On Nov. 14, 2002, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals activists jumped on the runway during the Victoria's Secret fashion show and denounced Gisele Bundchen as "Fur Scum." It was a typically elite forum for the battle over fur, which is waged with struggles over which supermodels will appear in PETA ads and attempt to influence the tastes of wealthy, fashionable women.
But the receiving end of all the moral sanctimony is less glamorous: native communities in Canada and elsewhere that have been devastated by the near elimination of seal hunting. People living upscale urban lives in places like New York and San Francisco get to feel better about themselves from their rejection of fur, while native communities living remote, impoverished lives get to feel the brunt of the end of their traditional culture.
"The anti-fur campaign is fundamentally anti-ecological and anti-environment," says Alan Herscovici, an official with the Fur Council of Canada. "It's attacking the poorest people on Earth, and it's a disgrace it's taken so long for people to begin to understand that."
It was in 1965 that the first anti-sealing film premiered. The taking of baby harp seals, "white coats," isn't pretty to watch, but neither is, say, the gutting of fish. That doesn't make it immoral.
Young harp seals have white coats that absorb energy from the sun while they spend a couple of weeks growing on the ice. After they stop nursing, they molt and slip into the water for the rest of their lives.
In ecological terms, there is nothing wrong with clubbing them. Since many of the young won't survive to full maturity anyway, killing a baby is probably preferable to killing an adult. It's also a fast, humane way to kill the seal. Once it is older, a seal has to be hunted in a boat with a rifle, and can often escape after it's been shot.
But the anti-hunting crusade quickly became big business. By the mid-1970s, more money was made by groups protesting the seal hunts than by the hunts themselves.
The United States passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, banning the importation of any seal products. This rule has nothing to do with conservation. Seals aren't endangered. The Canadian government recently estimated that the seal herd has more than doubled in past 20 years, reaching 5.2 million.
Almost all of the white-coat hunting involved fishermen in Newfoundland and Quebec who needed a way to make money at the end of winter before the fishing season began again (taking a job at the local Starbucks isn't an option). The Inuits further north don't hunt baby seals, but they have been flattened by the bans in the United States and elsewhere and the collapse of the fur market.
They hunted seals and other animals for food, but sold the pelts in order to get some cash to support their hunting. Think of seals as cold-weather cows -- and how devastated parts of the United States would be if beef and leather were banned. Suddenly, a crucial support of the Inuit economy was gone, and now they are forced to welcome oil and mining interests to their areas to survive.
So, a people more fully in touch with, and respectful of, nature than nearly anyone on Earth has borne the brunt of urbanized environmental do-goodism. In the case of the Inuits, hunting wasn't inimical to nature, but crucial to their interaction with it. "They're the environmental sensors; they're in contact with the land," Herscovici says of the Inuits. But they are being retired from that duty.
The first step to reversing the war on the Inuit and other hunting and trapping peoples would be to amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act to allow the importation of seal products. The more important change would be to realize that fur, in the people who get it by hunting and trapping, is a crucial link between man and nature. Support the world's dispossessed and protect nature -- wear fur.