Fur industry makes a new mark

Photo by Cecelia Feor

Fur coats for sale and on display at Simcoe Furriers

Canada has turned 150 and the industry it was built on is anything but the same, just ask Dorothy Athanasopoulos.

She and her husband Tom, have owned Simcoe Furriers in Oshawa since 1982. Athanasopoulos has seen two other furriers in the area close down since her store first opened. Although business has slowed down, she says, people are still interested in buying fur.

“I run into a lot of customers that come in, young people, that they do like furs and they understand that you have to take some [animals] away, so the rest survive,” she says.

Athanasopoulos says a lot of people still wear furs.

“There’s nothing as warm as it [fur], we’re not talking just for looks, or fashion, or whatever it’s for warmth.”

However, she and her husband are looking to retire soon, and her children will not be taking over.

But the fur industry is far from retiring. It is being revamped to meet an international standard. By 2020, all pelts sold will have to bear the “fur mark,” denoting a sustainable and animal welfare sourced product. FURMARK is the program that oversees that.

This program is meant to reinforce national and international standards and works with North American programs on mink farm certification, and wild fur programs.

Canada has updated its certification program, but it is not one-size-fits all because animal husbandry – how farm animals are bred and cared for – is unique to each province, due to both geography and governments.

The FURMARK program will require farms and trappers to meet several standards. These standards seek to address the concerns of marketers, buyers and the general public.

They require farms to have adequate space for the livestock in their care, be fed proper diets and to receive a level of veterinary care.

Gary Hazlewood is the executive director of Canada Mink Breeders Association (CMBA). He was born on a mink farm and raised them until about 15 years ago.

He says people have been raising mink for more than 100 years, originally live trapping mink from the wild.

“Over time [they] have pretty much domesticated, they are not the same type of animal as in the wild,” Hazlewood says. “Because they’re raised on a farm they are protected, they’re vaccinated for diseases, they have much better diets, and so as a result they grow to be larger with better health, and of course, a very nice fur quality.”

However, mink can still be live trapped from the wild. Trapping licenses are mandatory in Ontario. New trappers are required to take a course about harvesting, management and conservation to receive a license.

Robin Horwath is the general manager of the Ontario Fur Managers Federation (OFMF) which represents all non-native trappers in Ontario. He says trapping is about sustainability and points out it is also a renewable resource.

“This is still a viable management tool,” he says. “They need trapping to look after trends, nuisance work, predation, prey, species.”

Horwath says OFMF is working on educating the public about why they trap and why it is still a practical and necessary tool. “It’s sustainable, it’s renewable and it’s humanely done,” he says.

Various traps are tested through the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. One of them traps is the conibear, comprised of two metal squares where bait is placed in the middle, and when triggered, is designed to kill instantly.

Meanwhile, there are many organizations which oppose the fur industry.

The Animal Alliance of Canada (ACC) is non-profit organization committed to the protecting animals and “promotes a relationship between the environment and humans.”

Liz White is a board member and works full-time with the ACC. She says they have worked extensively on the fur industry in the past and are still against it.

“The idea of confining animals in cages,” she says. “[Fur farms] are just the most grim places and the animal welfare standards are just appalling.”

She says the fur trim on coats and for baubles is wasteful and unnecessary. “You have to ask yourself, why would we think it’s OK to subject animals to that level of cruelty and suffering for our own vanity?”

White says the ACC is driven to get laws changed because it’s the only way to fully protect animals. “You couldn’t spend enough money or do enough education that would sufficiently change people’s minds to stop buying fur.”

But the Canada Mink Breeders Association (CMBA) says it is working to improve animal welfare. It worked with the National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC), an organization that advocates for the welfare of farmed animals, in 2013 to put together the humane animal care code.

“This trend of animal welfare will never end, there will always be incremental changes based on better practices and science moving forward,” Hazlewood says.

Athanasopoulos says fur is a hard industry to be in right now, that there are many different issues to deal with, including not hurting anyone’s feelings.

“This country was founded on the fur trade, and I think we forget that,” says Athanasopoulos. She says she hopes the fur industry will still be around despite her pending retirement.