Animal Rights Assaults : Activists Aim to Skin the Fur Industry

For furrier Machiel de Groot, plying his trade is pure hell.

After six years of tumult led by animal rights activists, fur clothing has virtually disappeared in this country, nearly 400 furriers have dwindled to just 32 and for all practical purposes, Holland has become the industrialized world's first "fur-free" society.

Americans who believe the wearing of furs means cruelty to animals look to this country as a model. They have forged a working relationship with the Dutch anti-fur leaders and view them as mentors and heroes.

Like Germany in '30s

But De Groot, 49, likens existence for Dutch furriers today to the life of Jews in Germany in the late 1930s.

"Twice--twice!--stones have shattered my (store's) front window," he declares.

"Excrement has been put in my mailbox so many times I have to lock it.

"Once red paint was smeared all over the doorway--for a symbol of blood!"

Even worse has happened, says De Groot, who from this town a few miles from Amsterdam serves as a spokesman for what is left of Holland's furriers.

"A gang of children chased a furrier's son and threw him in the water. It's happened before. Teachers indoctrinate the students, then the students sometimes go too far.

"In train stations, at the airport, anywhere, women . . . get taunted, called 'murderer' for wearing fur.

"We are called 'murderer' for selling it."

Hidden From Nazis

A Jew whose parents hid in a private Amsterdam house during the Nazi occupation and placed their baby son--himself--with a Catholic family for safeguarding, De Groot produces a grim analogy for Holland today:

"It is 1938 and 1939 all over again."

While that may give some feeling for the depth of emotion in Holland, in the United States many citizens still regard the fur trade as a cherished part of the national heritage.

From the English settlers at Jamestown and the French voyageurs in birchbark canoes to Daniel Boone in Kentucky and mountain men Jedediah Smith, Jim Bridger and Kit Carson, trapping was synonymous with North America's early development.

Trappers blazed the Oregon Trail; Alaska was founded on fur.

Today, the United States is pelter to the world and a rich fur market.

That deeply troubles the nation's anti-fur activists, who have become part of the growing worldwide anti-fur movement.

"Fur represents animal cruelty, and we abhor it--we aim to make fur wearing a public taboo," said Steve Siegel, New York director of Trans-Species Unlimited, the most militant of the larger protest groups. "Even if people don't care about animal cruelty, we at least can make them perceive wearing fur as vulgar and insensitive."

The American fur abolitionists are seeking the total dismantling of the fur industry, demanding that the killing of animals for pelts be ended not only in the wilderness but also on the 2,400 farms--mainly in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and Utah--where mink and fox are raised for pelts worth close to $200 million a year.

The anti-fur forces argue that trapping is especially cruel, with leg-hold traps in whose steel jaws animals may live for days. Activists seek revocation of licenses for about 500,000 U.S. trappers who take about 15 million animals a year--mainly muskrats, followed by raccoons, nutria and possums and in lesser numbers by coyote, beaver and fox.

And, on fur farms, the animal rights forces contend, caging and the means of execution are cruel.

About 4.5 million U.S. minks are put to death each year, mainly by injecting carbon monoxide into crates containing 20 to 30 minks.

Foxes are killed by electrocution, with one electrode clamped into the mouth and another inserted into the anus. (American farm production of foxes is about 150,000 yearly.)

Protesters on the Attack

For most of this decade, U.S. protesters have been on the attack. Often differing over tactics, they have precipitated a publicity avalanche with acts that range from mounting anti-fur rock concerts and staging sit-ins at department stores to harassing women wearing fur, shooting out store windows, daubing paint or pouring acid on coats and raiding farms.

Despite their efforts, from 1978 to 1986 the nation's retail fur sales tripled, reaching about $1.8 billion a year.

Then, however, there was a change. For the past two years, U.S. sales have stayed at the 1986 level--even though the fur industry had forecast each year that sales would reach $2 billion.

But, to the irritation of the anti-fur forces, industry spokesmen cite milder winters and the economic aftershock of the October, 1987, stock market crash for the leveling off, and insist that the protest movement has had no effect on sales.

Until recently, however, fur industry executives appeared to have lulled themselves into a false sense of security by tending to oversubscribe to their own propaganda.

Prices Cut 20% to 30%

Last year, the problem really came home. True, sales remained at about $1.8 billion. But, to stay at that level, said Elliott Lippin, president of American Fur Industry, prices were cut as much as 20% to 30% to clear inventories carried over from 1987, meaning that unit sales actually rose while profits fell. The inventory reduction set the stage, Lippin says, for a more prosperous 1989.

To that, animal protectionists reply: Look at Holland--and be warned.

While sales in West Germany, Britain and Switzerland have plummeted as much as 40% over the decade in response to animal rights protests, in Holland the drive has been so successful that the only prime targets left for the protesters are fur farms that produce pelts for export. Since 1982, retail fur sales have dropped more than 90% to an almost invisible $12 million a year. No department store even carries fur anymore, and hardly anyone wears it.

Furrier De Groot says that if he could abandon his trade, he would. But it is all he knows, and, at least for now, he says, there is business to keep a handful of people going.

Even that may be in jeopardy. During three days in freezing temperatures, a reporter in Holland counted among thousands of passers-by only two fur coats, both full-length minks on matrons strolling together on a Sunday in central Amsterdam. They were speaking French.

Now, major organizations of the U.S. anti-fur movement draw on Dutch assistance.

Met With U.S. Protectionists

In the last eight months, Wim de Kok, founder of Holland's Anti-Bont Comite (anti-fur committee), has paid three visits to the United States and consulted with animal protectionists on both coasts.

Based in Holland and serving as anti-fur coordinator of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, De Kok stays in constant touch with American anti-fur leaders in about 30 animal welfare organizations.

When Rue McClanahan, Bea Arthur and Betty White, the stars of the "Golden Girls" TV comedy series, made a television commercial last year castigating the fur industry, leading Dutch activist Jan Van der Lee, a former biology teacher, went to Hollywood to work with them. The Anti-Bont Comite co-produced the film with Washington, D.C.-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

When the Humane Society of the United States selected art for this year's national "Shame of Fur" campaign, the Americans picked a Dutch poster--showing a blond woman in fur hiding her face with a handbag--and substituted English words.

The American program has also been aided by an influx of anti-fur leaders from the United Kingdom, including PETA co-founder Ingrid Newkirk, now a naturalized citizen. A British animal rights group, Lynx, plans to open offices in New York and Los Angeles this year. An Australian, Peter Singer, wrote "Animal Liberation," a seminal tract that fires many U.S. activists.

Glitz Added to the Cause

The anti-fur activists have been able to add glitz to their cause by enlisting a number of celebrities.

So far, Brooke Shields, Candice Bergen, Christie Brinkley, Zsa Zsa Gabor and pop singers Belinda Carlisle and Jane Wiedlin have issued public refusals to wear fur. Carlisle and Wiedlin starred in January's Rock Against Fur concert in New York.

In addition to McClanahan and the other "Golden Girls," Earl Holliman, Amanda Blake, Loretta Swit, Bob Barker and River Phoenix also participate.

Other supporters are Republican congressman Robert K. Dornan of Garden Grove, a leading advocate of legislation against leg hold traps, author Cleveland Amory and former California congressman James Roosevelt, a worker with senior citizens in support of animal rights.

Though no American First Lady has yet joined Britain's Princess Diana in refusing to wear fur, activists see hope in Barbara Bush, who appeared without fur at her husband's inauguration. According to the White House, Mrs. Bush has taken no public position.

'It's Big Business'

Fund-raising figures offer one index of the growing support the U.S. anti-fur movement is finding. The Fur Retailers Information Council, which tracks and attempts to counter the efforts of 100 animal rights groups, estimates that at least $100 million a year comes in from dues, donations, bequests and income-producing assets. "It is big business," says Richard M. Parsons, FRIC executive director.

But with so many organizations competing for funds and divided on tactics, the U.S. anti-fur movement can seem a Tower of Babel, speaking in many tongues. Gossip ranges from catty to slanderous, and rivalries abound.

While almost everyone seems to oppose the wearing of fur, the animal protection movement includes anti-vivisectionists, endangered species protectors, foes of hunting and fishing, enemies of steel-jawed leg-hold traps, zoo and circus protesters, supporters of spaying and neutering of animals, advocates of more light, straw and exercise for livestock, and vegetarians and "vegans," who shun consumption not only of meat, fish, fowl, eggs, butter and milk but also wool, leather or any animal product for any use.

Sometimes, even by animal rights standards, eye-openers pop up. In Aspen, Colo., Mayor Bill Sterling has introduced to the City Council a proposal to ban fur sales--a closure that would affect the four stores that sell fur within the city limits and raise constitutional questions. Not even in Amsterdam is fur outlawed.

Both here and abroad, most animal rights leaders openly counsel against violence, but a few embrace it enthusiastically--a stand that gives the fur industry its best opportunity to counterattack against the entire animal protection movement.

Firebombing in Britain

In Britain, where Harrods of London and five other stores that sell fur have been firebombed in the last year, Gwyneth P. Dunwoody, a Labor Party member of the House of Commons who speaks on behalf of the fur industry, describes militant anti-fur activists as "fascists."

"What other term does one use for people who use brutal means to intimidate others from wearing the kind of clothes they wish to wear?" Dunwoody asks.

In the United States, the Justice Department and the California attorney general's office have listed the Animal Liberation Front, an American offshoot of Britain's bombers of Harrods, as a terrorist organization.

"We are well aware that American activists are taking heart and strength from across the Atlantic," said Elliott Lippin, president of the American Fur Industry, the manufacturers and retailers association. "Let it happen. We have faith that the American people will reject the repulsive and violent practices of a more and more militant minority."

Sometimes, protest leaders themselves help blur the distinctions among their groups. From underground, the terrorists of ALF--who so far in the United States have concentrated not on fur but on laboratories that use animals in research--speak to the American public through PETA, the organization that recruits celebrities and works with Holland's Anti-Bont Comite.

That can raise problems for PETA members. Asked if she were aware that PETA officials who recruited her also are spokesmen for officially designated terrorists and endorse public ridicule of women wearing fur, actress McClanahan said that she was not and that she opposed cruelty to humans as well as to animals.

"I don't believe in harassment," she said. "I don't believe in violence."

By any measure, the Big Three--the Humane Society of the United States, PETA and Trans-Species Unlimited--make the oddest of foxhole buddies.

The Humane Society is richest and biggest. Furriers call it the sneakiest, and its anti-fur colleagues say it is the snootiest.

Its chief executive officer is paid more than $100,000 a year, it lobbies Congress with style, publishes newsletters and pamphlets, occupies a substantial headquarters building in Washington, D.C., claims 363,000 members and works with a total budget of $10.2 million.

Las Vegas Protest

While mentioning no names, HSUS drips disdain for the others. It nevertheless works with them and jointly staged a protest rally in April at the International Fur Fair in Las Vegas.

Carol Porter of the Wildlife Legislative Fund of America, a pro-fur-industry group, maintains that HSUS misleads the public. "They don't actually lie," she said. "But they don't go out of their way to disabuse people who associate them with helping cats and dogs."

Actually, HSUS clearly states goals, signs its advertising and publishes a credo. Even so, many people hold the misconception that it is a national umbrella for local humane societies that shelter cats and dogs. HSUS, founded in 1954, has never run shelters.

In contrast to HSUS, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has its headquarters in a Rockville, Md., warehouse, and its 65 staffers labor for seminarian wages. Anti-fur spokesman Dan Mathews earns $20,000 a year; co-founder Ingrid Newkirk, who serves as director, takes only expenses. On a $5.2-million annual budget, PETA organizes rock concerts, demonstrates and supplies speakers at public forums--often a Hollywood star.

Discussing its tactic of violating trespassing laws, Mathews, who has been arrested repeatedly, said that PETA's position is that "illegal is not necessarily wrong.

'We Don't Knock Anybody Down'

"We are a social movement," he said. "But while we shake people by the shoulder, we don't knock anyone down to the ground."

The third major anti-fur group, Trans-Species Unlimited, is sometimes called a "fringe" group by members of the other two--and accepts the term as a compliment. The trio's pauper, Trans-Species, headed by academician George P. Cave, took in $220,784 in 1987. Its leaders are "vegans," and its 30,000 claimed members don't pay dues.

But when Trans-Species Unlimited pickets, everyone within a block knows.

"They act like lunatics," said a New York woman who had run a Trans-Species gantlet of shouts and harassment outside Macy's in January.

They also have a genius for publicity. Time magazine has written about their activities, and last month ABC's "20/20" showed film of New York director Siegel excoriating a woman wearing fur, and then being confronted by the woman's male companion.

'We Get Better Results'

In an interview, Siegel said, "We are not rich like the Humane Society, but we get better results than their ads get--people remember being yelled at; they forget ads."

The group's hallmark is "Fur Free Friday," a protest at department stores the day after Thanksgiving in most major cities.

To the only registered trapper in Congress, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska)--and to many others--city boys like Siegel, Cave, Mathews and Grandy have lost all perspective.

"We have become a society of urban dwellers, and many have lost touch with nature and how it works," said Young, who had a 300-mile trap line and earned up to $5,000 a year from furs to supplement his summertime pay as a Yukon river boat captain.

"They hold the naive idea that you improve animal life by ending trapping," Young said. "They don't understand that nature is cruel with or without trapping, that animals starve, die of illness, kill each other off. It is true that cruel trapping practices exist--but these practices should be ended, not trapping altogether."

No Infrastructure

If anti-fur protesters are fragmented, so is the other side. Because America's fur farmers are spread over great distances, the industry's half a million or so trappers live in almost every state and no major companies dominate the trade, the fur industry has no central core--no infrastructure--to give it the cohesion that most industries have developed.

Nobody speaks for the whole industry. It is as though trappers, farmers, processors, middlemen and retailers inhabit different worlds. Only recently have furriers in New York City agreed to communicate with each other through monthly meetings to combat the anti-fur forces.

"Even though these guys are neighbors, some of them who work on the same block haven't spoken to each other in years," said Tom Riley of the Fur Retailers Information Council.

While European fur sales have declined and American sales have grown stagnant, Asia--which regards the whole animal rights question as a mystery of the Occident--has emerged as a powerful fur center.

Last year, Japan edged past the United States to become the No. 1 market--with sales of $1.9 billion. For several years Hong Kong and South Korea have led in manufacturing, with Hong Kong massively contracting out labor-intensive garment making to China.

And now, South Korea and China are investing in mink and fox production. (In fact, China is believed to be contemplating the ranching of sable, the Rolls-Royce of fur and up to now the Soviet Union's almost exclusive monopoly.)

The impact of Asia is seen in the dining facilities at Copenhagen's modern auction house, operated by SAGA, the combined marketing arm of Danish, Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian producers: It offers a separate Asian kitchen and tables.

"About half our buyers go to that side of the dining hall," said Erik Jorgensen, SAGA's marketing manager.

New Target

Out of Asia, in fact, comes a new target for the animal rights movement in America--Jindo of Korea. "We want to become the first nationwide chain under the same name with uniform prices and products throughout the country . . . a McDonald's approach," said James W. Sullivan, president of Jindo's U.S. subsidiary. The company, which had four U.S. stores in 1987, grew to 28 stores last year and expects to have 100 by next spring.

A Jindo mink coat sells for as little as $1,995. But furs can cost much more. Many "commercial" mink coats sell in department stores for about $8,000, and Gilles Mendel, the French haute couture furrier of Paris who has established salons at Elizabeth Arden stores in New York, Chicago and Beverly Hills, makes them to order for a price that averages $14,000.

$250,000 Sable

According to Mendel, the wholesale price of his mink coats averages $7,400, calculated at $5,600 for 70 skins and $1,800 for labor. A mink coat takes about a week to make, but sable is so difficult to work it takes a month. For about $150,000 each, Mendel sells 14 or 15 sable coats a year, with an especially outstanding one going for as high as $250,000.

Who buys fur these days?

"It's hard to find the market," one furrier said, but the industry consensus is that working women are buying fur garments on their own (not waiting for a man to buy one for them), at earlier ages (in their late 20s and 30s, not the traditional 40s and 50s), for casual life style (mink over blue jeans, not just for black-tie dinners).

They have become choosier, too. "A coat I could sell eight years ago I couldn't give away now," says Fred Schwartz, chairman emeritus of The Fur Vault, a mass marketer based in New York City.

According to Schwartz, the whole market has changed. "Today's buyer simply is not a woman who stands in front of the country club dressed in sables and diamonds," he says.

In fact, 12% of the market today consists of men.

Levy Against Auction Sales

To preserve the market, the world's fur producers, including those in the Soviet Union, have agreed to tax themselves with a 0.4% levy against auction sales. The funds will be distributed in Europe and North America to build a war chest against the animal rights movement and to promote the image of fur.

But ultimately, says Bill Evans, president of Hudson's Bay New York, one of the two major American auction houses, the answer to the anti-fur campaign will not come from the fur industry.

"It will come from the American people," Evans said.

"They have the right to choose."

FUR WARS--THE COMBATANTS

PRO-FUR GROUPS

American Fur Industry

Represents manufacturers, pelt dealers, suppliers and silk firms, and resident fur-buying firms.

Purpose: To promote the positive aspects of the industry.

Fur Farm Animal Welfare Coalition

Members: approximately 2,500. Purpose: To promulgate and administer humane care standards of practice for mink and fox farms in the United States.

Fur Retailers Information Council

Represents 80% of fur industry sales volume.

Purpose: To serve as liaison between the fur industry and law enforcement agencies on animal rights extremist activities. Also serves as public information office.

Fur Takers of America

Members: 40,000 trappers, buyers, suppliers, hunters, dressers and

conservationists.

Purpose: To educate trappers in

humane methods of trapping and

conservation ethics.

National Board of Fur Farm Organizations

Members: approximately 50 organizations.

Purpose: To provide continuing education for fur farmers; to conduct governmental relations program for the fur industry.

National Trappers Assn.

Members: approximately 20,000.

Purpose: To promote sound

environmental education programs and conservation of natural resources.

Wildlife Legislative Fund of America

Members: Approximately 1 million.

Purpose: To defend sportsmen and the fur industry from attacks by the animal rights movement through legislation, the courts, and public education.

ANTI-FUR GROUPS

Animal Liberation Front

Underground organization

Purpose: To end all forms of exploitation of animals.

Friends of Animals

Members: 100,000.

Purpose: To end animal suffering and cruelty worldwide.

Fund for Animals

Members: 155,000.

Purpose: To fight fear, pain and suffering in all animals, wild and domestic.

Humane Society of U.S.

Members: 363,185

Purpose: To foster a humane ethic and philosophy through educational, legislative, investigative and legal activities.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Pets (PETA)

Members: 250,000.

Purpose: To oppose through educational and activist programs all forms of animal exploitation.

Trans-Species Unlimited

Members: 30,000.

Purpose: To advocate the rights of animals and the elimination of animal exploitation and abuse.

World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA)

U.S. members, 10,000.

Purpose: To promote effective means for the protection of animals, for the prevention of cruelty and the relief of suffering of animals.

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