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02/22/05 from the Daily Record newsroom

Debbie Kowalski of Hackettstown, an anti-fur activist and a founder of Caring Activists Against Fur, takes a break to play with her cat, Darwin, while making buttons for a Saturday rally in Manhattan. Photo by Bob Karp / Daily Record

Fur wars
By Jillian Risberg, Special to the Daily Record

It's been off the radar for more than a decade, but fur is making an all-out comeback.

It's there in everything from fur coats to fur-lined, fur-trimmed and fur-embellished hats, scarves, gloves, handbags and clothing. Fur was prominent on the runway when top designers showed their new collections during Fashion Week in New York City earlier this month. The days of fur being shunned seem to be a thing of the past.

Because of a dramatic shift in pricing, fur coats are now available to a broader scope of people.

Today's fur-buyer is younger than at any other time in history. Women under 44 make up more than half of fur consumers, for the same reason that has spurred growth in the industry, said Keith Kaplan, executive director of the Fur Information Council of America (FICA).

Sales of fur and fur products grew to record levels of $1.8 billion in 2003, a 7.5 percent increase over 2002, a 13.2 percent increase over 2001, and up from $1 billion in 1991, the first year FICA conducted this survey.

For animal rights activists, who oppose the use of fur in clothing, this is bad news. A battle they thought they had won years ago must now be fought again.

"A lot of activists weren't out there anymore. They were doing other things," said Debbie Kowalski of Hackettstown, a founder of Caring Activists Against Fur (CAAF).

"Animal activists felt like they won and they backed off, and then all the younger people were starting to do it," she said. "They didn't even see the consequences of it. They didn't make the connection because they weren't there in the '90s to see that."

With the fur buying demographic markedly changed, Kowalski, 35, wonders, "What has happened to our generation? To see how my age group is not having that feeling is very weird to me.

"The truth behind the fur industry is not glamorous. It's bloody and it's death."

A first-time fur buyer is often a woman in her 30s whose initial purchase is a casual jacket said Nan Buchney, manager of Giorgios Pappas Furrier at Four Seasons in Morristown.

"Then will come the long mink, when they feel like they have the lifestyle for it," she said. "A lot of young moms, in the 35-45 range, they're wearing furs and they're very comfortable wearing them.

It is a vastly changed era from when our grandmothers bought $15,000 mink coats, Buchney said.

"You can get a beautiful fur coat in the $2,000-$3,000 range, a long mink for $5,000; I mean it's so different. Now it just comes down to wanting to look good, and furs are affordable now."

As a result, she said, "The past three years our fur sales have doubled and (last) year almost tripled."

To what does she attribute this jump in sales?

"I think people have totally gotten over the whole anti-fur problem," she said. "We've had two very, very, very cold winters, and there's nothing nicer than a fur coat, nothing's going to keep you warmer.

"I think that honestly, everyone's aware there were activists, but what I think is that they realize these animals are bred for this, and there's really no danger in it. No one's hurting anyone, and they want to look good."

The anti-fur stance runs deep with Kowalski, a vegan. She said these days there is no need to buy or wear fur.

"There are other alternatives, and these animals endure such cruelties. They are anally or genitally electrocuted, their skins are ripped off and their bodies are discarded like they're nothing."

Kaplan, on the other hand, said that for years the animal rights activists have been spewing misinformation.

"Much of the footage they showed in the media was staged, and those groups are losing credibility," he said. "We started telling our story, which is that we are one of the most highly regulated industries in the United States at the national level, at the international level, so a lot of the claims they were making, they're just impossibilities."

Every generation of adults undoes something that their parents did, Kaplan said.

"In the post-Sept. 11 world that we live in, especially young people are a lot more careful to listen to the stuff they're fed from the media, from special interest groups, all across the board, and they just don't take it as gospel anymore."

To those strongly opposed to fur, Buchney said, "To each his own and whatever makes you happy. They're raised for this. We're not going on the street killing a fur."

Fur didn't actually disappear, said Jonathan Reader, a professor of sociology at Drew University in Madison.

"When animal rights activists first came along, there was a shock value to accosting people on the street and challenging their right to wear whatever they want," Reader said. "So that got a lot of publicity and that gave it an exaggerated prominence."

According to Reader, our visual culture has increased considerably since the '80s; people are wealthier and have more disposable income.

"That is another factor that contributes," he said. "There are more outlets than ever for visual statements about women wearing furs. If one wants to be tastefully ostentatious, fur is one way to do it."

There are the purists, who feel that no fur is permissible because of what animals are sacrificing, Reader said. Conversely, there are those who believe if mink farms are established and fur-bearing animals are domesticated, then it doesn't pose a threat to endangered species.

"On the third hand, of course, let's face it, fur is a wonderful social marker for making status distinctions," Reader said. "It is true that people feel good about what they do in terms of making a living by consuming - it's an affirmation of one's accomplishments at work that transcends a pat on the back or a good letter in your file or a raise. The ultimate thing is to go out and buy something and show you have some money - conspicuous consumption."

In New Jersey, we have both sides, "strong hunting lobbying - the whole debate with the bears, strong environmental groups."

Emotions run high over the fur issue and show no sign of ceasing.

"You'll never convince animal activists to accept this and people who want to make money in the fur business," Reader said.

Through a shared passion for the plight of animals, Kowalski found a friend in Julie O'Connor of Tenafly.

"When I met Julie at a protest she lived right near me and we both were big anti-fur people," said Kowalski said, who lived in Bergen County at the time.

In response to what they felt was a growing need, Kowalski and O'Connor started CAAF in January 2004. The grassroots organization is dedicated to raising fur awareness and influencing the fur industry.

"We decided that our main focus would be fur and try to get people more aware of what the animal goes through for the fur."

As a critical care nurse at Hackettstown Hospital, Kowalski is always tending to the needs of others, and animals are no exception. The same goes for O'Connor, a curriculum specialist with the New York City Department of Education.

Kowalski does not endorse faux fur either.

"I don't like it because I think it promotes the look," she said. "But it's the lesser of two evils so I have to take it if that's the case, but I'd rather not see any of it anywhere."

Sharon Valencik, a Lake Hiawatha activist who is a member of CAAF, takes her 7-month-old baby Kyan to demonstrations because she is raising him vegan. "And I want to teach him about being kind to all beings," she said. "Part of that is standing up for animals."

Fur is now being sold at stores Valencik normally shops in for clothes, a fact that sickens her.

On a recent visit to Joyce Leslie, a women's clothing shop, she said, "I'm seeing things made with rabbit fur, which really gets me because I have rabbits from the shelter that are my pets. People think that it's fashionable to wear these amazing animals on them even if it's a small piece."

Of the impact that protests have on the fur-buying public, Valencik said, "I feel that it raises awareness, and I was hoping to make some kind of a difference by showing those people who are going into the fur stores that what they're doing is wrong."

Valencik doesn't feel that fur is a necessity.

"It's not a status symbol, it's a symbol of ignorance and cruelty and hate," she said. "You don't show that you're a rich, successful person by wearing a tortured, dead animal."

Kaplan counters that the fur industry has worked with the American Veterinary Medical Association for years, adding that it spends millions of dollars annually on research. "To determine the best methods of feeding, the best methods of housing, the best methods of health care and the best methods of euthanizing.

"What is so important to recognize is for each animal that method is different, and it's based on their nervous system makeup, their biological makeup. It may not be the easiest thing for you to watch, but according to the veterinarians and scientists, it's the best method for the animal, the most painless."

Kaplan said that no animal is used solely for a coat.

While mink is farmed and its other uses come after the uses of the fur, he said that trapped animals aren't caught for their skins, and trappers get minimal payment for their catches.

"The animals are being caught through projects in concert with wildlife management agencies for population control."

Activist Debbie Faiello of Mendham Township said that whether or not the animals are raised for their fur, the cruelty is the same.

"They die a horrible death. They feel pain; they are treated inhumanely and without any kind of dignity. They're crammed into tiny little cages and they sit in their own excrement."

Each animal's life is important to Faiello, who has been a member of New Jersey Animal Rights Alliance for 10 years, and a member of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and the Humane Society of the United States.

She supports local and national groups, including Raptor Trust, Summit Animal League, Doris Day Animal League, Mount Pleasant Animal Shelter, New Jersey Audubon Society, The Fund for Animals and Greyhound USA.

"I try to find ways in my life to help animals and to be kind to animals," she said. "One of the ways is by making monetary contributions; another way is by not buying fur."

According to Faiello, there are plenty of outerwear and accessory choices that don't include fur.

"It's just not necessary. You can buy a beautiful coat and a fashionable coat and a warm coat that's not fur," she said. "I just bought one and it's fine. Nobody had to die for it and nobody had to suffer for it."

Knowing what the animals go through, Faiello said that she couldn't wear fur in good conscience.

Since foxes, raccoons and other fur-bearing animals aren't house pets, she said it's almost as if fur proponents think that makes it OK.

"Would you kill your dog or your cat and wear your dog or your cat?"

When it comes to furriers, she said it's all about money, how many coats they can sell, and that's all they care about.

"Maybe some of these people that think it's a fashion statement should go visit some of these fur farms and watch them when they're being electrocuted and watch them when they're having their necks snapped," Faiello said. "Then, after they do that, maybe you should ask them the question again: Would you still buy a fur seeing what you saw and knowing what you know?"

Most fur customers just like furs and buy them, said Dr. Judith A. Waters, a professor of psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Florham Park.

"I don't think they go into a tremendous amount of soul searching," she said.

The decision to don fur remains a strictly personal one.

"I think it was always politically incorrect with a small group of people. I'm not sure that it was one of those things that got broad appeal," Waters said.

"When the activists make their point, I think we all feel guilty."