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Maine Trappers Ride Wave of Global Demand for Fur
12/18/2013   Reported By: Jennifer Mitchell

History books will tell you that fur trading played a big role in the settling of North America. There's a reason that Canada put a beaver on its nickle: As European fashion demanded beaver hats, the New World, in its infancy, answered with pelts in abundance. But over the centuries, the fur economy for trappers in places like Maine has been boom and bust, as consumers fell in and out of love with fur, and wrestled with questions over the ethics of the industry. But, as Jennifer Mitchell reports, fur is booming once again, and this time, Maine trappers and fur sellers are looking to the East.

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Maine Trappers Boosted by Global Fur Demand Listen
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Fur 2

(Audio of Russian music): That's the sound of a fashion show in Moscow. Marching down the runway is a collection by Russian designer Igor Gulyaev. Every single piece has fur on it. There are enormous plush hats and cuffs, shaggy hand bags, and fuzzy lapels. There are even whole dresses made of fur sheared short like velvet. It's a snapshot of what the fur market looks like today.

"You can't keep fur in stock in Russia, you know - it moves out, and the higher the price tag you put on it, the faster it sells," says Greg Tinder (above), who owns Tsarevich Couture in Northport, Maine.

Tinder says business is better than it's been in 20 years. He's a furrier and self-described Russo-phile. Eastern Europe, he says, has always had a fondness for fur. But now, with Russia's more globalized economy and predictions of steady growth, the country is one of several in the East where a new fur-loving middle class is rising.

And these consumers are pushing up global demand for the commodity. "I was just flipping through the November issue of "W" over here, and fur is on, like, every third page," Tinder says.

And that's just one fashion magazine. British Vogue estimates that about 70 percent of the fall 2013 collections from A-list designers incorporated at least some fur - to the dismay of animal welfare advocates. Fur is also making its way to department store aisles throughout China and Korea.

Pierre Grzybowski is the research and enforcement manager for the Fur-Free Campaign with the Humane Society of the United States.

"Millions and millions of people that suddenly have disposable income, perhaps for the first time in their life, and a market economy where they can buy luxury goods, so there is no doubt that fur consumption internally in China is unfortunately increasing," Grzybowski says.

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Trappers, left to right, John Sewell, Richard Corbett and Rick Crowe from Princeton, Maine looking at their catch.

All this international demand for fur is having an effect on Maine trappers, such as Richard Corbett of Grand Lake Stream. He's been trapping and selling furs for 60 years. Prices, he says, have never been better. "I mean, you're talking $12, $13 muskrat - and otter, probably running $100, $150."

By comparison, 10 years ago, a muskrat was worth maybe $2 or $3. A coyote might have brought $7. Today a good one will get you $50. And the marten that was worth about $40 ten years ago, could bring close to $200 in today's fur market.

All this might seem a far cry from the early 90'S launch of the "I'd Rather Go Naked" campaigns, featuring high-profile supermodels and other icons of fashion publicly denouncing fur. Since then several designers, such as Giorgio Armani, who had pledged not to use fur, have reneged on that promise.

They now find themselves on the front lines of a new battle over fur. Pierre Grzybowski, with HSUS, says his group is working with animal advocates across the world to combat the trend, "trying to raise awareness about how animals are skinned alive, foxes are anally electrocuted, the amount of suffering that can go on in an animal left in a trap for multiple days," he says. "All the countries are covered, but some certainly need a lot more work, including China and Russia."

Meanwhile, the resurgence in fur sales has fueled an interest in trapping. "Right now, there's a boom in trappers - not just trapping, but trappers. There's a lot of trappers," says fur trapper and trader Rick Crowe, who teaches a trappers' education class in eastern Maine. Two years ago, his class had, maybe, 10 people in it. "Last one I taught had 50 people in it," he says.

Last year, total world retail fur sales were over $15.5 billion - that's billion with a "B" - and a 45 percent increase over sales 10 years ago. That's just retail. It's not clear what the total real impact of the industry is - from trapping, farming, and related sales.

But animal welfare advocates like Pierre Grzybowski say fur lobbyists tend to inflate the popularity of fur. He says that while worldwide markets are up, fur sales in the U.S. are down by a third, and hundreds of mid-level retailers, such as JC Penney and Abercromie & Fitch, still refuse to sell it.

Photos: Jennifer Mitchell



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