WALKING INTO NEIMAN MARCUS on a Sunday afternoon in January, I had a singular mission in mind: I was looking for fur. It didn’t take long to spot some. I’d hardly entered the store when I noticed the central ground-floor display in front of the escalators — one that nearly anyone walking into the department store would surely pass. It consisted of two mannequins, both styled in cropped pants, heels, collared shirts, and yes, fur outerwear. My first thought was, They might be faux— I was at a mall in the San Francisco Bay Area after all. But they were luxuriously soft. And a quick look at the tags confirmed their authenticity: The trendy vest on one mannequin, dyed a yellow-green color described as Kiwi on the label, was made of fox fur, and the preppie jacket in cream and pastels on the other had mink and rabbit fur tufts interwoven with the textile.
I headed up the escalator to see what else the store might hold. As my eyes leveled with the second-floor, I found myself in front of a fur salon. The small department had dozens of furs, from coats and vests to capes and stoles. There were red furs and white furs and leopard print furs. There were reversible fur jackets, puffer jackets with fur-lined hoods, furs with chevron prints, and furs decorated in beads and sequins. There were mink furs, rabbit furs, and fox furs. There were furs marked down to $800, and full price furs for upwards of $10,000. At one of the cashiers, I found a rabbit and fox fur vest on hold for a customer.
I did some quick math. Given that each fur garment was probably made with somewhere between 10 and 100 pelts, depending on the type of animal and the length of the item, I was looking at pelts from hundreds, likely thousands, of animals. Despite decades of fervent campaigning by animal welfare activists, it seemed fur was still in fashion, and in the Bay Area no less, a region known for left-leaning politics and warm climates.
The coats and vests I found in Neiman Marcus that day — and to a lesser extent, in Macy’s and Nordstrom as well — are part of a global fur industry that consumes pelts from an estimated 100 million animals every year. An industry that begins with the trapping of wild animals and the raising of animals on farms, and then moves through pelt auction houses, to fashion houses, and ultimately, to the homes of consumers. An industry that sends hundreds of millions of animals to their deaths.
Trappers and fur farmers are quick to note that the trade has deep roots in North American tradition, and that we can expect it to persist for the foreseeable future. But wildlife conservationists and animal welfare advocates say that, in an age when fur clothing and accessories can hardly be called a necessity, the industry can no longer be justified.
THE FUR TRADE does have deep roots in North America. Before European colonization of the continent, Indigenous peoples in North America traded furs among themselves. When European fishermen arrived along the coast of Newfoundland in the early 1500s seeking cod, they began trading with First Nations almost immediately, exchanging things like knives and textiles for furs from the “New World’s” bountiful animals.
What started as a small-scale, informal trade between fishermen and Indigenous peoples quickly became a much bigger business. French traders established permanent outposts in Canada, soon to be joined by the Dutch. And in the modern-day United States, the trade has early roots as well: The first English settlers at Plymouth, facing a poorer cod fishery than they had expected, turned their sights, too, on fur.
By the early 1600s, Europeans had established trading posts at key locations along North America’s Eastern seaboard, and had begun sending traders inland to secure more pelts. In 1670, what would become North America’s biggest fur trading company’s — the Hudson’s Bay Company — was founded, and over the next 150 years, several other ventures were established, including the North West Company, American Fur Company, and Missouri Fur Company. They were all competing for pelts. That meant competing for alliances with Indigenous peoples, who provided much of the fur to sustain the trade, and who in many cases became economically dependent on it.
The North American fur trade was driven almost singularly by demand for one type of pelt: beaver. Europeans had hunted their own beavers to near extinction just as the pelts were becoming coveted for stylish felted hats.
The exploration and colonization of much of North America can be traced to demand for these humble, semi-aquatic rodents. As Ben Goldfarb writes in his recently published bookEager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter, “More than timber, cod, or any other natural resource, beavers help explain just about every significant American geopolitical event between European arrival and the Civil War.” He points to the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Louisiana Purchase as evidence of the role of the beaver.
This thirst for beaver pelts led to their near-extirpation from the continent: It’s estimated that anywhere from 60 million to 400 million beavers roamed North American waterways when Europeans arrived. By the early 1900s, there were an estimated 100,000 left. Changing fashions in Europe may be to thank for the survival of the species — by the mid-1800s, felt was out and silk was in, and with that, beaver prices plummeted.
Nonetheless, the fur trade had been firmly established, and the trapping and trading of fur had taken a prominent place in the North American psyche. Though the scale of the trade in the US and Canada is no longer what it once was, it continues to this day, much to the consternation of animal rights advocates.
“I THINK MOST PEOPLE ARE generally unaware that commercial trapping is still happening around the United States,” says Camilla Fox, founder and director of Project Coyote, an Earth Island project that promotes coexistence with wildlife.