Chinese live markets feed the fur trade
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 2004:
NEW YORK CITY–“Real Fur Is Fun Again,”
headlined the October 11 edition of Newsweek.
“It’s less expensive and more popular than ever.
But as young people snuggle up, where are the
Fur appeared on 36 of the 270 pages in
the “Women’s Fashion Fall 2004” edition of The
New York Times Style Magazine: as many pages as
in all editions from 2001 through 2003 combined.
Fur is more visible now than at any time
in the past 20 years. Furriers are buying more
ad space in The New York Times and other
periodicals known to reach affluent younger
women, anticipating a profitable winter–if the
economy holds up.
But furriers have often misread market
demand. Expecting a boom in the winters of
1993/1994 and 1997/1998, chiefly through
believing their own propaganda, furriers drove
fur pelt prices up at auction with panic buying
to increase inventory, stepped up their
advertising, and experienced busts instead.
The recent history of the fur trade is
that booms are anticipated whenever the big
retailers exhaust the unsold back inventory from
the last time they misread the indicators.
The current buzz in the industry is that
in 2004 the women who were born at the beginning
of the last fur boom turned 30, reaching the age
bracket within which most who ever buy fur will
buy their first fur coat.
Since 1959, when the release of the
first Walt Disney version of 101 Dalmatians
preceded a two-year decline in fur sales,
furriers have believed that attitudes formed
toward fur in girlhood shape fur-wearing and
fur-buying habits for life. The girls who asked
their mothers to stop wearing fur in 1959-1960
mostly never wore fur, fur trade analysts
believe, but girls who admired fur-wearing First
Lady Jackie Kennedy in 1961-1963 became avid
fur-wearers 15 to 20 years later.
The fur industry thinks those women’s
daughters formed their image of glamor and status
when fur-wearing First Lady Nancy Reagan was in
the White House. Furriers hope they will become
another generation of fur fiends like their
mamas, who for a time propelled the U.S. retail
fur trade to all-time peaks of profitability.
From the 1974 exit of famously
non-fur-wearing First Lady Pat Nixon until the
1988 arrival of also non-fur-wearing First Lady
Barbara Bush, U.S. retail fur sales rose every
year, peaking at $1.85 billion.
Neither Pat Nixon nor Barbara Bush
entirely avoided fur. Both wore fur garments on
rare ceremonial occasions. But they did not look
comfortable in fur. They did not boost the fur
trade as Nancy Reagan had, or Jackie Kennedy,
Mamie Eisenhower, and Eleanor Roosevelt, all of
whom were rarely photographed outdoors without
Furriers cursed the animal rights
movement but quietly blamed Barbara Bush in 1991
when U.S. retail fur sales fell to just $950
million–an unprecedented drop of more than 50%
in just three years. Anti-fur activists exulted.
The Humane Society of the U.S. and other major
animal advocacy groups dropped or scaled back
What happened next, according to fur
trade spokespersons, is that women eventually
got tired of the stridency of Friends of Animals
and PETA, whose anti-fur campaigns continued.
The fur industry claims to have made a complete
comeback, with U.S. retail fur sales back up to
$1.8 billion, as of 2002, and global sales up
from $8.1 billion in 1998 to $11.3 billion in
The truth is more complicated.
The $1.8 billion in U.S. retail fur sales
would be worth only $1.3 billion in 1987 dollars,
about the level in real dollars sustained by the
fur industry for the past 50 years, with only
the peak sales years of the mid-1980s and the
subsequent crash varying far from the norm. That
U.S. retail fur sales have remained so close to
the same level in real dollars actually
represents declining “market penetration,” since
the numbers of U.S. women in the fur-buying age
range have increased by about 20% since retail
fur sales peaked.
The supposed global sales rise evaporates
completely when the erosion of the U.S. dollar
relative to the British pound, the French franc,
and the German Deutchmark is taken into account.
But there is more fur, cheap fur,
proliferating as collars and trim, sold in high
volume not by traditional furriers but by
low-market department stores. Garments priced at
under $50 are not tracked as part of the retail
fur trade, and are not subject to the federal
law requiring all furs to be accurately labeled
as to species and nation of origin.
Such cheap furs are not part of fur
industry profits, yet contribute heavily to the
impression of Newsweek fashion writer Julie
Scelfo that “Fur is baaack,” the feeling of
veteran anti-fur campaigners that hard-won gains
have been lost, and the hope of the traditional
fur industry that the indifference toward animal
suffering of people who buy fur-trimmed
department store clothing will translate into
less resistance to buying mink–if and when they
can afford it.
The fur that is “baaack” is mostly
neither from animals ranched for fur, nor
trapped. And it is not really “baack,” because
until recent years the supply source was not a
factor in world trade.
The fur seen most often on the street
comes from China. It is a byproduct of the vast
and growing southern and coastal Chinese live
markets for specialty meat.
More than 1,800 animal species are eaten
in the Cantonese-speaking parts of China, with
consumption heaviest in Guang-dong province,
where Marco Polo observed dog and cat eating in
the 14th century.
Except for dogs, cats, rabbits, and
rats, most of the specialty meat consumed in
Guangdong and elsewhere in China formerly came
out of the wild, and was rare and expensive.
Wildlife was virtually eaten out of existence in
much of China, during the famines of the Mao Tse
Tung regime, but poverty inhibited importing
animals to stock the live markets.
That changed as result of the economic
surge that began circa 1990 and is still
underway. Affluence rose fastest in Guang-dong,
which because of proximity to Hong Kong became a
magnet for foreign investment and a hub of
Suddenly able to afford specialty meats
on a regular basis, consumers in Guangzhau,
Shanghai, and other fast-growing southern and
coastal cities began devouring the wildlife of
all of Southeast Asia. Consumption of dogs and
rabbits also soared, as did consumption of cats
in Guangdong, the only part of China where
cat-eating is popular. Rat-eating apparently
Eventually, as the wildlife supply from
abroad was hunted out, entrepreneurs began
raising more species in captivity.
Mammals, only the smallest part of the
southern and coastal Chinese specialty meat
industry, were among the first species to be
raised for the table in volume, being the most
Hardly anyone paid attention to the
numbers until the Sudden Acute Respiratory
Syndrome outbreak of 2002-2003 surged out of the
Guangdong live markets, killing at least 1,183
people, 349 of them in China. More than 8,000
fell ill. Epidemiologists scrambled to identify
the SARS source, and Chinese officials tried to
halt the disease by killing the suspected host
species. Raids on live markets produced some
species inventory data, and crude estimates of
turnover rates. Mammal consumption turned out to
include at least two million dogs and cats per
year, plus 10,000 or more palm civets and
thousands of other “wild” species.
Rabbit consumption in China had
apparently soared from 120,000 metric tons per
year to more than 300,000 in as little as five
years. At five pounds per rabbit, that would be
more than 12 million rabbits.
Raising and slaughtering that many dogs,
cats, rabbits, palm civets, et al
coincidentally produces almost as much cheap fur
per year as U.S. and Canadian fur trappers and
hunters produced annually from 1976 through 1986,
when they typically killed a combined total of
more than 20 million animals per year.
Cheap Chinese fur has taken over the
former market for trapped muskrat, raccoon,
nutria, and fox pelts so thoroughly that as
Trapper & Predator Caller admitted in June 2004,
“Recruitment into trapping and fur hunting is at
an all-time low.”
From 1976 through 1986, when U.S.
trapped fur sales were at their peak, muskrat
made up 45% of the total, raccoon for 21%,
nutria for 12%, and fox for 10%. All four
species were used mostly for trim.
Raccoon and fox pelts typically brought
between $20 and $40 at auction, depending on
size and the amount of damage done to the pelt by
the killing method. Nutria pelts brought $6,
and muskrat pelts rarely sold for as much as
Auction prices for muskrat, raccoon,
nutria, and fox pelts now run circa $10 for
raccoon, $20 for fox, and as little as $1 for
muskrat and nutria, if they sell at all.
George Clements, of Vancouver, British
Columbia, who cofounded the Association for the
Protection of Fur-Bearing Animals in 1952,
points out that trappers in the Canadian
provinces of Alberta, B.C., Ontario, and Quebec
cumulatively killed more than 3.7 million animals
in 1980. In 2003 they killed 563,000,
representing a drop of 85%.
Pennsylvania trappers pelted 700,000
raccoons in 1982, according to the Pennsylvania
Game Commission. Last winter they pelted
100,000, another 85% drop.
Louisiana trappers pelted more than
400,000 nutria per year for 30 years, but only
24,000 in 2002/2003, before a bounty placed upon
nutria as an alleged “invasive species” drove the
2003/2004 toll to 280,000. Most were not pelted.
Even at $1 per pelt, there was no market.
Fur produced as a byproduct of the
Chinese specialty meat trade took over the market
niche vacated in the late 1980s by the collapse
of demand for cheap trapped fur. Byproduct fur
had the advantage of being even cheaper than
muskrat and nutria, as an abundant waste product
that would otherwise have to be disposed of at a
loss–and it is available close to the Asian
garment makers who now clothe much of North
America and Europe.
The anti-fur campaigns of recent years
have been conspicuously less visible and
therefore less effective in countering this trend
than they were in combating trappers and
conventional fur farmers.
Most of the anti-fur campaign tactics and
messages of today are still those that sent the
fur trade into the 1988-1991 tailspin.
The Humane Society of the U.S. squelched
fur industry hopes for a big winter in 1998/1999
with a heavily publicized expose of the use of
dog and cat fur in Asian-made garments sold in
U.S. boutiques–but declared victory when
unenforced and perhaps unenforceable federal
legislation banning the import of dog and cat fur
was passed, and has not followed up.
Publicity about dog and cat fur in Europe
has centered on shaky allegations about dogs and
cats being raised specifically for fur,
sometimes purportedly in Belgium. This would be
economically unviable, since the Chinese
specialty meat industry produces so much fur at
virtual giveaway prices.
London Evening Standard political
correspondent Isabel Oakeshott issued possibly
the first realistic expose of the present shape
of the European fur trade on August 31, 2004.
“Cat and dog fur is being shipped into
Britain on a record scale,” Oakeshott began.
“Traders from Europe and the Far East ferried up
to £7 million worth into Britain last year.
London has become a major international trading
center for the furs, following bans in other
countries. The scale of the business emerged in
Customs & Excise records released to a Member of
“More than £40 million of fur-related
items poured into Britain last year,” up from
£26 million in 1999, Oakeshot continued,
looking at fur-trimmed garments as well as
traditional fur coats. “Imports of clothes and
fashion accessories made with real fur have
tripled from £4 million to about £12 million in
the past decade,” Oakeshott wrote.
“As well as fur clothes, more than £6
million of raw fur and £22 million of tanned or
dressed fur, from 12 named species and ‘other
animals,’ was shipped into Britain last year,”
Oakeshott estimated that the traffic included
about £5.9 million worth of dog fur and £1
million worth of cat fur.
“We live in such an escapist society that
they don’t even let you [air] ads that show
graphic footage of animals being killed,”
longtime PETA anti-fur campaign coordinator Dan
Mathews told Scelfo of Newsweek.
Therefore Mathews continues to rely upon
celebrity actresses and models to deliver the
anti-fur message, just as PETA has done all
along. Fernanda Tavares was the PETA headliner
in 2003/2004, Charlize Theron this winter.
Mathews hopes neither follow the examples of
Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford, past
headliners who were paid by the fur industry to
literally turn coats.
Fund’s last stand
Both PETA and the Fund for Animals have
had great difficulty getting periodicals that
carry fur industry advertising to accept anti-fur
ads. Vogue has rejected ads from PETA sight
unseen since 1996, when anti-fur activists
associated with PETA delivered a dead raccoon to
editor Anna Wintour’s table at a fashionable New
York City restaurant. Before that, PETA ads
apparently got at least a quick look before
The Fund for Animals, now merging into
the Humane Society of the U.S., has had more
success in placing print ads. The New York Times
Magazine, The New Yorker, the Washington Post,
Paper, Avenue, YM, and Teen have all carried
Fund anti-fur ads, but in 2003 Town & Country,
Women’s Wear Daily, and W all refused an ad
showing a bobcat with the caption, “She needs
her fur more than you do.”
HSUS president Wayne Pacelle told ANIMAL
PEOPLE publisher Kim Bartlett that the merger
talks with the Fund included discussion of a new
anti-fur campaign, but he indicated that it will
not be launched until the winter of 2005/2006.
The Fund’s last anti-fur activity as an
independent organization may have been
encouraging New York state senators Malcolm A.
Smith, of Queens, and Scott Stringer, of
Manhattan, to introduce a bill in the closing
days of the 2004 state legislative session which
would have banned killing furbearing animals by
anal or genital electrocution.
A traditional method of killing ranched
foxes, avoiding injury to their fur, anal or
genital electrocution is rarely used with other
species. Mink are usually killed either by
gassing or neck-breaking, involving a hard shake
with long-handled tongs.
But there are no more fox farms known to
operate in New York state. The last five mink
farms pelted 4,800 mink in 2002.
Because the bill was symbolic and going
nowhere, it won little of the news media
attention that the Fund had hoped for.
The “Shame of Fur” campaign waged by HSUS
1986-1991 still appears to have been much more
effective than any anti-fur campaigns that
followed–or preceded it.
The message “It’s wrong to wear fur!” was clear,
simple, and direct. Amplified in different ways
by other organizations, it applied to all forms
of fur, no matter how they were produced, and
left no room for misunderstanding.
Campaigns focused on leghold traps send a
mixed message, even if no fur customer realizes
(any more than do most activists) that Conibear
traps and wire snares are used to catch more wild
animals. If the issue is leghold trapping, a
potential fur buyer could think that wearing
ranched mink, fur from a coyote shot with a gun,
or fur from rabbits raised for food might be
Conversely, campaigns focused on the
many cruelties of ranching mink, fox, and other
species raised for pelts might just persuade a
potential buyer to opt for a raccoon coat instead.
The biggest problem with anti-fur
campaigning in recent years, some observers
believe, has been that there was not very much
of it. Activist priorities have shifted, from
the emphasis on vivisection and fur of the 1980s
to the present focus on food and companion animal
Pro-animal activism since the mid-1990s
has emphasized ways that a conscientious
individual can make a difference through personal
action, like giving up meat or sterilizing a
feral cat colony. Giving up fur might have fit
right in–except that pro-animal activists had
already eschewed fur for decades.
Women born in 1959, the year the first
Walt Disney version of 101 Dalmatians appeared,
turned 30 in 1989, and are now 45. Most have
never worn fur. Most never will.
As fur faded from activist sight and
memory, anti-fur protest came to be seen by
big-group strategists as a low priority:
continued on a token level, since some donors
and volunteers expect it, but not vitally
urgent, and not a hot fundraising issue either.
More than 60% of all the fur sold and
worn in the U.S. is sold and worn in the greater
New York City metropolitan area, where cold
winters converge with affluence and tradition.
As fur-wearing goes in New York City, so the
industry goes throughout the U.S. and Canada–and
often, the fashion centers of the world.
Veteran New York City activist Irene
Muschel believes the planners of anti-fur efforts
at some point forgot that whatever they do must
be visible. Instead of campaigning to reach the
public, they have campaigned to rally activists,
who donate in response to mailings that
fur-wearers never see, table and rally on
weekends when fur-wearing suburban commuters are
not out and about, and congratulate each other
about public service announcements aired on
obscure cable TV stations at hours when few
people are watching.
“Flyers are put up by companies [hired by
animal rights groups] in areas that are for the
most part characterized by housing projects,
abandoned buildings, pervasive poverty, drugs,
and crime. Not too many people wearing fur will
see them,” Muschel wrote in a series of personal
critiques of anti-fur campaigns sent to ANIMAL
PEOPLE at intervals throughout 2004.
“Sometimes flyers are placed in middle
class business areas, not the residential areas
where anti-fur advertising would be most
effective. The way flyers are placed, one next
to another in a mess of form and color, often
makes them invisible. New Yorkers are bombarded
by an enormous amount of visual and auditory
stimuli as they walk and drive through the city
streets,” Muschel continued. “Advertising must
be big and/or pervasive enough to get beyond
people’s tendency to block out so much stimuli.”
Having previously used murals to promote
pet sterilization (as described and illustrated
on page 4 of the October 2004 edition of ANIMAL
PEOPLE), Muschel tested her theories last
winter, at her own expense.
“I contacted some wildlife photographers
and a designer and had a fabulous anti-fur poster
made,” Muschel said. “I paid for three months
of advertising on two telephone kiosks in
Grammercy Park. I selected two kiosks that I
could monitor to see if this was a successful
mode of advertising.”
Muschel concluded that the telephone kiosk
campaign was not successful because the posters
were easily and often stolen. But she came to
believe that billboard advertising would work.
“It is impossible to block out a huge
colorful billboard,” Muschel concluded. “No one
can steal a billboard. A billboard is,
therefore, the most effective form of
advertising,” at least in New York City.
Next Muschel spent months scouting
potential billboard locations. She found one at
a seemingly perfect site, and negotiated a price
for using it that would have been well below what
others had paid. Throughout the summer of 2004,
Muschel tried to interest national animal
advocacy groups in renting the space this winter.
None were willing to commit. The deal slipped
The fur trade is still vulnerable to
market pressure–if the pressure is effectively
directed. The British department store chain
Harvey Nichols introduced rabbit-trimmed and
lined garments last winter, feeling that fur
from animals killed for meat would be acceptable
to consumers, but discontinued the fur line
after Advocates for Animals and the Coalition
Against the Fur Trade threatened to target the
Other retailers still believe that fur
from rabbits raised for meat will elude protest.
Suzy Shier Inc. in Nanaimo, British Columbia,
began selling rabbit fur coats in September 2004
to test customer response, according to an
e-mail from the Vancouver Island Vegetarian
Association. (VIVA representative Jo Miele asked
that protest be directed to
Anti-fur pressure must be sustained and
consistent. A Scots firm, the House of Bruar,
introduced a fur line including hamster coats in
late 2003, withdrew the hamster garments in
March 2004, and then put them back on the market
in August 2004, after protest subsided. Also
selling mink, fox, and raccoon garments, the
House of Bruar had interpreted the message not as
“Don’t wear fur,” but rather, “Don’t wear
hamsters when anyone is looking.”
Image & ethics
The fur industry still lacks a
charismatic fur-wearing First Lady. Like
predecessors Pat Nixon and Barbara Bush, Laura
Bush does not wear fur.
Lynne Cheney, however, wife of U.S. Vice
President Dick Cheney, may have been best known
before the 2000 election campaign for her
defenses of fur as a frequent CNN Crossfire
Lynne Cheney may now be the person in
public life who is most often seen wearing
fur–but she has never been named among the top
five in the annual USA Today/ CNN/Gallup “Most
Admired Woman” polls. Positions lower than fifth
are not announced.
On the other hand, only six women have
shared the top five positions during the George
W. Bush presidency, and all six are occasional
fur-wearers, including National Security Advisor
Condoleza Rice. TV show host Oprah Winfrey,
named every year, has given mink-trimmed
slippers to her guests.
But The New York Times, whose owners’
families made their fortunes in fur, is no
longer unambiguously pro-fur.
On Election Day 2004, Times “Front Row”
columnist Ruth La Ferla puffed the vegan fashion
Even more significantly, New York Times
Magazine ethics columnist Randy Cohen on March
21, 2004 wrote, “You certainly should not wear
a new fur. A case can be made for some
exploitation of animals–as food or in important
medical research–when there is no meaningful
alternative, and when their suffering is
minimized. But there is no justification for
harming animals to make something as frivolous as
a fur coat.”
Cohen followed up on April 11, 2004 with
a column pondering how to ethically dispose of
Lynne Cheney and friends have described
The New York Times as an elitist liberal
newspaper that has become far out of touch with
Yet it is still the most read newspaper in the global hub of fur demand.