We Went to a Fur Auction in North Bay
Turns out it's where you can buy 90% of Canada's legally harvested polar bear fur.
Photos by James Ellis
90% of the world’s legally harvested polar bear are sold in one day at a fur auction in North Bay, Ontario. Grizzlies, black bears, timber wolves, arctic fox, wolverine, lynx and bobcat, along with some slightly less sexy items like raccoon and skunk (Toronto, wanna make some dough?), are also being sold in serious quantities to buyers predominantly hailing from China. Seeing as I live about a ten-minute bike ride away from the place and wouldn’t consider myself anti-fur (I’ve seen bear shot at close range and enjoyed the meat), I wanted to see how it all goes down.
When you walk into the Fur Harvesters warehouse – locally known as the fur barns or fur factory – the first thing that hits you is the unmistakable smell of beef jerky. It isn’t unpleasant or overwhelming, but there’s no question that you’re in a building full of rawhide and dry fat. The Fur Harvesters generally don’t tan the furs themselves, the buyers take care of that back in Hong Kong, Moscow, Milan or wherever else, so most of the hides on the flip-side of the furs are still raw and exposed.
A couple of days before the auction I was able to speak with Fur Harvesters CEO Mark Downey, who gave me a better idea of how the whole operation really works. The Fur Harvesters Auction essentially acts as a distributer or deal broker, bringing the buyers, trappers and hunters together. They accept wild furs from all over North America (you may remember Heimo Korth, he deals furs to them) and bring buyers in for the auction. The Fur Harvesters Auction makes commission—and that’s about it—with most of the earnings going directly back to the hunters or trappers who’ve supplied the product. It’s a co-operatively run business, managed by those who are involved in the trade, and have been operating in the industry at some capacity for over 50 years. Their privilege to tender legally harvested polar bear is a little more complicated.
From what I gathered, the government of Nunavut has a contract with certain Inuit groups who guarantee them at least $10,000 dollars per bear. Nunavut also has a contract with the Fur Harvesters Auction in North Bay, which is where they send all of the furs to be sold. If a fur sells for more than 10 G’s, the hunter picks up the surplus, if it sells for less (which isn’t likely) they still keep that guaranteed 10k.
How the commission for the auction works was a little unclear, but essentially, I was led to believe that everybody wins and that the government of Nunavut has never lost money in this arrangement. The government of Nunavut is also subsidizing a regular seal harvest, even though it has limited places to be exported to thanks to the EU ban on seal products. So it’s not hard to see why, as a friend of mine making a living as a guide in Kuujjuaq pointed out, “the fur auction is so important for Inuit harvesting.” (For the Inuit perspective and more details on the Polar Bear hunt, check here and here.)
After our conversation we shook hands and Mark gave me permission to wander around the warehouse on my own volition with just one condition: No photos of polar bears. I spent the rest of the morning in awe of this beautifully macabre petting zoo, running my hands through polar and grizzly bear furs, scratching the tips of my fingers with wolverine claws and wrapping the cool, soft, floppy remains of lynx and bobcat around my neck like a scarf.
On the day of the auction, we were met by our liaison, Brandon, who is Mark Downey’s son, an avid trapper, hunter and fisherman, and overall good guy. He was looking dapper in a suit and tie, and for a second I thought I might have been underdressed—I’d heard from a professor at Nipissing University that billionaire Chinese and Russians fly in on private jets for the auction, so I didn’t want to cramp the styles of any fully-furred dames placing bids: “$20,000 for all of the Muskrat dahhhling!” Fortunately, it was a much more understated and cagey event. Bespectacled buyers from China milled about in their white coats, surrounded by timber wolves, while North American dudes in ‘Git-R-Dun’ t-shirts examined the horns on a muskok.
The auction room had a subdued and tense vibe, only punctuated by Mark’s impeccable auctioneering skills which means that he can speak loudly at a very rapid pace. Brandon gave us a brief tour, offering honest insights on the state of the event and the industry in general along the way. One perspective I found particularly interesting was that of the trapper and hunter as front line conservationist, contributing to a balanced ecosystem rather than disrupting it. He said that they’re the “eyes and ears” of the Ministry of Natural Resources, who rely heavily on the numbers reported by hunting and trapping quotas to record data about the health and sustainability of certain species. He also made a point to note that trapping methods are constantly progressing, and the laws of trapping are based on making a kill as humane as possible. He summed it up as: “You can’t just dig a hole and put spikes at the bottom of it.”
Yesterday, Fur Harvesters released the sales numbers from Tuesday’s auction and stated that it set an “all time historical gross sales record… and this was made possible by the Chinese market that continues to dominate.” In case you’re too lazy to click through, they sold 24,078 muskrat at about $15 bucks a pop, the top wolverine wet for $800 bucks, and the prize grizzly bear ran some fur collector $1,550. Polar bear wasn’t listed in the results, but there were 150 bears laid out with each fur going for as little as $10,000 and as much as $30,000 USD. So if they were all sold, they would have been the highest earners, grossing somewhere in a conservative estimate of around $2 million.
It’s obvious why the people who are on the fur industry's front lines don't want a lot of attention paid to the polar bear trade. Considering how controversial it’s made out to be, Fur Harvesters really could have told me to go fly a goddamn kite in a goddamn lightning storm, but they were remarkably open, accommodating, and understanding as to why I’d be interested in their line of work. The plight of the polar bear is more complex than simply ragging on the Inuit who have been hunting them for thousands of years, but I can understand why someone would look at a room full of 150 polar bear carcasses and freak the fuck out. It's a tricky issue, but after my highly positive experience hanging out with the trappers, I'd much rather spend time with them than a bunch of anti-fur types who don't see the appeal of hanging out in a room full of international ballers who are looking to buy new rugs. That's just me though.
Follow Dave on Twitter: @ddner
Check these things out if you like fur: