Revolt Of The Fur Bearers

At exactly 7:30 on the chilly Friday night before Christmas, a dozen animal-rights activists, wearing fur coats "bloodied" with red paint, walked to the main terminal of Washington National Airport. When they found travelers bundled in fur, they accosted them with pictures of a caged fox, and the legend: "We'd like you to meet someone who used to wear fur."

This demonstration by members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) was greeted with the same irritated brushoffs Hari Krishna devotees used to get when they toured airports begging for donations. Dan Mathews, the 26-year-old director of PETA's anti-fur campaign, says that most people respond to the group's unsolicited critiques ("Nice coat. How'd you get the blood out?") with two words: "F- you." But he doesn't care because, he says, he knows he's right. "If people still wearing fur coats after the years of our movement, they're not ignorant," he says. "They're arrogant, so they deserve to be confronted more aggressively."

Some people might call PETA arrogant. Its confrontational tactics and increasingly radical agenda (PETA is against eating, wearing or experimenting on any animal) is beginning to set off a backlash. "I used to be nervous about wearing my mink coat," said a New York advertising executive. "But after a while, I decided it was a matter of principle. The activists have a right to their point of view, but they have no right to bully me."

To furriers, that sentiment is as welcome as a blast of cold weather. The Fur Information Council of America positioned the wearing of fur as a question of free choice, with ads asking: "Aren't you tired of animal activists telling you what you can't wear and eat?" The council claims the approach struck a nerve. A Gallup poll sponsored by the National Shooting Sports Foundation last year showed 89 percent of respondents against either the tactics or goals of the animal-rights movement. In Aspen, Colo., two years ago, a proposition to ban fur sales lost by a 2-1 margin.

But believing that people have a right to buy fur isn't the same as buying it. Fur sales, which tripled during the 1980s to $1.9 billion in 1989, have since dropped by an estimated 25 percent, and animal activists claim the credit. Nordstrom and Lord & Taylor shut down their fur departments and more than 200 independent furriers went out of business. Evans Inc., the largest fur company in America, itself closed 34 department-store salons.

The furriers trace the industry's problems to other causes. Warmer winters, the new luxury tax last January (10 percent on furs $10,000 and up) and the recession all cut into sales. A glut of mink brought about lower prices and profits. But, they say, things are getting better. The recent run of subfreezing weather in the Northeast and Midwest spurred business. At Evans, sales for November rose 11 percent over last year. The arctic winds even blew new life into the moribund fur industry in Britain, where so far this season sales have doubled over last year. The English animal-rights movement is far more powerful than its American counterpart, and so is the resulting backlash. On "National Wear Your Fur Day" last November women paraded around London's Berkeley Square holding placards demanding freedom of dress. "Women who have had their coats in storage for years are picking them up and walking out wearing them," said Paul Miles, fur-storage manager at Harrods.

But taking old furs out of storage isn't going to do much for American fur trapping. The centuries-old trade has fallen on hard times. Trapping of wild animals sank by as much as 70 percent over the past two years as the prices of beaver, fox and nutria plummeted. Even so, there is evidence that demand for wild fur is back. At the opening of the buying season in Toronto two weeks ago, raccoon, beaver and coyote sold for twice as much as they did last year. According to Fur News, the industry newspaper, most of the skins were bought for collars and cuffs, trimmings that furriers would have scoffed at in the free-spending 1980s. The message of that decade was that every secretary deserved to wrap herself in mink. Today, furriers are happy if she frames her face with fox.