California Adopts Two Remarkable Policies to Hasten the Demise of the Fur Industry

With the state Senate last night following the Assembly and banning the sale of fur garments — full-length, trim, and most every other form — California has set the high-water mark again for animal-welfare policy making for animal welfare.  Assemblywoman Laura Friedman, a Democrat from Glendale, led the fight in the legislature for AB 44, which passed comfortably in both chambers.

Yes, of course, there were howls of protest from pro-fur and commerce-at-any-cost types, but more noticeably, there was resignation.  A measure that would have stirred extraordinary opposition from a bevy of political naysayers just a few years ago was met with a recognition that blocking maneuvers would prove futile.

Indeed, California voters have shown themselves to have unambiguous views on animal welfare, approving a series of ballot measures. In two particularly noteworthy votes, Californians rejected extreme confinement of farm animals in 2008 (Prop 2) and then restricted the sale of those unsafe, factory-farmed products in 2018 (Prop 12), by landslide margins. These ballot initiatives gave politicians plenty of guidance on where their constituents stand on protecting all animals, and to their great credit, lawmakers, especially Democrats, have heeded constituents’ wishes.

Now, the fur-sales-ban, AB 44 must go back today or later this week to the Assembly for concurrence, and then secure the signature of Governor Gavin Newsom.  Odds look good given that Newsom has already signed a bill passed by lawmakers that bans any form of trapping for commerce in fur or recreation — itself another landmark victory in the animal movement.

The balance of power has been with the fur traders for centuries, and only now, after decades of active protest by animal advocates and a series of innovations in the textile industry, has the pendulum swung in the other direction. Local ordinances to ban fur — passed in the commerce centers of Los Angeles and San Francisco — also provided tremendous momentum for the statewide outcome.

The geographic span and economic impact of the fur trade has been breathtaking. Fur helped pioneers survive the cold, as they plied the West, including in the high Sierras of California. The revenues from it put food on the table — for the mountain men who set the traplines to the merchants and the middlemen who processed the fur to the retailers who popularized the hats and coats that appealed to the masses. Before there were oil and coal barons in the Gilded Age, there were fur traders before and after the formation of the nation.

But history is a chronicle of the past, not a prescription for future action.

The unwritten history of the fur trade comes in the individual and collective pain and misery and death of beavers, wolves, bobcats, and other creatures both blessed and cursed with beautiful and warm coats. New generations of historians revise and re-write the past, and the destruction of animals is part of that revisionism, just as the narratives related to the killing of Native Americans, the history of slavery, and other ugly features of American history are made more vivid and central over time.

Today, in a world increasingly alert to the pain of animals, there’s a backstory to fur, and any morally conscious person cannot deny it. There’s a story before any fur gets to retail racks or coat closets; trappers set steel-jawed leghold devices in the forests and streams, and an unsuspecting animal trips the device and gets caught in its vise-like grip. Victims cannot tell their story, but we’re cognizant enough of animal intelligence and emotion these days to know, in general terms, what happens.

recent decades, the tool-box of the furrier has become even more diabolical. Nowadays, wild animals are reared in confinement on fur “farms.” “Ranchers” rear mink or foxes or chinchillas and keep them in the cages until they are ready for pelting. When the time is right, they break their necks, suffocate them with hot carbon monoxide gas, or electrocute them. It might take 15 bobcats to make a single coat, or as many as 40 mink for a full-length garment.

Pain is pain. That’s one narrative that’s been one indisputable feature of the fur trade from its earliest incarnation.

In “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy,” the economist Joseph Schumpeter described capitalism as “a perennial gale of creative destruction” — the process by which entrepreneurs and innovators introduce new goals, new means of production, and new products in support of their visions.  The old businesses, as I wrote in “The Humane Economy,” often make apocalyptic predictions about the new approaches.  But changes in business attitudes and practices, as Schumpeter noted, drive growth and are the lifeblood of the economy: businesses that do not adapt are left behind, while innovators claims a larger share of the market.

The humane economy is not some abstraction or far-off concept. It’s right here. The choices rest with us. With business leaders. With politicians. And our response to these opportunities either reinforces the old economic order or allow us to embrace change that ushers in a new era and an expanded sphere of justice. California has embraced change on animal issues in a dramatic series of ballot initiative and legislature actions.

When we can produce faux fur that is indistinguishable from real fur, why would we traps wild animals or raise them on fur farms?  The designer and the seller simply work with a different product, and in the end, the consumer is not asked to make a sacrifice or experience a hardship — only to go to a different rack in the store and buy a functionally equivalent product not woven with moral problems. The faux fur maker buys fabric and provides jobs for manufacturing, and the retailer still sells the product to generate profits and employ sales staff.  There are just no animals killed by cruel means. It’s an example of creative destruction — but with the creativity triumphing and the destruction nowhere to be seen.

The time will come when all the factory farms, fur ranches, wild-animal-act circuses, and other incubators of systemic cruelty are gone, except for the few that may survive here and there as museums or memorials to preserve the evidence of what life was like when otherwise good people treated animals in ghastly ways.

This year, Calfornia has doubled down in its effort to shrink the fur trade – taking aim at the so-called “wildlife management” practices that drive the trapping of wild animals for their pelts and then halting the commerce in pelts that drives every aspect of the fur trade.  It’s a set of policies I wasn’t sure I’d see in my lifetime, but it’s mighty sweet to see them poised for final enactment.

Wayne Pacelle, author of “The Humane Economy: How Innovators and Enlightened Consumers Are Transforming the Lives of Animals,” is the founder of Animal Wellness Action.