Melissa Kaplan's
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Last updated January 1, 2014

Next Front: Protecting Animals That Aren't So Cute

David Coleman, New York Times, February 2, 1997


NEW YORK -- Big brown eyes, furry coats, playful quirks. Most animals hunted and ranched for their fur have another thing going for them: They're cute. Judging by the species of animals that have won sympathy points with the public and those that have not -- lizards, alligators, cows and pigs -- Darwin's treatise might need an update, like survival of the furriest.

"In general," said Simon Doonan, the creative director of Barneys New York, "people tend to get outraged about the animals that are warm and fuzzy rather than about those which are less so, like snakes."

The fur debate reared its head afresh this winter with the release of Disney's "101 Dalmatians," with its plot to turn cute little puppies into outerwear, along with reports that fur sales were showing signs of life after a decade-long decline. But the issue has overshadowed the fact that a vogue for animal skins -- high-quality leather, shearling and exotic animal skins -- has blossomed.

Since 1988, when Patrick Cox began using python for his stylish shoes, others have followed suit, some with python-print leather but many with the real thing. And now, even python jackets and pants are being sold at Cox's Madison Avenue boutique.

Last month, at Alexander McQueen's first couture show for Givenchy, he showed full-length coats rendered in snakeskin. Prada, Richard Tyler and Marc Jacobs have begun to make shoes, handbags, belts and jackets in various reptile skins as well. And Gucci, Chanel, Fendi and Saks Fifth Avenue have all been fined over the last decade for illegal trade in crocodile hides.

Animal-rights advocates, having invested heavily in antifur awareness, are now in a tangled web about how to confront an issue with considerably less sex appeal.

"The exotic wildlife trade issue is a bomb ready to go off," said Priscilla Feral, the president of the Friends of Animals, an international group. "There's a tremendous number of animals smuggled into the United States and killed to satisfy that trade. The fur issue is really only the tip of the iceberg."

Dan Mathews, the director of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, a group known for its theatrical protests, also calls exotic skins a priority.

While the fur industry suffered a recession in part caused by the swaying of public opinion over ethical concerns -- an antifur feeling that some think has abated -- the reptile leather industry has only boomed.

The alligator-hide business more than quadrupled between 1987 and 1995, according the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, yielding more than 200,000 hides in 1995, an impressive number for an animal that was on the endangered species list less than 20 years ago.

Some 150,000 whole skins of reticulated pythons alone, which are caught in the wild in Asia, have been brought legally into the United States for each of the last 10 years, said Craig Hoover at Traffic, the trade monitoring arm of the World Wildlife Foundation.

From a conservation standpoint, trade in reptile skins is a much more serious problem than fur ranching, Hoover said. Since reptiles are difficult to monitor, conservationists are concerned about the potential for endangerment.

"From the humane standpoint, you can compare the two," Hoover said, "but I don't think you're going to see anyone throwing red paint on a pair of python shoes."

Mathews said that raising awareness of reptile farming and hunting for skins was becoming increasingly important to the organization. He said that Twiggy Lawson, the actress, former model and a PETA member, recently wrote to designers asking them to stop using exotic skins, describing how some snakes are skinned alive.

"It is going to be more difficult," Mathews said. "Alligators may not be the most cuddly animals, but when people find out how they're farmed and horribly mutilated, they'll find it offensive."

But the reptile agenda remains secondary to fur, Mathews said. The same goes for leather. He says he does not wear it and members are encouraged not to, but the group, he said, is more involved in promoting vegetarianism.

"As long as there are meat eaters, there will be leather," he said. "And it only goes to reason that when people stop eating the insides, they'll stop wearing the outsides."

For retailers, the long list of potential offenses and the high demand for luxury products has meant that the only rule is no rule.

"We don't sell minks and sables because we don't think a big sweeping fur coat is modern," Doonan of Barneys said. "As a retailer, it's such a nuanced and tempestuous issue that we've really had to approach it from a style standpoint only."

Hot items at the store for spring, he said, are python bags from Prada and suede dresses from Marni.

As a result of such attitudes, others would like to see the bigger picture examined further. Ms. Feral said the sharp focus on fur might be counterproductive to raising awareness of other animal issues like meat consumption and leather.

"This movement has not made that as burning an issue as fur, and yet animal agriculture ought to be," she said. "If you're talking about sheer numbers of animals consumed, it's in the billions, whereas with fur, it's in the millions. And with pollution, what happens to the water and the land, factory farming is wreaking havoc on the environment.

"Really, the only ethical way to go is for people to forgo meat and animal products entirely. And that should be an issue that people begin to tune in to. Some have, but fur has taken a front seat, perhaps."

Designer Todd Oldham does not use fur or exotic animal skins, but he does use leather occasionally for shoes. "It's a tough issue," he said.

"There's no cut-and-dried way to look at it. I view it as recycling, because it is a byproduct. I do realize that all of this is justification, but it's very hard to find materials for shoes that work on the human skin as well as leather does."

Another designer, Cynthia Rowley, says she refuses to design or work with fur, but does use leather and shearling (sheep's skin with the wool attached) and would have no problem working with snakeskin.

"I hate to say it, but if it's an animal that's soft and cuddly, people are more offended, so that's the whole funny thing about it."

Ms. Rowley says she walks a fine line between being sensitive to and oblivious of animal-rights concerns, which might be how many consumers feel.

"If I'm going to worry about something, there's a lot more important things than whether the whole world eats meat and wears leather," she said. "It's important to have a responsibility, but it's so complex that everyone has to draw the line where they want."

On a personal note...
Is it just me, or has anyone else noticed that the people who respect and care for herps in the wild and in captivity are much less likely to wear reptile skin than people who squeal and squirm and react with horror when faced with a living reptile..? This continues to point to the need for educational outreach done by herp keepers and societies.

It should also noted that most of the reptiles killed for their skins (or, more accurately, who are killed as a result of having their skin ripped off their still-living bodies) are generally not eaten, their skins thus are not a "by-product" but the product, their still writhing flayed bodies tossed in heaps and left to rot, buried or burned. Think about that every time you see a $.99 tanned and dyed snake skin at Tandy Leather, or a $4.99 lizard (usually tegu) watch band at K-Mart...


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