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Animal Rights Assaults : Activists Aim to Skin the Fur Industry

April 30, 1989|ROBERT W. GIBSON | Times International Economics Correspondent and

Last year, the problem really came home. True, sales remained at about $1.8 billion. But, to stay at that level, said Elliott Lippin, president of American Fur Industry, prices were cut as much as 20% to 30% to clear inventories carried over from 1987, meaning that unit sales actually rose while profits fell. The inventory reduction set the stage, Lippin says, for a more prosperous 1989.

To that, animal protectionists reply: Look at Holland--and be warned.

While sales in West Germany, Britain and Switzerland have plummeted as much as 40% over the decade in response to animal rights protests, in Holland the drive has been so successful that the only prime targets left for the protesters are fur farms that produce pelts for export. Since 1982, retail fur sales have dropped more than 90% to an almost invisible $12 million a year. No department store even carries fur anymore, and hardly anyone wears it.

Furrier De Groot says that if he could abandon his trade, he would. But it is all he knows, and, at least for now, he says, there is business to keep a handful of people going.

Even that may be in jeopardy. During three days in freezing temperatures, a reporter in Holland counted among thousands of passers-by only two fur coats, both full-length minks on matrons strolling together on a Sunday in central Amsterdam. They were speaking French.

Now, major organizations of the U.S. anti-fur movement draw on Dutch assistance.

Met With U.S. Protectionists

In the last eight months, Wim de Kok, founder of Holland's Anti-Bont Comite (anti-fur committee), has paid three visits to the United States and consulted with animal protectionists on both coasts.

Based in Holland and serving as anti-fur coordinator of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, De Kok stays in constant touch with American anti-fur leaders in about 30 animal welfare organizations.

When Rue McClanahan, Bea Arthur and Betty White, the stars of the "Golden Girls" TV comedy series, made a television commercial last year castigating the fur industry, leading Dutch activist Jan Van der Lee, a former biology teacher, went to Hollywood to work with them. The Anti-Bont Comite co-produced the film with Washington, D.C.-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

When the Humane Society of the United States selected art for this year's national "Shame of Fur" campaign, the Americans picked a Dutch poster--showing a blond woman in fur hiding her face with a handbag--and substituted English words.

The American program has also been aided by an influx of anti-fur leaders from the United Kingdom, including PETA co-founder Ingrid Newkirk, now a naturalized citizen. A British animal rights group, Lynx, plans to open offices in New York and Los Angeles this year. An Australian, Peter Singer, wrote "Animal Liberation," a seminal tract that fires many U.S. activists.

Glitz Added to the Cause

The anti-fur activists have been able to add glitz to their cause by enlisting a number of celebrities.

So far, Brooke Shields, Candice Bergen, Christie Brinkley, Zsa Zsa Gabor and pop singers Belinda Carlisle and Jane Wiedlin have issued public refusals to wear fur. Carlisle and Wiedlin starred in January's Rock Against Fur concert in New York.

In addition to McClanahan and the other "Golden Girls," Earl Holliman, Amanda Blake, Loretta Swit, Bob Barker and River Phoenix also participate.

Other supporters are Republican congressman Robert K. Dornan of Garden Grove, a leading advocate of legislation against leg hold traps, author Cleveland Amory and former California congressman James Roosevelt, a worker with senior citizens in support of animal rights.

Though no American First Lady has yet joined Britain's Princess Diana in refusing to wear fur, activists see hope in Barbara Bush, who appeared without fur at her husband's inauguration. According to the White House, Mrs. Bush has taken no public position.

'It's Big Business'

Fund-raising figures offer one index of the growing support the U.S. anti-fur movement is finding. The Fur Retailers Information Council, which tracks and attempts to counter the efforts of 100 animal rights groups, estimates that at least $100 million a year comes in from dues, donations, bequests and income-producing assets. "It is big business," says Richard M. Parsons, FRIC executive director.

But with so many organizations competing for funds and divided on tactics, the U.S. anti-fur movement can seem a Tower of Babel, speaking in many tongues. Gossip ranges from catty to slanderous, and rivalries abound.

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