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Free Range Fur

I went hunting to see how difficult it would be to transform dead animal skin into haute couture. It’s a macabre, but doable task—given some expert assistance.

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. Checking traps with Larry. It was already midafternoon and we were losing precious light. Barry quickly led me across the road, down a wooded hill and to a shimmering creek. We walked toward the creek bank and straight into thigh-deep water. I learned that most of the animals he traps are nocturnal, with a strong focus on foxes, mink, and coon (which he seldom refers to as “raccoons” and never “coons,” even when he’s referring to more than one). Coon, Barry told me, look for food in nooks and crannies along the water. To reel them in it was best to build a little seductive scene called a set to serve as a lure. For my first set, I dug a hole, slicked down the surrounding mud, and stuffed some grass near the back. As soon as I finished, Barry produced a glass jar of grape-jelly-ish bait and instructed me to dip a stick in the mixture and smear a good helping inside the grassy opening. Then he handed me a tiny bottle labeled raccoon #1, the contents of which I diligently dripped around the set. It smelled like bacon. Finally, I scattered a handful of mini-marshmallows, mostly for visual appeal, I think. It was time to lay the trap. Barry uses spring-loaded traps designed to hold an animal’s paw until it’s “dispatched” (i.e., shot and killed) the following morning. He handed me one, a black metal circle a little smaller than a CD, with two smooth jaws. I tried to envision the angle from which a curious coon might enter the set. I picked a spot, carefully gripped the base of the trap beneath its jaws, and submerged it within the creek bed. That was it; my first trap was set. The sun sank as we sloshed down the creek, pushing more traps into the mud, digging holes, and scattering marshmallows. I tried to imagine what it would be like to do this every day, which prompted me to ask Barry what he liked best about trapping. “Matching your wits to the animal,” he said. “And being successful at capturing and holding it.” I also asked about Barry’s success rate and learned that he typically sets 50 traps a night; if five of them catch a coon he considers it an excellent hunt. We had set only 15. By the time we made it back to Larry’s it was dusk, which is when he opens for business, supplying trappers and hunters with equipment and buying their catches and kills. I followed him to the basement, which doubles as a workshop. Inside, death was everywhere, and it was crowded. Cardboard covered in maroon splotches lined the floor, and every surface was piled high with supplies—chargers for hunting lights, paring knives, dark-stained towels, glass jars filled with what looked like organs. Bloody vice grips and shiny hooks hung from the low rafters where carcasses were hung and skinned. A double-handled blade rested on the edge of a chest-high wooden box containing discarded skin and hair. Larry explained that it was a scraping station where he separated fat from hide. And, of course, there were the skins—hundreds of them pulled taut over metal U-shaped frames to dry. Others were turned fur-side out, in lengths varying from several inches to four feet. Three shrew-like opossum carcasses lay on the floor alongside a dead raccoon. They were frozen. Larry explained that if hunters know it’ll be a few days before they sell a carcass, they’ll throw it on ice. The little guys on the floor were just thawing out. I got used to the scenery quickly, probably because every time I turned my head my ponytail would brush across a possum skin or raccoon tail. But one carcass in particular caught my eye: a little red fox that had been set on its side. Except for the blood spatters and bared teeth, it looked like every cartoon fox I’d ever adored as a kid. Its little ribcage had dimension and its legs looked they were running. I felt a sinking in my chest, and left Larry’s for the evening shortly thereafter. That night I went to bed wondering whether there was a raccoon shrieking under the moon, its leg caught in one of my traps. The next morning I returned to Larry’s and headed out with him to the trap sites. We didn’t catch anything; the water level had fallen more than we expected, leaving the traps awkwardly exposed. Even the marshmallows were left untouched. “The thing about these animals is that they’ve got the whole world to walk in,” Larry said. “We’ve got to get ’em in a four- or five-inch circle.” Empty traps, however, weren’t enough to get me off the hook with Larry. There was work to be done. The little red fox on the floor had thawed overnight and was ready to be skinned. I realized it was probably my last chance to skin my own fur, and shakily said that I’d do it.
The steps from fox to skin to fur. Larry fetched me a yellow rubber apron and latex gloves, and with that his job was complete. Larry’s partner Eric, who had just gotten off the morning shift as a sergeant at the Lebanon County Prison, does most of the skinning. So while Eric guided me through the process, Larry pulled up a chair. I was focused but also a little nauseous. Eric reached above his head and grasped an industrial-strength metal hanger, which was dangling from a rope attached to the ceiling. It hung at eye level, with two big shiny silver hooks suspended from chains at either corner. He lifted up the fox and pierced a hook through one of its hind feet. Then it was my turn. I’ve always liked how dog paws have those cute little pads, and the prints they leave behind. This fox’s foot didn’t look so different. While Eric secured the body, I took the cold, bony shin between my latex-gloved fingers and pressed the paw onto the hook, but it didn’t want to go through. Eric told me to press harder. I felt the hook push past the bones and saw it come out on the other side. Eric slowly turned the fox, now hanging by its hind legs, a blue plastic bucket on the floor beneath its nose. A few drops of blood had already fallen in. He handed me a metal-toothed brush, which I combed through the fox’s matted, copper-colored fur as I held my other hand against its cold belly to keep it from turning while I picked out brush and burrs. Next, Eric handed me a small, plastic-handled paring knife. With the tip of the blade, I traced up the backs of the fox’s shins and then around the bottoms of its ankles. I worked my fingers into the seam of sliced flesh, pulling the fur from shiny muscle until the swath was completely separated and hanging just below its tail. Then I worked my fingers into a tiny space between the muscle and the still-connected skin and yanked it as hard as I could, peeling the fox to the base of its tail, exposing the tailbone. Eric then passed me something that resembled a red plastic clothespin—a “tail stripper”—which I clamped around the tailbone. I wrapped my hand over the top of the device, the bone running between my index and middle fingers, and pulled as hard as I could against the bushy ring of tail fur and pushed against the fox’s cold rump. The hard plastic dug into my fingers, but nothing was budging. Then it started to peel down, my head got light, and I think I squealed. “There you go!” Eric said. “Just pull, pull, pull! Keep pulling!” Without warning, my right hand flew down the length of the tail as the fox swung away from me, and a long, spindly bone sprang up in my face. It was absolutely horrific. “This is the easy part,” Eric said. “Wait until we get to the hard stuff.” The entire hind half of the fox hung naked and peeled, red and violet, with white traces curving along its musculature. With Eric’s coaching, I continued until the skin, pale pinkish gray and now of significant length, hung from just behind the fox’s front legs. Eric handed me a maroon towel to wrap around it, and once again advised me to pull. The skin slowly peeled away with each tug, all the way down to the widest part of its torso. Then Eric suddenly grabbed the fox and worked his hand between the skin and the body into a circular hole, like a handle. Anatomically, it made no sense, but then I thought about clothes. We were pulling off a sleeve. “You got it,” Eric said, securing the armpit while I yanked off the final strips of skin. Eric trimmed off the remaining flesh above the paws, leaving the fox with two furry front feet. The next step required me to work much closer to the floor, so I pushed my apron between my legs, positioned the towel-wrapped fox skin between my thighs, and leaned back, pulling it nearly parallel to the ground. As I pulled, I nicked my knife along the fox’s neck, delicately detaching the skin from the body. When I reached the head, Eric stepped in to slice a couple inches around one ear. Then he handed me the knife and I did the other one, which took some elbow grease but finally opened up. As I worked toward the forehead I discovered a tiny silver pellet, the fox’s tiny cranium bruised crimson underneath. It made me feel sad for a second, but Eric quickly distracted me with instructions to put my finger in its earhole. “Inside it?” I asked. “Yep, put your finger in there,” Eric said. “Now pull.” With one finger in the ear, I leaned back, leveraging my body for a few more inches of face. The idea, Eric explained, was to hold the skin taut to get a few more inches of clearance while we did the eyes. “You want to keep the whole eyelid on,” he said, taking over to demonstrate. He stuck his thumb in the fox’s earhole, peeling the skin down to one of its blue-gray eyeballs, where he made a slice and removed it. “I’m gonna let you do the other one.” “Oh, great,” I said, taking the knife. “Keep steady pressure with your legs, just like you are.” I had almost forgotten that most of the fox skin was between my legs; I was distracted by Eric’s instruction to cut straight toward the bone, bit by bit. “Don’t be afraid of it,” Larry said. I soon exposed the other eyeball and pulled until only the fox’s snout remained inside the skin. Eric worked through the lips and whiskers, exposing an entire jaw full of jagged teeth. The skinless fox face, staring at me with its giant eyeballs, looked like an alien. All that was left to carve was the tip of the nose, around which Eric advised me to pull and saw. Moments later I was holding the entire skin, inside out, in my arms, completely bewildered. I looked at the clock. The process had taken about 40 minutes. “Now take that skin,” Larry said, “turn it fur-side out, and see what kind of good job you did.” This required me to stick my entire arm inside the cold and slimy fox skin, which was basically a meat sock at this point. I found the end and pulled it right-side out. “See how everything’s on?” Eric said. “The whiskers are there, the nose, the ears. Everything’s good.” With its weight in my arms, what had seemed like a gory, grueling science experiment suddenly and simply became a fox. I rubbed his little black nose and whiskers between my fingers, the curve of his jaw resting in the palm of my hand. An unfamiliar mixture of gratitude and remorse washed over me. Something inside me wanted to clutch it to my chest, like a teddy bear or a baby. I felt my chin crinkle up and tried to steady myself, fearing Larry and Eric might start to wonder whether I was an undercover activist. There was a little hole between its eyes. “Is that where the bullet went through?” I asked. “That was one of the pellet holes, yep,” Eric answered. To my horror, I was starting to cry. “Sometimes when we’re tired and silly,” Larry piped up from his chair, “we’ll play puppet. One guy’ll put a fox over his hand, the other guy’ll put a coon on his hand, and we’ll sit down here and talk to each other.” We all laughed. Larry instinctively took care of the final step, turning it inside out and pulling it across a stretcher to scrape away the fat. Eric sliced the glands off the body, which was still hanging from the hook, and popped them into a jar for future use as bait. After I proved my conviction, Eric and Larry realized that one fox skin wasn’t going to get me far and graciously allowed me to purchase five of their most beautiful fox pelts. I brushed them out and passed them to Larry, who unhooked the bottom bar of a heavy steel hanger, laced it through their eyeholes, and zipped them into an oversize black garment bag. Then he wrote up a receipt for $150—a total steal.
Putting the final touches on my vest. Admiring the brand-new (and very comfy) fur vest. Even though all furs aren’t created—or killed—equally, PETA does not distinguish between the wild and farm-raised varieties. “The fur trade is simply a violent, bloody industry, any way you slice it,” campaign director Lindsay Wright told me. I was looking for a little more moral nuance, so I called Steven Wise, author of the scathing condemnation of factory hog farms An American Trilogy and a legal scholar who has taught courses on animal rights at Harvard Law School. He thinks fur should be completely illegal but conceded that there might be room for degrees of ethical distinction. “Factory-farmed fur is probably worse than killing wild animals for fur,” he said. “Up until the animal is killed in the wild, they have a normal life in the wild. An animal raised for fur has a terrible life and a terrible death.” I asked whether he thought killing or processing one’s own garment changed anything. “No,” he said. “It just makes you wonder whether it’s insane.” Call me crazy, but I wasn’t buying it. The weekend came, and I wasn’t able to take the furs to Marc, the dresser, for three days. In the meantime, the garment bag hung in my bathroom with the door closed and window open. At first it was sort of like having a new dress; I’d get a little zing when I thought about them. Then it started to smell—a mild odor somewhere between a butcher block, a leather shop, and a bowl of Cheetos—and the garment bag seemed more like a body bag. I unzipped it one last time Monday morning. The fur was still beautiful, but the hides were stiff and papery, and the skin had turned a striking shade of magenta. Let’s just say prosciutto hasn’t been the same since. By the time I got to Marc’s soaring brick facility in New Jersey, my skin was itching with anticipation—I couldn’t get rid of the furs fast enough. “Skin a red fox?” Marc said, when I told him my story. “Are you kidding me? I’m a North Jersey boy.” Marc got into the fur business as a 19-year-old dropout and aspiring musician, driving a fur truck in the 70s. I found him surprisingly squeamish, especially considering that he owns one of North America’s biggest fur-dressing facilities. He winced at the smell when he opened my garment bag, but said, “I think they’ll dress up nice.” To demonstrate, he showed me furs frothing in tubs of soap, chemicals, and salt, preparing to be scraped of excess flesh, moisturized, and then tumbled in towering wooden barrels. “I turn skin into leather,” he said. Until a few years ago, Marc told me, only about a fifth of his business came from wild animals. But recently, as auction prices for farmed fur have peaked, he estimates that the proportion has climbed to about 50 percent. He attributes the change to increasing demand for fur in Russia and China. He also told me that he believes North Americans are getting priced out of farmed fur but said the alternative can be challenging. “Wild fur is very woolly,” he said. “It tends to get tangled.” I didn’t think my Pennsylvania pelts seemed particularly woolly until Marc showed me farmed Finnish foxes: improbably fluffy, three times the size of mine, and bred in colors from “platinum” to “blue frost.” American red foxes, on the other hand, come in one color. But I still thought they were prettier than those Finnish fluff-bombs and couldn’t wait to see Marc’s handiwork. He told me that after he was finished he’d put them on his daily truck to be dropped off in Manhattan’s fur district. Two weeks later, I walked west on 30th Street, toward Dimitris’s workshop. In 1985, when he came to New York from Greece, he was one of more than 500 furriers in the city. Today there are about 40, and during the week between Christmas and New Year’s, Dimitris’s fourth-floor workspace was pretty quiet. Bags, boxes, and piles of fur covered every surface, except for a thick wood table in the middle of the room. We spread out my fox skins. They were supple and soft, with caramel-colored backs, gray down beneath, and silvery-gray necks and sides. The once prosciutto-colored skin was now approaching stark white leather. The pelts still had ears, noses, and whiskers, but it was as if they had been exorcised of their animal spirits. We matched two of the saltier-colored furs and laid them side by side. With a gold-handled blade, Dimitris sliced off their pale inner edges and sewed the skins together, creating a mutant, two-headed fox pelt with a double-wide back. “See?” he said. “Like plastic surgery.” Then he unceremoniously swiped across the tops of their necks. Like that, my foxes were fabric. Over four days, I apprenticed with Dimitris, slicing around bullet holes and belly scratches, stitching up skins, and stretching them to size. We made a cardboard pattern for a vest and traced it onto four of the skins’ leather sides, setting aside the fifth skin for another project. We cut the lines, sewed the shapes together, and steam-blasted the fur. When it came time to close up the collar, he let me sit at the machine. For days I had watched Dimitris sew the leather together, tucking fur with his thumbs as he went. But when it came time to press my own foot down on the machine’s pedal, I felt the same fearful focus I had with my hand on the knife at Larry’s workshop. Eventually, I pressed, turning the machine’s steel wheels while the needle moved back and forth through the collar. Once the vest was constructed, I went to the fabric store for lining. I couldn’t decide between two flannels: a hunter green that recalled the Pennsylvania woods and a butterscotch-flecked gray that resembled the underlayer of fox fur. I chose the gray and brought it to Maria, the seamstress known, appropriately, as the finisher. She made the lining and, with a dagger-sharp needle, sewed it into the vest by hand. It was finished, except for one old-fashioned final touch. I brought the vest to a monogram shop on 30th Street to have my name embroidered inside. Really, I should have requested a few more: Maria, Dimitris, Marc, Barry, Eric, and Larry. Plus four little red foxes who are keeping me very, very warm this winter. And I love every last one of them for it.