Free Range Fur
Is It Still Murder If You Trap It, Skin It, and Sew It Yourself?
Photos by Dustin Fenstermacher
Coming face-to-face—actually, face-to-exposed-leg-muscle—with the half-skinned fox. That’s Larry laughing in the bacakground.
Years ago, I worked for a fashion designer who had a penchant for fur dyed in bold colors that ranged from acid-green to plum. Most of them were for very expensive jackets that looked like they were made of Muppet skin. Only fox fur—specifically that of the American red fox—was left in its natural state. It was perfectly gorgeous on its own. And while I admit that I’m somewhat vain—I like fashion and will endure uncomfortable clothing on the right occasion—with fur that discomfort goes deeper. The thought of farm-raised animals being executed via anal electrocution is hard to shake once it enters your mind. Surely, there had to be alternatives.
About one-fifth of fur is wild, supplied by hunters and trappers: pelts from animals that lived free and (hopefully) great lives before they became great clothes. Auction prices for farmed fur recently reached record highs, making wild fur—which is far cheaper but not quite as smooth—an attractive and viable alternative. Suddenly, coats made from wild coyote and raccoon are hanging from the racks of Neiman Marcus and Barneys. But while activists continue their crusade against fur’s fashionable resurgence, many designers seem to be ignoring—or ignorant of—American wild fur, which in the hands of a forward-thinking entrepreneur has the potential be the fashion-industry equivalent of sustainable, free-range, farm-to-table meat.
My attempt to survey the literature about this ethical gray area turned up nearly zilch, so I decided the only thing left for me to do was to go hunting and see just how difficult it would be to transform dead animal skin into haute couture. As it turns out, it’s a macabre but doable task, given some expert assistance.
First I had to sort out the logistics and find someone willing to walk me through the steps that would immediately follow hunting and skinning. I quickly found a fur manufacturer named Dimitris who was happy to help. As with all of the subjects I interviewed for this story, I made him aware that I planned to write a magazine article about my experience. I’ve decided to leave out their last names, lest they enter their workspaces one morning to find them blood-splattered by animal-rights activists.
The first person Dimitris called was Marc, a “dresser” who cleans and softens skins. Marc called Harry, a fur distributor and wholesaler; Harry called Larry, a “country collector” who buys and skins carcasses bagged by hunters and trappers; Larry called Barry, his best trapper; and the last call was also made by Larry, to Eric, his business partner (yes, all of these names are real).
A short time later I was barreling down the Pennsylvania Turnpike, headed to a yellow house with a sign outside that read raw fur buyer. I did my best to ignore the skinless carcass—possibly a fox—curled up in a plastic tub in the driveway. As I approached, the basement door opened and a man in a plaid shirt who looked like an older, rounder Jeff Bridges came barreling out. This had to be Larry.
He pointed at my feet. “You got boots?” During our initial phone conversation he had advised me to buy a pair of hip-high rubber boots for the hunt, and as I looked into his face I was relieved that I could say yes, I did.
I could tell Larry wanted to get down to business, and within a few minutes I was sliding my boots on and being introduced to Barry, who besides being a prolific trapper is also a veterinarian technician. Wearing an aqua sweatshirt and John Denver glasses, Barry seemed more like a sweet high school math teacher than a feral woodsman.