ethical fur

This article was first published in The Villager, March 16, 2017. 

As someone brought up in the Canadian fur trade and who has spent much of the past 35 years studying the environmental ethic of North America’s founding industry, I am troubled by the arrogance and ignorance displayed by self-appointed “animal-rights” activists protesting the opening of the Canada Goose boutique in Soho.

Responding to complaints about neighbors disturbed and consumers harassed, activists Nathan Semmel and Leonardo Anguiano recently argued in these pages that “it is solely the vile ethics of the Canada Goose corporation that brought about our presence.” (“Call of the Wild: Why we protest Canada Goose,” talking point, March 2):

By “vile ethics,” they mean that Canada Goose uses animal products — goose down and coyote fur — to make their remarkably warm parkas.

Goose down and fur are two of nature’s best insulators, but it is not surprising that these protesters object. Most of them are — or aspire to be — vegans, and embrace the radical “animal-rights” philosophy, which means they oppose any use of animals, even for food. Most Americans, however, do eat meat, fish, dairy and eggs. Most of us also wear leather, wool and silk. This does not mean we condone the mistreatment of animals. Research confirms that most people believe that humans do have a right to use animals, but only if four important criteria are respected — namely, that animals should be used sustainably, humanely, for an important purpose and with minimal waste.

Let’s see how the use of coyote fur stacks up against these widely accepted ethical criteria.

Sustainability: Only part of the natural surplus produced in abundant wildlife populations is used for fur today, never endangered species. This is assured by strictly enforced state, national and international regulations. Coyotes are highly abundant and expanding their range across North America; they are, in fact, the number-one predator problem for ranchers in many regions. There are also increasingly frequent reports of coyotes devouring pet dogs and cats. And even if we did not use fur, coyotes (and other predators) often must be managed to protect nesting birds, the eggs of sea turtles, and other endangered species. When fur prices do not provide sufficient incentive to control coyote populations, several states (and Canadian provinces) have been obliged to offer bounties. But if we have to cull some of these animals, surely it is ethical to use them.

Humaneness: Millions of dollars have been invested over the past 35 years in scientific research to ensure that humane methods are used to capture wild, furbearing animals. Many coyotes are now taken with quick-killing devices. Others are taken with live-holding traps designed to minimize injuries to the animals. These are the same traps used by biologists to capture and release wolves, Canadian lynx and other animals, unharmed, for radio-collaring (for research) or reintroduction into regions where they were previously eliminated. Clearly, these are not the diabolical instruments that activists would have us believe. Nor are nature’s ways of controlling wildlife populations — starvation and disease — necessarily preferable. A coyote with sarcoptic mange (a parasitic mite) may scratch itself raw for weeks before dying. Nature is not Disneyland. If humaneness is the concern, modern trapping methods may actually reduce suffering, by maintaining more stable and healthy wildlife populations than would occur naturally.

Armand Herscovici, ethical fur
Armand Herscovici, the writer’s grandfather, learned the furrier’s art from his father in Paris, before coming to Montreal in 1913. He is shown here in the 1950s examining Persian lamb skins in his stockroom at A-J Herscovici Furs Ltds, the company he founded with his son, Jack, the writer’s father.

Important Use: Animal activists claim that the killing of coyotes or other animals for fur is “unnecessary”, and therefore morally indefensible. Leaving aside the tricky question of determining which, if any, products are really “necessary,” humans do need clothing, and fur is a natural, long-lasting and ultimately biodegradable material. By contrast, fake furs and other synthetics promoted by animal activists are generally made from petrochemicals, a nonrenewable resource. More troubling, recent research reveals that synthetic microfibers can cause considerable harm to wildlife. According to EcoWatch: “When washed, plastic microfibers break off and a single jacket can produce up to 250,000 fibers in washing-machine effluent. Less than 1 millimeter in size, they make their way through wastewater plants and into marine environments where they have been found to enter the food chain. Microfibers make up 85 percent of human-made debris on shorelines around the world, according to a 2011 study.” Perhaps natural fur and down are not such frivolous choices after all.

No Waste: Most of us are comfortable wearing leather because it is “the envelope that dinner came in,” but we may wonder what happens to the rest of the animals that provide fur. In fact, beaver and muskrat are often eaten by northern Cree and other trappers and their families in remote regions where store-bought food is very expensive and alternate income may be hard to come by. Raccoons, opossums and other furbearing animals also provide food in more southern regions. And while coyotes and other predators are not usually eaten by humans, their carcasses are returned to the bush where they feed birds, mice and other animals through the winter, when food is scarce. Nothing is wasted.

Peter Noer, shown here with his son, is a second-generation fur farmer who came to Newfoundland from Denmark to raise mink. “We give our animals the best possible care and humane treatment,” Noer says on “Fur is our province’s most valuable agricultural export.” Photo: Newfoundland and Labrador Fur Breeders Association.

This short review shows that the North American fur trade does satisfy the four criteria that determine whether the use of animals is morally acceptable for most people.

Furthermore, while we all “care” about nature, most of us now live in cities with little direct knowledge about what really happens in the wild. Activists protesting against Canada Goose, for example, claim that “trapped coyote mothers leave behind starving pups.” They are apparently unaware that trapping occurs in late fall and winter when the young of the year are no longer dependent upon their parents.

Trappers, by contrast, live close to nature and have the knowledge — and a direct interest — to sound the alarm when wildlife habitat is threatened by industrial activity. It is trappers, for example, who lobby and work with timber companies to maintain uncut forest corridors for wildlife around waterways or important nesting areas. It is the destruction of habitat — not hunters or trappers — that threatens the survival of wildlife.

While animal activists like to see themselves as “progressive,” their words and actions reveal an arrogant disregard for the knowledge and values of the hard-working rural people who feed and clothe us.

None of this means that anyone is obliged to wear fur. But it does cast doubt on activist claims to have a “moral” justification for imposing their personal choices on the rest of us. If those promoting the radical “animal-rights” philosophy want to maintain any credibility, they would do well do show more tolerance toward those who make different choices. Too often, while preaching “compassion,” their actions seem to be driven by ideological fundamentalism, aggression and “alternate facts.” Surely, we have enough of that already in Washington.

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