WASHINGTON – There’s a fur fight in California, and it’s spreading.
A bill that would ban the sale of fur coats, hats, handbags, gloves and earmuffs, accessories with fur trim and most other uses is whipping through the California Legislature, on the heels of similar bans in the state’s two largest cities: Los Angeles and San Francisco.
On the other side of the continent, both the city and state of New York are considering fur bans. Hawaii also has a bill that would ban the sale of real fur. All the bills carve out exceptions for Native tribes or other indigenous uses for fur, and none of the bills covers secondhand furs.
Animal welfare advocates, who are behind the fur bans, say wearing clothing made from the fur of animals such as mink, sable, fox or rabbit is just wrong and cruel – both because the mink and other animals on fur farms may be treated badly and because the activists don’t believe in killing animals for fur. For consumers who want softness and warmth in their clothes, they advocate artificial or “faux” fur.
But opponents of the ban say, in effect, “stay out of my closet,” and argue that wearing fur is a personal choice. They advance the counterargument that fake fur – often made from chemicals – is worse for the environment than raising and killing animals. Representatives of the fur industry in the United States also are opposing the bans.
Fur has been contentious for years. Anti-fur activists have protested by throwing paint on people wearing fur coats and breaking windows at fur shops. Some high-end designers have declared they will no longer use fur in their clothing. But the successful fur sale bans in California cities and efforts to prohibit sales of fur in entire states is precedent-setting.
“I’m quite sure we will be using this opportunity to pass compassionate legislation in other areas,” said Fleur Dawes, spokeswoman for the animal welfare group In Defense of Animals. “California is one of the most significant places in the world; it’s a place where the world is looking for precedent.”
But Keith Kaplan of the Fur Information Council of America, an industry group, said even if the California ban is successful, each state has different politics and weather. Arguments that wearing fur is purely a vanity exercise in warm-and-sunny California would not be valid in cold-state New York, he said.
California bill sponsor Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, a Democrat, sees the effort as a logical extension of California’s progressive stances on animal welfare, including mandating the raising of free-range chickens and requiring pet stores to sell only animals that are rescues and not from commercial breeders.
“There’s been a lot of interest in animal welfare from the voters in California for a while,” Friedman said in a phone interview. “California voters have said, ‘We want to know that animals don’t suffer.’ With fur, we can’t give them that guarantee.”
Friedman said much of the fur sold in the United States comes from overseas, beyond the reach of American oversight and regulations about treatment of animals. But fur trade groups tout a procedure called “FurMark” they say can certify that fur raised overseas conforms to humane standards. Friedman says that’s not reliable and her solution is to ban the end product.
Friedman and others have produced lurid pictures and videos showing what they say is inhumane treatment of animals used for their fur, including anal electrocution, traps that result in loss of limbs and tight cages that don’t allow the animals to move.
Fur industry advocates say these reports are faked or exaggerated and counter with heartwarming interviews with multigenerational families in the U.S. fur business who say they treat animals as kindly as pets.
The California bill was approved by the Assembly and three Senate committees and is now headed for the Senate floor, where passage appears likely. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, has not indicated whether he will sign it. The California bill calls for fines of $500 to $1,000 for each violation, with each fur item sold counting as one violation. Second-hand fur is permitted, as are garments made of leather, cow hides, and deer, sheep and goat skin.
In the Senate committees, a handful of Republican state senators opposed the bill. In the Assembly, James Gallagher, a Republican, argued in committee that small family fur farms would be hurt. His office did not return calls from Stateline.
State Sen. Brian Jones, another Republican, also voted against the bill. His chief of staff, Craig Wilson, said the senator thinks that “the market is taking care of it. Fur is pretty much gone from the marketplace. This just isn’t the answer.”
Matthew Hamity, director of campaigns and legislative affairs for In Defense of Animals, which is leading the opposition to fur in California, said people don’t have to be vegans or animal welfare activists to understand that causing “wild animals to be forced into tiny cages” and killed for their fur is wrong. “It’s a combination of miserable lives for the animals and a gruesome death.”
But manufacturers’ fur sales in the United States more than doubled between 2009 and 2018, from $219.8 million to $531 million, an increase of 141.6%, according to Euromonitor International, a market research company based in the United Kingdom.
Sales grew steadily during the decade, except for a dip between 2014 and 2015, when it fell by 9%, from $387.3 million to $352.4 million, the company reported.
And on the U.S. production side, the Fur Commission USA, a fur industry trade group that represents U.S. mink producers, says mink production has remained steady over the past decade.
About 275 mink farms in 23 states produce some 3 million pelts a year, the commission reported on its website. The pelts, or skins, had a value of more than $300 million in 2014 and 2015, when recent production peaked at 3.7 million pelts. Some 3.3 million pelts were reported in 2017, the most recent numbers available.
Wisconsin was the leading mink-producing state, generating well over a million pelts. Other top producers, the group said, were in Utah, Idaho, Oregon and Minnesota. There were few in California.
Compared with other countries, U.S. production of fur is minuscule. An analysis of the global fur trade by the University of Copenhagen estimated that China produced about 32 million mink skins in 2015. Denmark was the next largest producer with about 17.8 million skins.
The Fur Commission reported more than 85% of pelts used in the world’s fur trade come from small, family-run farms.
“Animal welfare is the first priority of the farmers,” said Michael Whelan, the groups’ executive director. “They have been treated very unfairly by these fake videos the animal rights people have distributed over the years.”
He said the mink produced in the United States has been steady in the 3 million range a year for more than 30 years, allowing for ups and downs in the market caused by weather and fluctuations in production overseas. That shows, he said, that despite the campaigns against fur, Americans are still buying it.
Hamity of In Defense of Animals says designers and retailers are moving away from fur because of the opposition.
“This is not some fringe issue by radical animal rights people,” he said in a phone interview. Among the designers that have announced a “no fur” policy are household names such as Michael Kors, DKNY and Versace.
But designers including Valentino, Louis Vuitton and Yves Saint Laurent still use and advertise fur in their clothing lines. Fashion magazines and popular culture site Vox report designers have increased fur’s popularity by dying it in exotic colors and enticing young people with affordable fur-decorated accessories.
And a group called the Center for Consumer Freedom, a libertarian group dedicated to “preserving consumer choices,” recently took out an ad in the Sacramento Bee, asking: “Should Animal Extremists Dictate What You Wear?”
Will Coggin, managing director of the Washington, D.C.-based organization, said the group is “opposed to the idea that you should regulate lifestyle. People should be informed and make their own decisions.”
In New York City, a fur-ban bill was introduced by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, who has criticized the fur industry for what he calls the “brutal” treatment of animals raised for their fur.
But for fur dealers and shop owners, banning fur means ending their livelihood. Furrier Bennie Lin sold fur coats, stoles and other items for 35 years in his high-end San Francisco shop, B.B. Hawk, until 2018, when the city banned the sale of new fur.
Even before the ban, the 74-year-old Lin said in a telephone interview from Dallas, where he has relocated his business, harassment was frequent. His store’s display windows were broken three times, he said. He was one of only two high-end furriers left in San Francisco when he was forced to close, he said. In Dallas, there are half a dozen, and competition is stiff.
“It took me 35 years to grow” in San Francisco, he said. “It’s difficult here.”
He said the ban on fur sales reminds him of the communists in China, where he was born. “The principle of communists was that ‘I have decided, and you are not allowed.'”