool because most of the guard hairs are left behind, but it is time-consuming. Plucking leaves in place the incoming coat, although one breed, the French Angora, can be fed a depilatory which results in the exposure of bare skin. Here's a video showing how to pluck an Angora properly.
Angoras that don’t moult are sheared. Because the guard hairs are included, the wool is not such high quality, but collecting it is quicker and the yield is higher because wool can be sheared even from sensitive areas of the rabbit's body. Shearing is therefore more common in commercial operations. The most important commercial breed is the high-yielding and virtually mat-free German Angora. Ninety per cent of Angora wool production today is in China, and almost all Chinese farms raise German Angoras. Here's a video showing how to shear an Angora properly.
OK, it's time to watch the main attraction. If you find videos of animal cruelty hard to stomach, just give it a miss and take my word.
0:10 – 1:03: This rabbit is almost certainly a non-moulting German Angora, even though it looks very similar to a moulting French Angora. We can tell it's a non-moulting breed because its legs are tethered to what is called a stretching board. These are sometimes used, but not always, when rabbits are sheared.
PETA describes the stretching process as follows: "During the cutting process, their front and back legs are tightly tethered – a terrifying experience for any prey animal – and the sharp cutting tools inevitably wound them as they struggle desperately to escape." In reality, while rabbits being stretched for the first time might be nervous, they soon learn to relax. Stretching keeps the rabbit still and pulls the skin taut, thereby preventing nicks and cuts from the shears - the total opposite of what PETA claims. Here's an excellent video demonstrating how stretching is done.
Oh, but what's happening now? Having set the rabbit up for shearing, the man is plucking it right down to its skin! He is also applying far greater force than is ever needed to pluck a moulting breed. This is all wrong for two reasons. First, the rabbit is obviously in pain. Second, as US Angora farmer and advisor on this blog post Dawn Panda says, this could be called "worst business practice". "We see the wool being yanked off, guard hairs included, in a manner that will ruin the coat for several cycles," says Dawn. "It will damage the hair follicles and greatly reduce the quality and value of future harvests as new coats will grow in coarser and hairier. No one trying to make money would do that."
This raises a disturbing question. Are we seeing a non-moulting German Angora being forcibly, and very roughly, plucked just for the camera?
1:04 - 1:17: Here a rabbit is being sheared, so we don't see any pink skin. It appears calm. At this point in the video, it is not clear whether this footage and the footage of a rabbit being violently plucked were shot on the same farm. We'll come back to this because, if all the footage is from one farm, the question is raised why one rabbit would be plucked and one sheared.
1:18-1:22: Here a rabbit that has just been sheared is shown suspended in the air by its front legs. This makes no sense, Dawn assures us. There is no part of Angora husbandry in which a rabbit would ever find itself in this situation. It can't even be claimed the rabbit fell off its stretching board because it's far too high. Once again, we can’t help but wonder if this bizarre scene was staged for the camera.
1:36-2:02: Here we see a parade of seven rabbits in their cages. Of these, the first three still have hair on their torsos and have been sheared. The next three have been plucked right down to their skin. The last rabbit cannot be seen clearly.
This scene suggests that the violent plucking at the beginning of the video and the shearing that followed took place on the same farm. And since commercial farmers generally don't have mixed herds of moulting and non-moulting rabbits, we can also suppose that all the rabbits shown are non-moulting German Angoras. The burning question is now unavoidable: Was the violent plucking of a non-moulting rabbit in the opening sequence staged for the camera? It would not be normal practice on a commercial Angora farm, insists Dawn.
"If animal lovers would use their heads, they wouldn’t be taken in by sensationalist publicity stunts," she says. "However, the addition of poignant music seems to ensure that one’s heart is going to overrule one’s head and voila! Misinformation is spread exponentially, the lie repeated until it’s accepted as fact. There are a number of excellent teaching videos on plucking and/or shearing Angora rabbits on YouTube; the lack of screaming, struggling or any pain is the norm, not the exception. This PETA video certainly does not reflect the reality of Angora farming as I know it!"
If PETA's Angora rabbit video was indeed staged to misrepresent normal practice, we should not be surprised. This ignominious tactic by animal activists traces its roots all the way back to 1964, when the urban myth about seals being "skinned alive" began with a film that was later proven to have been staged.
While people have a right to believe that humans should not kill or use animals in any way, they lose all credibility when they manipulate images to attack the reputations of those they disagree with.
July may be the slowest month on the fur calendar, but some issues never go away, especially if they enter the… Read More
July may be the slowest month on the fur calendar, but some issues never go away, especially if they enter the legal system. Take the Great Lakes wolves. The hunt was off, then it was on, and now it's off again. It's supposed to be about the numbers, but the precautionary principle must trump all, says Nancy Warren of the National Wolfwatcher Coalition. “Wolves have reached the numeric goals for delisting” in Minnesota, she concedes, but when they're faced with threats like climate change, current numbers apparently don't matter.
Taking the lead against the Great Lakes wolves lawsuit filed by HSUS is the Ohio-based Sportsmen’s Alliance. Truth About Fur interviewed spokesman Brian Lynn on today’s trapping challenges in general. Though most of the Alliance’s members are hunters and fishermen, it is strongly committed to the interests of trappers too. “Trappers are the ones on the front lines," he says. "They are constantly under attack [from] animal rights organisations, legislation, the ballot box … Whether it is changing the seasons, eliminating the seasons, or regulating traps, they are getting hammered left and right.”
The next major battle will be fought in Montana, where a ballot initiative is coming up this November that could stop all trapping on public lands. Pundits are saying it could go either way.
In other hunting and trapping news, British Columbia has banned the use of drones. It might seem like just another government intrusion, but most hunters and trappers seem supportive. But this man from North Carolina is seriously not a fan of big government. All he did was try to get a family of foxes out of his yard, only to find himself mired in regulations and conflicting advice. Did you know that North Carolina has no fewer than 27 different seasons for hunting foxes and 22 for trapping them, all depending on where you live?
Sex and Drugs and ... a Little Bit of Modelling
On the fashion front, a very unusual story appeared last month as a prelude to “a major motion picture”. Elle magazine spilled the beans on a “drug-fueled, multimillion-dollar supermodel snowpocalypse” that took place in 1977. Besides lots of fur pics, readers are given a candid insight into the behaviour of models and photographers back then. Is it different now?
And fashion designer-cum-hypocrite Stella McCartney is still taking shots at her fur-using peers. Her latest theory is that designers who use fur are just bloody-minded. “There are a lot of designers who are very ‘f*ck you’ when it comes to using fur,” she says. “If it’s wrong to do fur, then they’re going to do it.” Or maybe all they really want to say is “f*ck you”, as in, “f*ck you, Stella”. While she makes a huge deal of not using animal products, she has no problem using silk, made by boiling moth pupae alive.
We had two stories last month about fibres which, to North Americans at least, are exotic. Yak wool from Mongolia may be set to break onto the fashion scene, and New Zealand is making headway promoting its beautiful, durable and warm possum-merino yarn.
New Zealand's challenge, though, is more complex than selling a product which should sell itself. It faces a huge possum pest problem, and wants to demonstrate to sensitive consumers that killing methods are humane by international standards. Scientist Bruce Warburton, consultant for the Fur Council of New Zealand, sums up the perception problem well: "People use anti-coagulants to get rid of rats, but everyone gets worked up about trapping possums. There are a lot of inconsistencies about the way we deal with furry creatures."
Let's round off with a couple of reminders why most of us must spend more time producing and promoting high-end furs than we will ever spend wearing them!
Former supermodel (all models are "supermodels" now, right?) Christina Estrada filed divorce proceedings against her oil baron hubby (who, as it happened, died this July). As part of the settlement she is asking for £40,000 annually just to buy a new fur coat! If you think that's rich, she also wants £6.52 million a year in child support, and that's for one kid.
Considerably cheaper, but still in the OMG category, are a pair of fur sandals recently sported by Kim Kardashian. The headline was how could she wear fur in 100-degree weather? But it should have been the price of these two little bits of nothing. $895! No wonder trappers feel they're not sharing in the industry's wealth!
For 70 years, American mink has been the world’s favourite fur, but why? Ask a dozen people and you’ll get… Read More
For 70 years, American mink has been the world’s favourite fur, but why? Ask a dozen people and you’ll get a dozen different answers. The conundrum is that, of all the measures used for a fur's desirability, mink only ranks top in one - and that is one consumers don't even care about!
But first, a clarification: this is not a plug for mink produced in America. American mink refers to a member of the mustelid family, Neovison vison, which is, indeed, indigenous to North America, but is now bred on farms from Europe to China. The European mink (Mustela lutreola) is not used by the fur trade.
So if you’re ever asked why mink is so popular, take a deep breath, and explain there's no single answer. Here are no fewer than nine to get you started:
1) Mink Guard Hairs Are Fashionably Short
A fur's guard hairs are the ones that give it its shine and colour. Their length is also important because short-haired furs like mink are in fashion, while long-haired furs are mostly seen in trim these days. Given the famously fickle nature of fashion, that may not sound like much to pin mink's reputation on, but short-haired furs have been in fashion for 70 years!
It's not always been that way though. Back in the 1930s, fur's Golden Age, the scene was very different. Long-haired furs were the rage and fox was king, followed by skunk and muskrat.
Short-haired furs were never out of the picture; sable and ermine, in particular, have always been highly desired. But supplies of these wild furs were limited (sable farming had not yet begun), and mink farms were producing nothing like the quantity or quality they do today.
Then, with the end of World War II, mink rose suddenly to replace fox as a lady's favourite. Some say it was because more women were now in the work force and could buy their own furs, and what they chose did not make them look like trophies for rich male benefactors. Who knows? But the love affair between women and mink has been strong ever since.
2) Mink Fur Is Very Soft
If you like your furs as soft as a cloud, mink will satisfy you as long as you don't experience sea otter. But since, for conservation reasons, sea otter is now only available through a highly controlled cottage industry in Alaska, consider lowering your standards just a little!
A fur’s softness reflects the density of its hairs, and sea otter takes the prize with a staggering 400,000 per cm2 on its sides and rump. Far behind in second place is chinchilla with about 50,000 per cm2, although a "show" chin may have up to 100,000.
All of which makes mink sound like a scouring pad. The densest mink is the dressed pelt of a farmed animal, not wild, but even so we're talking just 24,000 hairs per cm2, or 16 times less dense than sea otter.
But perspective is everything here. Mink is still one of the densest, and softest, furs around. By comparison, the hair on your head (unless you're bald) is 190 hairs per cm2 tops, and probably half that!
If you’re planning an ice-fishing trip in Nunavut, mink should not be your first choice for keeping warm. Try dressing from head to toe in caribou, and remember to undress when you get home or you'll overheat! The air-filled hairs of caribou are the secret here.
But remember, caribou fur is incredibly bulky, it sheds like crazy, and you definitely cannot buy this stuff off the peg.
If the toughest challenge you face is a chilly evening stroll in Southern California, or even a freezing day in New York, mink fits the bill just fine.
Durability is rarely the top consideration in choosing a fur garment, otherwise we’d all be wearing wolverine or bear (usually used for rugs) and looking like Mountain Men. On the other hand, we don’t want furs that shed their hair or tear if we shout at them, like rabbit or moleskin.
Among furs generally used for garments, sea otter and otter have been ranked the most durable, at 100. Beaver comes third at 90, followed by seal at 75. Skunk and mink tie for fifth at 70, the highest-ranking mustelids. Other mustelids include the European pine marten (65), sable (60), stone marten (40), and ermine (25).
Fox comes in at a modest 40, and the less said about moleskin (7) and rabbit (5), the better!
So mink is not the most durable fur, but it is surprisingly tough for something so beautiful and soft!
5) Sheared Mink Is Cheaper and Lighter than Beaver
Shearing fur reduces the length of the hair to give a short, even pile, and a lighter, more supple material, almost like a textile. It's not a new treatment, but it's more popular now than ever, and the most common sheared fur today (not counting shearling) is mink. But does mink make the best sheared fur?
For knowledgable fur lovers, no sheared fur beats the plushness of North American beaver. As a semi-aquatic animal, it has thick, dense underfur. This is normally sheared to 15 mm length, and with great skill can be taken as low as 6 mm. But it also has long, coarse guard hairs, which should be plucked before shearing, or the result feels like a scrubbing brush. Unfortunately this has been sheared beaver's downfall; plucking is a skilled process and also a Canadian speciality, and that means expensive labour.
The death knell for sheared beaver sounded in the early 1990s when Hong Kong manufacturers saw a whole new opportunity in shearing mink. As semi-aquatic mammals like beaver, mink were well suited with their dense underfur. Also, European mink pelts were then available very cheap. Plus there were other business advantages.
First, mink guard hairs are silky smooth, so don't need to be plucked before shearing. That was a big cost saving over beaver right there, plus it meant all processes, from tanning to shearing to dying, could be done in China, which meant lower labour costs.
Second, sheared mink is much lighter than beaver. Light is good in fashion, even if it means weaker leather, and Hong Kong took it to new levels, producing mink with a chiffon-like bounce.
Third, unlike beaver, mink pelts were available to manufacturers in huge quantities (see 9). Why should the industry promote a few hundred thousand shearing beavers when mink pelts could be had in the millions?
And fourth, mink was already the world's favourite fur, so sheared mink sold itself. No special marketing required!
6) Mink Are Suited to Farming
Most fur garments today use farmed pelts, most of these are mink, and of all furbearers currently being farmed, none is easier than mink. But it's definitely not the easiest!
For the easy life, farm striped skunk. Eighty years ago, at the height of skunk fur's popularity, neophyte farmers often learned with skunk before graduating to the more valuable, trickier fox. Skunk thrive in large, open pens (they are sociable and hate climbing), eat table scraps, and come running at feeding time! They also showminimal or no delayed implantation (see below). The only hard part - impossible, actually - is making a profit, which is why no one farms skunk anymore.
Mink, by contrast, need isolating in covered pens (they fight and climb) inside housing specially designed for ventilation, lighting, feed and water delivery, and ease of cleaning; a carefully balanced diet; and hands-on care by the farmer and his vet at all stages of their life cycle.
Still, farming mink, and specifically breeding mink, is so much easier than other mustelids.
The key is the little-understood characteristic of mustelids called delayed implantation. After the female is impregnated, the embryos do not immediately implant into the uterus and begin developing, but instead enter a state of dormancy. Depending on the species and, perhaps, the temperature, this delay can last from just a few days to more than 10 months. The gestation period of fisher can last a full year, and American marten - which many farmers once tried to raise - are close behind.
Mink, by contrast, delay implantation for six weeks tops, but if breeding is timed to coincide with warmer weather, this may fall to about 10 days. With skill and luck, a farmer can see his new litters after just 39 days, and since his biggest expense is feed, every day counts.
And that's why almost all mustelid farmers now choose mink. The only exception are a few die-hards who stick with sable. Yet even in Russia, where the finest sable pelts are produced, only a handful of farms survived the end of subsidies under the Soviet Union. Sable have a gestation period of up to 300 days, and to make matters worse, females reach sexual maturity at age two to three. Mink are already there at one. That's a lot of extra feed!
All livestock farming is fraught with uncertainty (unless you're subsidised by government), and mink farming is no exception. But of all the different types of fur farming that have been tried, none offers the relative security of mink. It's been in demand for 70 years. If you produce it, someone will buy it.
For sure, there are ups and downs. North America's crop of pelts in 2011 sold for an average of $94.30, a record high, but in 2014 made just $57.70. But prices very rarely go below production costs, or stay there long. After World War II, skunk and fox prices fell so hard, the skunk sector was wiped out and fox farming in North America barely survived.
Still, you can't just buy a couple of mink breeders and start turning a profit. Modern mink farms are big, and economies of scale are key to their success - a far cry from most of their 150-year history. In 1969, when the US Department of Agriculture began compiling figures, there were 2,635 mink farms in the US, small family businesses producing an average of 2,000 pelts each a year. Today there are just 275 farms, according to Fur Commission USA, and while most are still family-run, pelt production averaged 13,672 in 2014. Capital investment has grown also, of course.
So to say there's money in mink farming is simplistic. If you have the expertise, reliable feed suppliers, a vet who knows mink, and a huge chunk of start-up capital, there's money in mink!
8) A Rainbow of Colours
Some furbearers come in a variety of colours in the wild depending on season, region, subspecies, or genetic mutations (much like human blondes and red-heads), and none shows more variation than fox. Wild mink, meanwhile, vary much less, ranging from tawny brown to very deep brown.
On the farm, though, everything changes. Selective breeding over many generations has resulted in farmed mink in a wide range of colours, or "phases", never seen in nature. In terms of variety, only the dramatic range of farmed fox colours outdoes mink.
This is an enormous boon for designers and consumers alike. Browns the same as, or resembling, wild mink, such as "demi-buff" or "mahogany", are huge sellers, but you can also choose from white to black, and a host of phases in between like "pearl", "sapphire", "palomino" and "violet". The choices just keep on growing.
9) Mink Supply Is Reliable and Flexible
And finally, the one class in which American mink comes top: reliability and flexibility of supply. Designers, manufacturers and retailers base their collections on materials they know will be available, and in the fur trade that means mink. Ironically, the consumers who drive the fur trade have no interest in this key aspect behind mink's continuing success, but that's not unusual. We are all consumers, and we are all prone to buying what is available, or, in other words, what we're told to buy!
A recent major North American auction exemplified mink's extraordinary dominance. Pelts of several wild mustelids were on offer: 42,000 ermine, 30,000 marten, 25,000 mink, 5,500 fisher and 4,500 otter. By contrast, no fewer than 4 million farmed mink were offered.
American mink is locked in a self-perpetuating cycle of success. All of its other merits created demand, which in turn stimulated supply, and now the entire industry is invested in creating more demand. It's not the softest, it's not the easiest to farm, it's not the most durable, and it's not the warmest. But it ranks high in every class, which is why people want it, and the industry wants you to want it - and no other fur can compete with that!
Fashion house Giorgio Armani announced this March it will no longer be using any fur in its products because, in the… Read More
Fashion house Giorgio Armani announced this March it will no longer be using any fur in its products because, in the words of its patriarch and namesake, “Technological progress … allows us to have valid alternatives at our disposition that render the use of cruel practices unnecessary as regards animals.” While this tortuous explanation may sound sincere, it’s not. It’s PR bunkum. So why is Giorgio Armani really ditching fur?
OK, first I need to explain why Giorgio Armani's statement is bunkum - and add a general disclaimer that I don't actually know what went down here!
Giorgio Armani's statement is bunkum because he almost certainly never said it, or even thought it, or had a hand in picking the words. It's just part of a script prepared by his animal rights handlers.
How can I be so sure? Let’s start with some context.
• Fashion designers don't use fur for years and then quit of their own volition. There's always pressure involved from animal rightists.
• Like all fashion houses that use fur, Giorgio Armani has been harassed by animal rightists for years, but unlike some, has shown stiff resistance. Even now, its commitment to quit fur may not mean anything. In 2007, Giorgio told the press, "I spoke with the people from PETA and they showed me some materials that convinced me not to use fur." But a year later he was back with a collection of fur coats for babies! PETA responded with a poster campaign of Giorgio with a Pinocchio nose and has been gunning for him ever since.
• Giorgio Armani is a huge name in everything from ready-to-wear to haute couture, but in the world of fur is barely a player anymore. For the past several years, rabbit trim has been its thing. So quitting fur will hardly impact its collections. Add to this the fact that two major markets that have buoyed fur's revival this century are now in the doldrums (Russia) or slowing down (China), and we can say that quitting fur will have a negligible impact on Armani's profits.
Make This Problem Go Away
Against this backdrop, we can perhaps understand the real reason Giorgio Armani is ditching fur.
As Keith Kaplan of the Fur Information Council of America explained to WWD, when designers are harassed by animal rightists, "I think they consider whether it is worth the threat of store protests and disruption of business and so forth. Right now, because of the economic conditions in Russia and China, I think designers are evaluating and saying, 'Perhaps at this juncture, it might not be. We’ll give in at this point to make this problem go away'."
And that, in a nutshell, is probably it. Giorgio Armani just wants to get the animal rights lobby of its back, at a time when the business is already tough enough.
The deal would follow what is now a standard template. The animal rights groups pen a statement to be issued in the name of the designer, claiming he has "seen the light" and will be going fur-free. The animal rightists then trumpet victory, claim full credit for their powers of persuasion, and promise to stop picketing stores and generally making the designer's life miserable.
In the case of Giorgio Armani, its decision to cave was announced by HSUS and the Fur Free Alliance, “a coalition of 40 animal protection organizations in 28 countries that are trying to end the fur trade”. “Pursuing the positive process undertaken long ago,” Giorgio's prepared script said, “my company is now taking a major step ahead, reflecting our attention to the critical issues of protecting and caring for the environment and animals.”
Had Giorgio spoken his mind, he might have said, "After years of relentless pressure, I have decided to throw in the towel and give the animal rights nuts what they want because they're a pain in the butt and I just want them to go away!”
Meanwhile, inquiring minds are still asking two questions: Is the "100% fur-free" clause in effect? And was any hidden pressure brought to bear on Giorgio Armani?
The "100% fur-free" clause is an unspoken compromise between animal rightists and designers used in closing a tough negotiation. In essence, it is agreed that the animal rightists will praise the designer for abandoning fur completely - going 100% fur-free. Meanwhile, the designer quietly continues to use fur that is a by-product of food production.
Luxury goods manufacturer Hugo Boss recently reached such a deal. In its 2014 Sustainability Report, it explained that it had been "in dialog with several animal and consumer protection organizations for many years, for example with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals." Presumably because of these "many years" of harassment (sorry, dialog), it announced that from 2016, it would be restricting the sources used for its fur supplies. Specifically, it would be "concentrating on furs that are byproducts of the food industry," while halting use of pelts from "raccoon dogs, foxes or rex rabbits". No mention was made of quitting fur, or even of reducing overall fur use.
You might think Hugo Boss will get hauled over the coals the next time it trots out a collection of shearling (sheep fur), but it won't. Ralph Lauren, which uses an enormous amount of shearling, proves that.
FAST FACT: What is shearling? We all know that sheared beaver is the hide and hair of beaver that has been sheared to a short pile to make it lighter and less bulky, and give it a plush feel. Sheared mink is the same deal. When the hide and hair of sheep are used, it is known as shearling. All are types of FUR.
Ralph Lauren's deal with PETA, on the face of it at least, is the most shameless piece of self-serving, mutual ass-kissing in the history of the fur trade's relationship with animal rightists. A footnote in the show notes for Ralph Lauren's fall 2015 collection says it all: "Ralph Lauren has a long-standing commitment to not use fur products in our apparel and accessories. All fur-like pieces featured in the collection are constructed of shearling."
Last but not least, we inevitably ask ourselves whether animal rightists finally found Giorgio's Achilles' heel. It's a reasonable question when we consider how long he held out. Maybe he really did fold because fur is not important to the company, or because the luxury fur market is slowing. Or maybe he was made an offer he couldn't refuse!
Yes, it's pure speculation, but that was the buzz when Hugo Boss made its deal. No one put it in print, or spoke it on the air waves, but people were thinking it. Could Hugo Boss have been threatened with a campaign telling the world how it got its big break?
Hugo Ferdinand Boss: Nazi Party member, sponsoring member of the SS, and admirer of Hitler. It's not much of a résumé, is it? This is the man whose company took off as an official supplier of uniforms to branches of the Nazi Party, including the Brownshirts, the SS and the Hitler Youth, using POW’s and forced labourers.
Animal rights groups know all this stuff, of course, and probably have a bunch of other cards up their sleeves just waiting to be played. And maybe they had the dirt on Armani too - we'll never know.
But one thing is for sure: Giorgio Armani did not quit fur because "Technological progress … allows us to have valid alternatives at our disposition that render the use of cruel practices unnecessary as regards animals"! As readers of Truth About Fur know, and hopefully Giorgio Armani too, technological progress – and a strong commitment by the industry – now allow us to produce beautiful furs without animal suffering.
Don’t give up on animal activists. People change. I know because I was an animal activist, and I’ve spent the… Read More
Don’t give up on animal activists. People change. I know because I was an animal activist, and I’ve spent the last 24 years doing PR for animal users, including the last 18 for the fur trade. I’m telling my story in the hope you will reach out to that unkempt youth with a placard outside your fur store or farm. Because that person was once me, and someone reached out and opened my eyes.
A wise person, some say Winston Churchill, once said, "If you're not a liberal when you're 25, you have no heart. If you're not a conservative by the time you're 35, you have no brain."
Yes, it’s a sweeping statement, but there’s a kernel of truth in it for many of us.
There’s also a kernel of truth in my less-pithy variant. If you’re 25 and have never even considered the possibility that it may be wrong to kill animals for food and clothing, you have no heart. If you’re 35 and still can’t decide, no, it doesn’t mean you have no brain. You just need to wait for the right formative moments.
This is a journey I’ve taken in life, and I’m sure it’s a common one, especially for people who were not born into hunting or ranching. I come from England, not Saskatchewan or Montana. My father was an insurance claims assessor and my mother a nurse, and terms like “gun range” or “conibear” weren’t in our vocabulary. I never viewed the taking of animal life as an everyday event, but a leg of lamb on Sunday was one of my happiest childhood memories. With freshly made mint sauce!
But I wasn’t totally sheltered either. We had an acre of land and some livestock, so I soon learned how to kill a chicken. And Dad was a keen fly fisherman, so I could kill a trout too.
He also taught me to respect animal life and the meaning of conservation. He helped me build my birds’ egg collection, but with rules. For example, never take an egg if it was the only one in the nest, or if I already had it in my collection. And anything I killed I ate, which was an easy rule to follow because I only ever killed chickens and trout.
Hunt Sab Girls
During my teens, nothing happened to shape my view on the taking of animal life, and why would it? My head was full of motorbikes, girls, beer and cigarettes.
Then came my first formative moment, at age 21, though I had no idea it was happening, perhaps because it still revolved around girls.
A friend, Tim, had become a fox hunt saboteur and was having a great time, but it wasn’t because he was saving foxes. It turned out hunt sabbing was a great way to meet crazy girls! Since I already knew more than enough crazy girls, I wasn’t interested in joining, but he started preaching and it sunk in. The secret to picking up hunt sab girls, he explained, was to be passionate in your hatred of three things: fur, veal and whaling.
I doubt he really hated these things, but he planted a seed in my brain that fur and veal were cruel, and all whales were being hunted to extinction. Since I didn’t know anyone who wore fur, ate veal, or had even seen a whale, I never questioned Tim, and no one else ever tried to set me straight.
In hindsight, the only truth I gleaned from Tim was that girls like “sensitive” guys, and “sensitive” guys “love” animals. This I still believe to be true!
That Fox Stole
At age 26, I was living in Italy and picking up my lady to go to a party. As always, she was casual but glamorous, with her big Stefanie Powers hair, but there was this thing draped around her neck. It was grandma’s fox stole, she said, but it was so much more. To be precise, it was a head, four paws, and a tail more!
I remember feeling instant revulsion, but why? Was it just Tim’s anti-fur indoctrination surfacing, or was it a visceral reaction to that head, paws and tail? Probably a bit of both. Whatever the case, I asked her to remove it, which she did, without question. And that was the first and last time I made a stand against fur.
My stand against veal was even less distinguished. I’d seen it on menus a few times, and all I had to do to lodge my protest was not to order it. Then one day a friend’s date ordered it, and I mumbled something about being opposed. So she asked if I’d ever tried it, and offered me a taste. I ate it, liked it, and that was the end of anti-veal activist me.
All in all, I was a pathetic animal activist, no doubt about it. I needed a cause I believed in! Maybe I was instead destined to be a conservationist, and my only cause left standing was whales. Since there were only a handful left and Japan wanted to kill them all, surely even I could follow through!
And then, as fate would have it, at age 29 I landed a job in Tokyo with a trade paper owned by one of Japan’s largest newspapers, the Asahi Shimbun. The country’s whaling fleet was embarking on its last season of commercial operations in the Antarctic, and the Asahi Shimbun was honouring them with a photo exhibit in its atrium.
At last I could do the right thing! I made up some signs saying “STOP WHALING NOW”, and late one evening plastered them all over the photo exhibit.
The next morning, of course, they were all gone, but a Canadian lady in my office had seen them and suspected me as the culprit. I confessed, and why wouldn’t I? I was proud!
Well, that bubble was soon burst. What kind of whales are they catching? she asked. No idea. Do you know the whales they’re catching are abundant? I did not know that. What do you think they use them for, oil? Yup. Wrong! And on it went.
In fact, I didn’t know anything at all.
My eyes were opened. There I was, striving to become a journalist without any formal training, but fully aware that I had to know my subject. I needed to apply the same rigour to my personal beliefs as I did to my profession, particularly if I was going to judge others.
To cut a long story short, within seven years of my humiliating one-man anti-whaling campaign, I found myself in the Antarctic with the Japanese whaling fleet, filming for the BBC and mucking in as a flenser, feeding strips of skin and blubber through a trimming machine. Greenpeace filmed us, and I filmed Greenpeace.
There followed a five-year stint working for Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research, while doing PR at meetings of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) for a Norway-based NGO, the High North Alliance.
Sorting Fact from Fiction
Before I even returned from the Antarctic, I already knew that a lot of the information being disseminated by whaling opponents was nonsense. I also soon learned that IWC meetings were mostly about political horse-trading, a little about conservation, and nothing to do with its mandate, which was to regulate an industry.
So step one in my conversion from a whaling opponent to a supporter was to sort fact from fiction. It took me years, but here’s a time-saving tip for newcomers. Any materials you’ve gathered from groups like the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Humane Society of the US go straight in the bin. Nothing to be learned there. Instead, head straight for the reports of the IWC Scientific Committee (not the IWC itself).
And if your line of research is the same as mine was, you’ll learn that restrictions on catches going back to the 1960s (when the IWC still functioned as an industry regulator) have made it extraordinarily unlikely that any species of whale will now go extinct. The last population to have been extirpated was of gray whales in the North Atlantic, and that was in the early 18th century. You’ll also learn that minke whales in the Antarctic, as caught by Japan, are generally believed to be more plentiful now than ever before.
At some point you will also inevitably run into a concept that underpins the majority of conservation programs today, and which clarified everything for me: “sustainable use of renewable natural resources”. Few people knew this term back then, but thankfully anyone involved today, in whatever way, with natural resources knows what it means, so we can use the shorthand “sustainable use”.
The importance of this concept cannot be overstated. “Conservation” is great, but says nothing about how we can, or can’t, use natural resources, and so is often misunderstood as a synonym for “protectionism”. But “sustainable use” clearly recognises the incentive for humans to preserve nature by giving it value as a source of sustenance.
Also important in my education was exposure to cultures that are intertwined with animals.
Six months on a ship with 250 whalers and marine biologists was an excellent start. Stays in whaling communities in Japan, Norway, Iceland, the US and South Korea added more context. (Did you really believe only Japan goes whaling?)
In the 20 years since I moved on from whaling, I’ve come to know sealers, trappers, fur farmers, fox hunters, and fishermen.
For two years I worked in Zimbabwe with rural communities that live in daily dread of rogue elephants trampling their crops and destroying their homes. There’s no quicker way of changing a negative view of trophy hunting than seeing a rich hunter fly in and pay $20,000 to a poor village to kill an elephant that would have been killed anyway.
How Could We Have Known?
Now let’s rewind.
Many years earlier, some crazy girls had told Tim that fur, veal and whaling were bad, and he’d believed them. Tim told me and I believed him. Not only does this not surprise me now, but I’d be surprised if it had happened any other way.
Neither of us came from hunting or farming backgrounds, or had marine biologists for parents.
We would also have been naïve. We are not born with the knowledge that advocacy groups don’t always tell the whole truth. It is knowledge we acquire, in the same way we learn that politicians cannot be trusted, our teachers make mistakes, and our parents are human. Do you remember as a youth arguing with a friend about some fact until he showed it to you in the newspaper? That was it, argument over. If it was in print, it must be true. You don’t think that anymore, right?
So with animal rights groups churning out PR materials by the ton, mostly aimed at impressionable youths, and industry advocacy groups always lagging behind, we should not be surprised if the next generation of conservationists starts out by believing whales are going extinct, seals are skinned alive, and killer whales and wolves are really quite friendly if you give them a chance.
As for learning through exposure to different cultures, that too takes time. I met my first dairy farmer when I was 5, but it would be another 30 years before I’d meet my first whaler and first sealer, and take my first trip on a long-liner. I’m now 59 and still haven’t gone out on a trap line, but I hope that will happen too, one day.
From a pathetic but well-intentioned animal activist, I have become what I can only call a veteran advocate for animal use. Critics may say I’ve done a turnaround, a 180, or that I’ve sold out. But they’d be wrong.
I haven’t undergone any fundamental changes in values. I haven’t embraced any new truths.
At heart, I am the same conservationist I always was, and if all whales were actually threatened with extinction, I’d be back out with my signs in an instant, calling for a ban on whaling.
And my respect for animal life has remained constant throughout my life. Whenever I hear of animal abuse, I am as disgusted as the next feeling person, and if the offender is involved in an industry that happens to be paying my bills, I feel betrayed.
I do not believe we have an inalienable right to take animal life for whatever purpose we desire. But I do believe we have a right to use animals in a sustainable, humane manner to meet our basic needs, and that includes enjoying a leg of lamb on Sunday.
So I haven't really changed at all. I just grew up.
And those activists outside your fur store or farm will grow up too. They’ve already taken the first important step of thinking about the taking of animal life, so they have a heart. And yes, they do have brains. They just need guidance, and who knows, they might become the next generation of animal use advocates. Don’t give up on them.
It’s durable, warm, glamorous and striking. And it comes from an animal that is abundant in the wild, easy to… Read More
It’s durable, warm, glamorous and striking. And it comes from an animal that is abundant in the wild, easy to trap, and easy to farm. In short, all the right boxes are checked for a great fur. It was also once the height of fashion. Yet today it's rarely seen in stores, and a pelt sells for the price of a coffee.
This is the conundrum that is skunk fur. Are the fur trade and consumers turning their noses up for no good reason?
Tale of the Tape
Let’s start with the end product.
Skunk fur is durable - less durable than beaver, but ahead of the pack and on a par with mink.
Skunk fur is warm. It's no caribou, but unless you live in the Arctic, it'll work fine.
Skunk fur is glamorous and striking. The guard hairs are long (1-2") with a glossy lustre, and are held erect by thick underfur. And the colouration is unmistakeable: deep brown or black, usually with white striping and cream patterns.
The most prized pelts have solid black backs with a blue sheen, and come from colder regions where pelts are thicker, hairs are finer, and the black is blackest. (No fur is blacker than northern skunk.) If there is one white stripe, and it's long and wide (hooded skunk), this may be retained in a garment, while pelts with two stripes (striped skunk) are normally dyed a uniform black.
So what’s the downside? Not much.
The guard hairs are slightly coarser than fox, the most luxurious long-haired fur.
The black guard hairs, if not dyed, fade to a dull reddish-brown if exposed to sunlight for too long a time. (Just store your fur in a closet.)
Skunk fur is reputed to have an odour, especially when wet, but this should not be a problem today. Using proper trapping techniques, it is rare that an animal sprays. And even if there is a slight vestigial smell, a skilled fur dresser can remove it.
And last, but perhaps not least, it’s called “skunk”.
Skunk Fur Production
So how easy is it to produce skunk pelts? Pretty easy. Let’s start with trapping.
First, skunks are abundant. The striped skunk, the most commonly traded species, has a conservation status of “Least concern” with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. It ranges from southern Canada to northern Mexico, co-exists with humans, and in many parts of its range is growing in numbers.
Second, skunks lack caution and cunning. A box trap works great for nuisance skunks, but is too costly and bulky for fur trapping. Foothold (restraining) traps or bodygrip traps are better.
Farming skunk is also easy. Indeed, skunk farms were once seen as a stepping stone for beginners looking to graduate to more challenging and valuable furbearers.
Reasons why farming is easy include: Skunk are easily tamed, and at feeding time just come running. They’re poor climbers and have few natural predators, so pens are open-topped. They’ll eat just about anything - table scraps are fine. And selective breeding produces all-black skunk in just three or four generations.
So why aren’t we all dressed from head to toe in skunk fur? Its curious history may shed some light.
For the longest time North Americans had no interest in skunk fur, but it wasn't a case of singling it out. They weren't crazy about fox either. And even when skunk was “discovered” in the mid-1800s, demand was not at home but from Europe.
Skunk quickly became America's second most valuable fur harvest after muskrat, with almost all pelts being traded in London and Leipzig. To meet demand, the first farms emerged in the 1880s, but unreliable pelt prices forced most pioneers to close. Then the farms sprung up again at the turn of the century as European demand surged. In 1911, pelt sales in London peaked at just over 2 million.
And that's how things stayed right up to World War I. The domestic market remained tiny, a fact historians attribute to a lack of Europe's deodorising skills. Or perhaps it was that American dressers had to work with pelts so pungent, European brokers wouldn't take them.
Whatever the case, World War I changed everything, not just for skunk but the entire fur trade. With shipments to Europe disrupted, the age of major American auction houses began, first in St. Louis in 1915, then in New York in 1916.
Demand for skunk in North America finally took off, and when the European market came back on stream in 1918, the golden age of skunk had arrived.
Seeing the potential, the US Department of Agriculture published the Economic Value of North American Skunks, in 1914 and again in 1923. “Skunk fur is intrinsically of high value,” it stated unequivocally. “The propagation of skunks for their fur promises to develop into an important industry.”
Skunk trapping also helped countless rural families weather the Great Depression, mailing their pelts to Sears, Roebuck in return for a check or store credit. Through its annual newsletters and radio shows, Sears (aka "Johnny Muskrat") created a whole new generation of trappers, and became one of the largest fur buyers in the US.
All in the Name?
And then the age of skunk was over. World War II ended and fur fashion shifted dramatically. Long hair was out and short hair was in. Skunk pelts were almost worthless, red fox pelts were "unsaleable", and even silver fox was scorned. Mink was the new king, a position it has not relinquished to this day.
But a change in fashion was not the whole story. If it had been, skunk would have rebounded along with fox, which still has a loyal following today.
Some observers blame skunk's demise on stricter labelling laws. In the 1930s, the fur trade often took considerable liberties when it came to labelling. Women of all social classes wanted fur, but with the Depression raging, few husbands could afford the premium stuff. What they could afford was humble rabbit, but that didn't sound very glamorous. Enter creative marketing.
“Minkony” was rabbit dyed to look like mink. “Ermiline” was white rabbit, sometimes with black spots for that authentic ermine look. Then there were totally fictitious species like “Baltic black fox”, “Belgian beaver”, “French sable” and “Roman seal” - all rabbit!
Other furs got the creative treatment too. “Hudson seal” was one of the most popular sellers, though it was actually sheared and dyed muskrat. And no fur, of course, needed a new name more than skunk. Why tell Ma’am she was swathed in the skins of foul-smelling critters when you could sell her “American sable”, “Alaskan sable” or “black marten”?
Finally the US Federal Trade Commission cried foul. From 1938 on, the true identity of the furbearer had to be given, though the name of the animal being imitated could stay. Goodbye “American sable", hello "sable-dyed skunk".
In 1952 it went further with the Fur Products Labeling Act. Explaining the need for the new law, the Chicago Tribune wrote, “Mrs. Eskimo, who cures the pelt brought to her by husband, has no trouble telling a mink from a muskrat. But Mrs. Housewife, shopping for a fur coat, finds herself in a quandary. There are so many furs and so many names!”
Henceforth, only “the true English names for the animals in question" should appear, "or in the absence of a true English name for an animal, the name by which such animal can be properly identified in the United States.”
The trade resisted, and some unusual new names were approved. "Rock sable", for example, became "bassarisk", even though most people called them ring-tailed cats. But it spelled the end for furs like “China mink” and “Japanese mink” (both weasel).
As for skunk, in a few short years it had gone from being "American sable" to “sable-dyed skunk”, to plain ol' "skunk". Was it too much for consumers? Are we really that shallow? Apparently yes. A rose by any other name does not smell as sweet!
Skunk Fur Today
The last skunk fur farms closed decades ago, and offerings of pelts at auction today are small. Prices, meanwhile, seem frozen in time.
The largest seller today of skunk fur is North American Fur Auctions, in Toronto. At its wild fur sale last June-July, 2,332 pelts were offered (compared with 310,667 muskrat), of which 70% sold. Average price was $5.97.
Hair density has always fascinated the fur trade because the densest furs are also the softest and most luxurious. Before the advent… Read More
Hair density has always fascinated the fur trade because the densest furs are also the softest and most luxurious. Before the advent of modern conservationism, this meant that the densest furs were prone to over-harvesting. Today, we have learned from past mistakes. Trade in the densest fur of all is still restricted, but the animal's recovery is considered a great conservation success. And due to a remarkable story in the history of farming, the second-densest is abundant and readily available.
To appreciate what makes fur dense, let’s set a baseline: human hair. And because human hair varies depending on ethnicity and hair colour, we’ll choose the densest of all, a pale blond(e).
A blonde’s fine hairs average about 190 per cm2, varying depending on the part of the scalp. That's almost double Afro-textured hair, the least dense.
Now step aside blondie, and make way for that benchmark of luxury, mink.
A mink’s hair density varies by season and body part. Also, farmed mink is denser than wild, and a dressed pelt is denser than a live animal. But as a guide, a dressed, farmed pelt has about 24,000 hairs per cm2. That’s 126 times denser than the thickest human pelage!
Impressed? Well hold on. Prepare for furs so dense and soft that words to describe them are hard to find. Like talcum powder, perhaps?
Animals with the densest furs live where climates are cold, humid and windy. Size also matters; because small mammals are more vulnerable to heat loss, they generally have denser fur.
And so we find ourselves in the high Andes, home of the long-tailed Chinchilla lanigera and short-tailed Chinchilla chinchilla. Being small and nocturnal makes them elusive. They're also very rare. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies both as "critically endangered".
We can blame the “tragedy of the commons” for that. Though the term was coined for what happens when no one owns common grazing land, it also played a role in the historic fur trade.
Spanish explorers first sent chinchilla pelts home in the 16th century, but it wasn’t until the late 19th century that Europeans developed an insatiable appetite for them. Populations collapsed, prices soared, and by the early 20th century a peasant trapper could feed his family for a month with just one pelt - if he could find one!
Only late in the day, in 1910, did the range states of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Peru unite to ban the trade, but effective enforcement was still decades away. Extinction seemed inevitable.
Farmers to the Rescue!
And then the cavalry arrived, in the unlikely form of fur farmers.
It all began with Californian miner Mathias Chapman who, in 1923, was allowed by Chile to take 11 live chinchilla home for breeding. (It took him three years to trap them!) Ten survived the trip and one gave birth en route.
Chapman originally planned to breed pets, but he switched to fur farming. Today, chinchilla farms are found from Canada to Argentina, and in many European countries, and almost all their stock are believed to descend from Chapman's original 10.
Farming of animals can help conserve their wild cousins. By meeting demand, it reduces pressure on wild populations, as in the case of mink and fox. But it can also encourage illegal hunting and provide a cover for smuggling - the fear with tiger farming.
In the case of chinchilla, farming didn't just help protect wild populations, it probably saved them. And even if most chinchilla now live in pens and eat hay and pellets, there is absolutely no chance of them going extinct!
Dense Is Desirable
So what is all the fuss about with chinchilla fur? Hair density. No other terrestrial mammal comes close.
Hairs grow from organs called follicles which, in humans, are densest on the forehead – about 290 per cm2. Chinchilla have as many as 1,000.
Then there's the number of hairs per follicle. Hairs grow in tufts, with 1-3 (rarely 4) sprouting from each human head follicle. But a regular chinchilla has about 50 hairs per follicle, while a show “chin” (as pet owners call them) may have 100.
That means a regular chin has 50,000 per cm2 - double a farmed, dressed mink pelt, and 263 times more than our human blonde. So dense is a chin's fur that it's said fleas and ticks can’t penetrate it, and if they could, they'd suffocate!
Amazingly, there is fur even denser than chinchilla - so dense it drove men to endure the harshest conditions nature could throw at them, far from home, for more than 100 years. This was the Great Hunt!
In the early 18th century, Russian fur traders found themselves on the Pacific shores of Siberia. Drawn by a cornucopia of desirable furs, notably sable, they had spent 150 years opening up Russia's vast eastern territory.
Now they took to their boats in pursuit of fur so dense, and so valuable, it was known as "soft gold": sea otter.
Starting from the Kuril Islands, the traders island-hopped across the North Pacific, harvesting one otter population after another, plus highly profitable hair seals they found along the way. The otter trade in Alaska boomed, and then the traders headed south. There they were joined by adventurers from all over North America and Europe in the great California Fur Rush.
Thankfully the ground-breaking North Pacific Fur Seal Convention of 1911 put an end to seal otter fever by imposing a moratorium on the hunt. But was it too late? Perhaps fewer than 2,000 otters remained. Could they ever recover?
Yes they could! Sea otters have rebounded in two-thirds of their historic range, and are today cited as a great success story in the annals of marine conservation. As a precaution given the lesson of history, IUCN still classifies them as endangered, but Alaskan fishermen are now complaining the population is growing so fast, they've become a pest!
So what is it about sea otter fur that's so alluring? You know the answer already: density. Not even chinchilla compares.
Sea otters need superb insulation because, unlike other marine mammals, they have no blubber. And unlike that other four-legged marine mammal, the polar bear, they don't leave the water unless they absolutely have to. Imagine, swimming in the North Pacific, 24/7, in winter. Unless you have inches of blubber, or are a halibut, it's almost inconceivable.
Ask most people what fur is good for and they’ll say it keeps the wearer – animal or human –… Read More
Ask most people what fur is good for and they’ll say it keeps the wearer – animal or human - warm. True enough, but some types of fur are so much warmer than others, and the reasons why may surprise you. In this first of a series to introduce some of the amazing facts about fur, we’ve planned a hunting and fishing trip and now it's time to plan our wardrobe. We’re headed to the Canadian territory of Nunavut, and we need to dress for the occasion!
Nunavut is actually the size of Western Europe, so even though almost the whole territory is classed as having a polar climate, there are considerable differences in weather and hours of sunlight. Time of year also makes a big difference. So let’s narrow it down and say we’re headed for the capital of Iqaluit at 63°N, in late March.
We’ll have about 6 hours of sunlight a day, enough for some good hunting or fishing close to home. But with average temperatures for March at -28°C, and a record low of -44°C, we can forget our birdspotter’s anorak. Heck, with wind chill factored in, the mercury once hit -62°C, so you might be tempted to leave your entire wardrobe at home, but don't. Jeans and sneakers will get a lot of use when we're not actually out on the land or ice.
It’s time to plan our new wardrobe and then figure out how to get it, because it's not going to be from your typical downtown furrier. Mink, fox or chinchilla are not up to the job, plus we'd prefer not to run up a huge cleaning bill on our return.
What we’re after is fur that’s full of holes.
Hollow Hairs Please
One of the key functions of fur in nature is thermoregulation: helping furbearers stay cool in hot weather and, more importantly, warm when it’s freezing. This is achieved primarily by means of insulation, and one of the greatest insulators is air. Or, to be more precise, trapped air.
Heat travels more slowly through air than through solids or liquids, (For comparison, water is 24 times more effective at conducting heat than air.) Furbearers take advantage of this by trapping air between the dense hairs of their underfur, then sealing it in with their long guard hairs. For us humans, it's a case of dressing in layers: two thin sweaters, with a layer of air between, keep us warmer than one thick one.
But some furbearers, mostly species of deer, have taken it to the next level. Not only do their guard hairs help trap air in the underfur, but those guard hairs also have air trapped permanently inside each one! Commonly known as “hollow” hairs, think more in terms of a honeycomb center, with countless tiny pockets of air. (Click here for an example of a scanning electron micrograph of red deer hairs.)
So we’re going to go with a local favourite in Nunavut, caribou fur.
Caribou must endure bitter cold for months at a time, and they don’t even shiver. How do they do it? It's not all in the fur; a highly efficient means of minimising heat loss known as countercurrent heat exchange functions in their legs and nasal passages. But the key is their winter coats, three inches thick and covering them from nose to hooves, all topped off with those hollow hairs. (Interestingly, it is also these hollow hairs that cause caribou to swim so high out of the water, further conserving heat.)
So we’ll start with a couple of knee-length parkas, not for alternate days but to wear as a pair if needed. The outer parka, worn on its own with the fur on the outside, will be for less cold weather or trips close to home when a sudden change in the weather just means a sprint home. The inner parka will be added, with the fur facing our body (yes, we'll need a shirt or other kind of lining!), when the mercury plummets or we're traveling farther afield.
Since we're not dressing to impress but looking for utilitarian wear, we'll go with plain parkas, not the decorated versions commonly associated with Inuit culture. Caribou hair sheds easily and the hollow shafts are constantly breaking, so decorated parkas are for special occasions only (and for sale to tourists).
And since it's not mid-winter, we'll go with summer caribou skins, which are also those generally used for garments. The hair is shorter than winter skins so they're not as warm, but this also makes them less prone to shedding. Summer skins are also easier to dress than winter skins, and while dressing is said to reduce warmth, it does make them more durable.
And if you're ready to go totally native, caribou pants and socks come next, both with the fur on the inside, then caribou mittens and kamik (traditional footwear) to round off your ensemble.
A word of caution though. Unless you're actually out on the land or ice, dressing head to toe in caribou will make you stand out from the crowd. Plus, propping up the bar in Iqaluit will very quickly cause you to overheat! That's where the jeans and sneakers come in.
Before you shell out for your parkas, though, pay particular attention to their most important feature: the hood lining. It must be hydrophobic.
OK, we don’t literally want it to be “hydrophobic” or it would be scared of water. What we want is a strong “hydrophobic effect”, meaning it appears to repel water. (There is no actual repulsion involved, just an absence of attraction.)
The hydrophobic effect can be found everywhere and is essential to life on Earth. Observe a droplet of dew on a leaf. The water and the leaf want nothing to do with each other, to the point where the dew forms a sphere. The hydrophobic effect is also seen in all fur, but some types are more hydrophobic than others.
And why is a hydrophobic hood lining so important? Well, here’s what happens if you don’t have one. You’re out one day when a blizzard blows in and the temperature suddenly drops to -30°C. You pull up your hood with its big, fluffy synthetic lining and laugh at Mother Nature. Next thing you know, your breath is freezing on the lining which then freezes to your face. Lesson learned. You’ll never wear a synthetic hood lining again, at least not in the Arctic.
Better to do it right the first time and go with the ultimate in hydrophobic hood lining, wolverine fur. Since that is not always available, northern grey wolf makes an excellent second choice.
But we also need a second outfit, still for time on the land, but for days when caribou will make us feel like a baked potato. The sky is clear and the forecast is for temperatures around freezing. There's a chance of rain and slush underfoot, so being waterproof is paramount. It's time for Nature’s raincoat, sealskin.
People from down south often assume sealskin must be the ultimate in cold-weather clothing, but it’s not the case, and that’s because the species used – mainly ringed seals, as in Nunavut, and harp seals – have no underfur. Sometimes known as "hair seals", their pelts are composed entirely of short, shiny guard hairs.
The "flat" fur that comes from hair seals is not as warm as "true" fur (with underfur), like caribou, but it has some real pluses. Because there is no underfur, sealskin is light. It is also incredibly durable, more so than any other flat fur like calf or antelope (which is why it's used to make rope). Its structure resists wind, its oil content repels rain, and its porosity allows it to breathe (which is why it also makes great tents).
And oh yes, it's virtually waterproof, which is why it's used to skin kayaks.
Sealskins, then, are the Arctic's warm, wet-weather clothing, "warm", of course, being a relative term. Mittens, a lighter parka, and most definitely sealskin boots therefore make it on to our shopping list.
And now comes the hard part. It's so hard, in fact, that if you're planning a quick in-and-out visit to Nunavut, you're not going to be wearing caribou or ringed seal anyway, so just pack the best of the rest. Unfortunately, buying an outfit of traditional Nunavut clothing is, like hollow hairs and hydrophobia, amazing - amazingly hard!
Forget about buying outfits off the peg, in Iqaluit or anywhere else. It's not going to happen, though not for want of trying. Efforts have been made in Nunavut over the years to establish a garment industry with ensured availability from suppliers and standardised sizes and prices, but all to no end. The workforce with the necessary skills - older women, with kids to care for, working from home - have not taken to the idea of a production line.
So what to do? You can sign up for an expensive sport-hunting package and get the clothing, including a decorated parka made of dressed skins, thrown in. Finding someone to make it then becomes your tour operator's headache.
Or you turn up in Iqaluit, ask around, negotiate hard, and be prepared to pay $1,500+ for a plain caribou parka, pants, kamik and mittens - and that's summer skins, probably not dressed. If you're staying a month, it should be ready by the time you're heading home.
The good news is that Canadian harp seal garments can be bought on-line (here or here, for example), provided you don't live in a country that denies you the freedom to import them. Which brings us to the last amazing fact about seal fur.
Almost all sealskin garments come from healthy populations of either harp seals or ringed seals. So healthy are these populations that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) classifies both harp and ringed seals as "Least Concern".
And yet two of the biggest potential markets for seal products, the US and the EU, are closed for no good reason.
The US has banned imports of all seal products since 1972 under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, legislation that is fiercely defended by the nation's animal activist community.
In the EU, the ban went into effect in 2009, since when the European Commission has made a pig's ear of justifying it because it can't. Everyone knows the ban was passed not for any rational reason, or even to satisfy popular demand, but because it was bought and paid for by lobbyists in Brussels working for animal rights groups.
Now, true to their reputation for feeble-minded solutions (like the bendy banana law), Brussels' finest have sought to placate Canada's angry Inuit by exempting them from the ban. Not surprisingly, many Inuit representatives have called the gesture colonialistic and racist, so we'll see how that works out!
Truly, the politics of fur are no less amazing than the science and cultural traditions of this beautiful, warm and sustainable natural resource. Send us a postcard from Iqaluit!
What is the appeal of the reality TV show Mountain Men, and others in the same genre? If harvesters of… Read More
What is the appeal of the reality TV show Mountain Men, and others in the same genre? If harvesters of nature’s resources, and not least the fur trade, can answer this question, they can apply the lesson learned to their own public relations, and in so doing win over millions of new supporters.
First, some clarification. Yes, Mountain Men is reality TV, but not of the kind that imprisons a bunch of misfits on an island to tear one another’s throats out, with instant celebrity status for the winner. Mountain Men is the other kind.
Mountain Men is about the daily lives of men who have opted to live cheek to jowl with nature, no matter what she may throw at them.
Or in the words of the History Channel, which airs the show: “Using ancient skills and innate ingenuity, these men fend off nature’s ceaseless onslaught, carving out the lives they’ve chosen from a harsh and unforgiving landscape.”
The audience relates at a visceral level to the painful, joyous or scary experiences of these shaggy-bearded, unkempt men with questionable hygiene and (apparently) masochistic tendencies.
Paradoxically though, many in the audience, like me, are city dwellers whose lifestyle is the antithesis of a mountain man’s. Why are we drawn by a lifestyle we go to such pains to avoid?
We have “guys” to change our oil, do our dry cleaning, mow our lawns and deliver our pizzas. We even boast about them as if somehow we deserve credit for their performance. “My mechanic is the best!”
And for sure, not one of us has ever made our own bullets, then shot a squirrel with a firearm that belongs in a museum, then cooked it and chewed on a piece of meat the size of a pinky and declared it good eatin’.
The fact is, though, that millions of us fantasize about doing just that!
Two Poles and a Jar of Worms
If you don’t know where I’m coming from, consider the ubiquitous angler. If you’re not an angler yourself, it’s almost certain your neighbor is.
Angling is one of the most popular pastimes for men (yes, it’s a manly thing) whose working lives are spent pushing papers around a desk, and there’s a good reason why.
It’s a call of nature we cannot resist, an instinctive drive to provide for our families by using our wits. A trip to the supermarket just doesn’t cut it.
And that is why, week in, week out, rain or shine, we populate river banks, catching little or nothing, staring at the water and dreaming. Dreaming how grand life would be if someone would actually pay us to do this.
And when our sons are old enough, they join us willingly (or so we like to believe) to bond over two poles and a jar of worms. If the fates are kind and we bag a couple of minnows, we char them black over a fire and lie to each other about how they taste better than anything Mum prepares with all her fancy recipes. Good times!
For other men, nature’s call is to hunt or trap.
Not Just Mountain Men
So how can the fur trade learn from shows like Mountain Men, and apply what it learns in its public relations?
We start by recognizing how popular this genre is, of folk living from nature, by their wits.
Then there’s the granddaddy of them all, Deadliest Catch, the award-winning saga of crab fishermen trying hard not to drown or get minced in machinery. Now in its 10th season, Deadliest Catch has set record ratings in its class across both males and females, in all age brackets.
And we haven’t even touched on the survivalist genre featuring Bear Grylls (Man vs. Wild) et al. eating anything which once had, and sometimes still has, a pulse.
Don’t worry about the ratings. The mere fact that the cable TV powerhouses of History, Discovery and Nat Geo keep churning these shows out is proof enough of their appeal. Just this June, Animal Planet got in on the act with Beaver Brothers.
So Who Are They?
Next we try to identify who the audience are by understanding who they are not.
They are not drawn to shows like Mountain Men in the same way audiences are drawn to, for example, American Chopper or Counting Cars. The latter are unabashedly aimed at the millions of bikers and gearheads out there who lap them up because, well, they’re about them!
No, Mountain Men does not survive on an audience of mountain men, any more than Swamp People relies on swamp people. Even if all the mountain men, swamp people, crab fishermen, lobstermen and croc hunters in the world tuned in to an episode of Deadliest Catch, they’d hardly make a blip in the ratings.
So let’s say the bulk of the audience for this genre represents a cross-section of society, from diverse backgrounds, but with a few things in common that do not include risking their lives on a daily basis to catch dinner. And one of those things is that they support the harvesting of animals for human benefit.
Like most people, they’re probably not vocal in their support of this, and if asked what they think of animal rights activists, will probably reply, “a bunch of wackos”.
But they are nonetheless important allies. They are the people who, when push comes to shove, ensure that the animal rights movement does not have its way at every turn. They vote, they sign ballots, they pay membership dues to hunting and fishing associations that represent their interests, and they pay license fees that fund wildlife management and conservation efforts.
So are we catering to them, nurturing them to become vocal advocates not just of a lifestyle, but more importantly of the larger picture of man’s place in nature? Not much. Are they equipped with the knowledge to become such advocates? Definitely.
How Things Work
To cater to an audience, you have to know what interests it and what puts it to sleep, and most fur trade PR is not going to keep a mountain man wannabe on the edge of his seat.
The fur trade aims its PR primarily at two audiences: fashionistas, and people who are still undecided on whether they favor using animals for human benefit. This second audience, of course, includes a never-ending supply of youngsters who’ve never heard the arguments before.
High fashion is the biggest life force driving the fur trade, with trickle-down effects on everything from high street retail to the prices producers get for their pelts. However, for most people, and certainly our mountain man wannabe, the latest offerings on the catwalks of Paris and Milan are weird and irrelevant.
The fur trade’s other obsession for the last 45 years has been debating animal welfare vs. rights, and the role of sustainable use as a conservation tool. (That’s how long it’s been since the International Fund for Animal Welfare began campaigning to end the Canadian seal hunt.) Everything worth saying has probably already been said, but the messages need to be reinforced again and again because we are trying to influence people’s fundamental views about man’s place in nature.
However, our mountain man wannabe is decidedly not our target audience. He is no more interested in debating the rights of squirrels than he is in how they look, sheared and dyed pink, around the neck of a supermodel.
What he does want is information that’s educational, useful, and makes him go, “Wow! I never knew that!” He may or may not have a hankering to eat squirrel stew, but he is interested in the process, in how to get the squirrel in the pot in the first place. Which means he might also be interested in knowing:
• Why grey wolf and wolverine fur make the best hood ruffs and jacket linings in the Arctic;
• That a deer, raccoon or beaver conveniently has just enough of the oil called lecithin in its brain to tan its own hide; and
• That mink carcasses make great crab bait, and it’s not because crabs love them so. (Squid are better.) It’s because seals and sea lions can’t stand the smell!
All these and more interesting questions are now addressed in great detail on the web by hunters, trappers, tanners and crab fishermen, and reality TV is cashing in on this treasure trove of amazing information. How about we do the same?
How about we complement our efforts targeting traditional audiences, and spend a little more time talking to people who could be powerful allies if only we started speaking their language?
Let’s connect with all the mountain men out there, not just the ones walking the walk, but also the millions of people tuned in to cable TV, dreaming of making their own squirrel stew some day.
I’ll start the ball rolling. In my next post, learn why one of the most desired and expensive of North American furs in the mid-20th century is now just roadkill.