Sun, Dec 24, 2006 - Page 17 News List

Skins are in

Despite activist group protests, fur sales are on the rise, driven by demand from Russia and China


PETA members Shatha Hamade and Kristi-Anna Brydon brave chilly weather as they protest outside a leading fur shop in Sydney, Australia.


Tom DeLisle, sporting thigh-high waders, squishes through mud and cattails surrounding a pond near Albany, looking for wayward beavers that might have wandered into one of his underwater traps. Alas, his instant-kill traps, baited with Backbreaker castor oil, are empty. But DeLisle plans to keep trapping all winter, knowing that the pelts of beavers and other animals will grow thicker — and may fetch a better price when he sells them — as the months wear on.

"Come trapping season, it's hard to wait," DeLisle said of his pursuit. "It's like a kid on Christmas morning."

At his warehouse in northern Greece, Sotiris Vogiatzis, a fur wholesaler, eagerly waits for pelts from trappers like DeLisle because beaver is a hot fashion item in places like Russia and Turkey. Five years ago, Vogiatzis was buying 5,000 beaver pelts a year; now he buys about 30,000 annually, at prices that have climbed to US$30-US$35 each, from about US$26-US$28. After he gets the pelts — known in the trade as skins — he ships them to plants where they are sheared, tanned, plucked and dyed.

Once treated, the beaver skins make their way into the hands of fashion designers around the world, like Zuki Balaila in Montreal. Balaila has been working with beaver since the 1970s (when he was known as "Kooky Zuki," because he dyed beaver in vivid reds and blues for American fashionistas). Today, he serves markets far beyond North America.

"Now we export to China and [South] Korea, which is unheard of," he said, taking special note of surging demand in Russia. "Moscow is like New York City."

As humble beaver skins circle the world at steadily rising prices, so goes the fur market as a whole. Buoyed by the globalization of trade and the broader reach of the fashion industry, sales of fur garments, trim and accessories amounted to about US$13 billion for the fiscal year ended August 2005, the most recent for which data is available — up 9 percent from the previous year and up 40 percent from five years earlier, according to the International Fur Trade Federation. The organization predicts that fiscal 2006 will show a further climb in sales.

A variety of styles and colors — and for beaver, a new lightness and reversibility owing to improved shearing — has also helped fur fly off the rack worldwide. The price of mink, the gold standard of the fashion industry because of its softness and lightness, is at an all-time high (about US$57 a pelt for Danish mink, for example). Even lesser-known furs have caught fire. The show-stealer has been muskrat, the "poor man's mink," which tripled in price during the last year, to roughly US$8 a pelt. Lynx and western coyote skins are also selling well, while red fox and ubiquitous raccoon pelts have lagged. American consumers spent about US$1.8 billion on fur last year, a 50 percent increase since 1998.

Looming over the entire industry, of course, are animal-rights activists such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, more commonly known as PETA. Activists have earned both enmity and fear in the fashion world for their in-your-face tactics, like the moment in 1996 when an unidentified protester tossed a dead raccoon onto the plate of Anna Wintour, Vogue's fur-wearing editor, as she dined at the Four Seasons.

While some designers, Ralph Lauren most recently, have abandoned fur after pressure from the animal-rights movement, the industry says that many more have taken it up. "The last five to six years, more than 400 international designers have included fur in their collections," said Tina Jagros, executive director of the North American Fur Association, a trade group. She estimates that this is double the number of designers who included it 15 years ago. With sales soaring, the fur trade has become bolder about taking on activists — even securing Osama bin Laden-like status for anti-fur marauders. Last month, the industry claimed a victory when US President George W. Bush signed the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which gives federal authorities enhanced powers to prosecute animal-rights activists for certain offenses. (The act defines "animal enterprise" as any "commercial or academic enterprise that uses or sells animals or animal products for profit, food or fiber production, agriculture, research or testing.")

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