How The Fur Trade Made Its Big Comeback
Posted by Richard Conniff on August 15, 2016
by Richard Conniff/National Geographic
It was frozen-toe, mid-February, north-country cold, under a cloudless sky, sun glinting off fresh snow. We were tromping out onto a wetland frozen nine inches deep. It felt like how the fur trade began, someplace long ago, far away.
Bill Mackowski, in his 60th year of trapping, mostly around northern Maine, pointed out some alder branches sticking through the ice. Beavers start collecting poplar after the first cold snap, he explained, then pile on inedible alder to weigh down the poplar below the ice, where they eat it throughout the winter. He hacked through the ice with a metal pole, then passed it to me to try. “Feel how hard the bottom is on the run?” Beaten down by beaver traffic, he said.
Breaking through the ice in another spot, Mackowski said, “Did you hear those air bubbles?” He widened the hole and began hauling up until a peculiar steel device broke the murky surface. It was a trap, snapped tight around the neck of an enormous beaver. Those air bubbles, a moment locked in ice, were its final breath.
“That’s what we call a superblanket,” said Mackowski. “That’s a nice beaver.” The pelt would bring no more than $25, he calculated, but all the way home he wore the satisfaction of a thousand generations of successful hunters and trappers. Still glorying in the day and in his own deep reading of the landscape, he recalled what another winter visitor once told him: “If people could get past killing the beaver, they would pay to come out here like this.”
In truth, getting past the killing doesn’t seem like much of an issue anymore. Top models who once posed for ads with slogans like “We’d rather go naked than wear fur” have gone on to model fur. Fashion designers who were “afraid to touch it” 15 or 20 years ago have also “gotten past that taboo,” said Dan Mullen, a mink farmer in Nova Scotia. Many in the fur trade now readily acknowledge that activists who protested so loudly had a point: Farmers were not providing a decent standard of care for their animals. But they add that the trade has changed, though activists dispute this. In any case, many people now seem to regard wearing fur as a matter of individual choice. In some cities you are more likely to be glowered at for texting while walking.
Fur farms dominate the trade, and production has more than
doubled since the 1990s, to about a hundred million skins last year, mostly mink and some fox. Trappers typically add millions of wild beaver, coyote, raccoon, muskrat, and other skins. That’s besides untold millions of cattle, lambs, rabbits, ostriches, crocodiles, alligators, and caimans harvested for food as well as skins.
But you hardly need the numbers. Just look around. Once the resolutely conventional winter-fashion choice of Park Avenue matrons and country club partygoers, fur has gone hip-hop and Generation Z. It turns up now in all seasons and on throw pillows, purses, high heels, key chains, sweatshirts, scarves, furniture, and lampshades. There are camouflage-pattern fur coats, tie-dyed fur coats, and fur coats in an optical illusion M. C. Escher box pattern. There’s even a fur pom-pom that’s a Karl Lagerfeld Mini-Me, created by the designer in his own image and dubbed Karlito.
So how has fur made such a comeback from the intense social ostracism of the 1990s? Or for that matter, from the notoriety of the 1960s, when the cartoon character Cruella de Vil hankered after the fur of Dalmatian puppies, and the real-life trade was threatening the survival of leopards, ocelots, and other species in the wild? …. to read the full story in the September National Geographic, click here.