The Price of Furs: A Plea for Humane Trapping

THE past century has witnessed a remarkable awakening of the human conscience in regard to the treatment of animals. We are a long way from the day when the high prelate of a great church could make the solemn pronouncement, ‘Man owes to the lower animals no duty whatever.’ So strong is our belief that we do owe them duties that the statute books of all our states contain laws against the ‘unnecessary mutilation or torment of any living creature’; humane societies in all our cities make it their constant business to inspect stock cars and abattoirs, as well as to watch always for the abuse of horses, dogs, and cats; while it is the consensus of opinion among all civilized peoples that the very least we can do for the dumb creatures whose bodies must furnish us food, and whose skins warmth, is to give them a quick and painless death.

How is it, then, that after such an awakening our eyes are closed to, our voices not raised against, a cruelty of immense proportions which has made such phenomenal growth within the past half-dozen years that few have any idea of its present extent?

I refer to the use of the steel trap for the taking of wild, fur-bearing animals. Within the past four or five years the vogue for fur has so enormously increased that, at the most conservative estimate, one hundred millions of fur-bearing animals in America alone now suffer yearly in steel traps.

All of us who are women know how, a few seasons ago, the craze for fur coats, fur trimmings, and summer furs came in like a tidal wave, carrying us all before it, until at the present day it is rare to see a woman on the streets who does not wear fur. We also know that furs are very beautiful, and more becoming than anything we can wear — this being our sole excuse for the use of them in summertime.

If we have ever thought at all about how the furs were procured, probably we have had in mind the picture of a hunter, slipping Indian-like through the woods, stalking and then painlessly shooting his prey. This is all we know about it, unless we have lived much in remote and wild sections. The fur trade, making immense profits from the prevailing fashion, cannot be expected to enlighten us; we see no mention of the matter in papers and magazines; therefore we thrust any troublesome questionings back into that hinterland of our consciousness where other painful matters are confined, and think no more upon them.

What, then, is the truth about the procuring of furs?

The truth is that practically all fur-bearing animals, from the ubiquitous muskrat to the more highly prized fox, skunk, beaver, and lynx, are now taken, not by the quick flash of the merciful rifle, but by the prolonged, hideous, unimaginable agony of the steel trap.

One cannot open a boys’ magazine that does not present numerous advertisements of steel traps, with enticing figures as to prices paid for pelts; one cannot walk far through woods or beside streams in any section, North, East, South, or West, without coming upon one or more of these instruments of torture, holding sometimes a victim, exhausted by its struggles and waiting in agony for the merciful blow which shall end its torment. This, too, at all seasons of the year, the breeding season included — for boys and ignorant men do not discriminate, and thus take many hundreds of thousands of pelts which are worthless, besides leaving the young of the animal to starve. This amateur trapping has indeed reached such proportions that both the fur trade and the Government are alarmed, foreseeing in the near future the total extinction of furbearing animals.

But the regular trapping done by experienced men who make a business of it in the great Northern woods, or in the forests of the West — surely it is more humane, you ask.

If anything, it is less humane. The trapping boy throughout the United States, the poor white or negro man of the Southern swamps and forests, having little else to do, may possibly visit his few traps daily, as the laws of some states require. But the professional trapper of the Northern woods and Western forests, with his long line of traps extending thirty, fifty, even a hundred miles, cannot if he would — it is a physical impossibility — visit his traps oftener than twice a week, sometimes not oftener than once a week. Into such regions humane officers never go; game wardens, if any, are not in evidence; and the trapper is, as he has always been, a law unto himself.

But what of the wild creature, — fox, wolf, skunk, lynx, — ranging the deep woods for food, attracted by the bait, its paw suddenly seized and broken by the strong steel jaws, and held there in spite of all the frenzied struggles to escape? Captivity is in itself torture to a free, wild thing; and when to this is added the cutting of the trap teeth into the living flesh, the relentless pressure of the steel upon keen and sensitive nerves (this prolonged pressure being the chief cause of suffering), is it any wonder that at last, after hours, maybe days and nights, of desperation, the creature often gnaws off its own paw, pulls out the tendons and sinews of its leg, in order to escape the intolerable anguish?

In countries so bitter cold that even a fur-bearing animal outside its den or hole must keep moving to avoid freezing, the latter death may come within a few hours as a merciful relief; but the majority of creatures are not caught so far north, and prolonged agony precedes the death of most. Could this agony in some way be photographed upon the soft fur, or cry out from its glossy surface, I am sure there is not a woman in the United States, not even the most flippant little flapper, who would buy a fur coat, or a fur-trimmed coat, or even a fur scarf.

Occasionally some paid agent of the fur business will undertake to give his opinion that an animal caught in a steel trap does not suffer greatly, or at any rate not so much as would a man in its place. Since he has never been an animal caught in a steel trap, his opinion is worth little, besides being open to suspicion. When we remember that all warm-blooded animals have highly organized nervous systems, and that the senses of a wild animal — sight, smell, hearing, and taste — are more acute and keen than those of civilized man, why should we except its remaining sense—that of feeling? The probabilities are that that sense is also more acute; that, instead of suffering less than a man, a wild creature actually suffers more. Most of us will heartily agree with Professor John M. Tyler, the eminent biologist of Amherst College, when he says, ‘A man who says that an animal in a steel trap does not suffer, and suffer severely, is either foolish, or he lies.’

The saddest part of this cruelty is that, of the hundred million lives so tormented and sacrificed, probably nine tenths suffer needlessly. South of the Arctic Circle, furs are, strictly speaking, never necessary. The very trappers and lumberjacks of the Canadian forests do not themselves wear furs — they wear warm woolens, with sometimes a sheepskin jacket. In the temperate climate of almost all of the United States, we well know that furs are not necessary, as is evidenced by the fact that our outdoor workmen of all kinds — men in the building and other trades, those engaged in streetand track-repair work, as well as truck drivers, mail carriers, traffic policemen, and others constantly exposed to the weather — never think of such a thing as wearing furs. It is left for our protected and well-to-do women, living in furnace-heated houses, to wear fur coats when in wintertime they venture forth in heated cars to shop in heated stores. The less well-to-do ape their styles, and, if a fur coat cannot be afforded, have trimmings of fur. And all wear fur scarfs in hot weather.

After the craze for summer furs and fur trimmings came in, it was estimated by the fur trade that its business quadrupled within a very short time. It is at present estimated, also by the fur trade, that at least three fourths of all furs used go into trimmings and summer furs, both of which, as everybody admits, are entirely useless, save for their becomingness.

A generation ago, I remember well how every woman in America who could get one was wearing an aigrette, or aigrettes, on her hat. We were aigrette-crazy. A velvet hat perched very high on our heads, and topped by as many aigrettes as we could afford, was simply the last word in fashion. Then someone, under the auspices of the Ladies’ Home Journal, — may it be forever honored for its stand, — began to tell us the history of these aigrettes — how they were the wedding plumes of the gentle white heron, and how in Florida swamps, and beside other Southern waters, men stole upon these bird brides while they sat upon their eggs or hovered their young, and, rudely snatching them from the nest, tore from their living breasts the delicate plumes, with skin and flesh attached, and then flung the birds down, beneath their orphaned babes, to die.

After I heard this, the aigrette lost all its charms for me. I would myself have died before wearing another. And millions of women in America were of the same mind. The laws which were promptly passed could never alone have wiped out this cruelty; but the laws, backed by the awakened conscience of American women, did the work — after a few years an aigrette was never seen. In rather similar manner some of the evils of pelagic sealing were abolished.

Fashion, therefore, is not altogether our god; we are capable of dropping a style like a hot cake when we know that at its root is something iniquitous.

In the present case, what is needed is not so much to abolish the use of furs, but to have them taken in such a way that the label, ‘Humanely Killed,’ can truthfully be sewed upon them. Then we shall be able to buy and wear them with a clear conscience.

How shall this be brought about?

I am glad to be able to say that recently there was organized in the city of Washington an Anti-Steel-Trap League, with the object of getting laws passed by the legislatures of all the states against the manufacture, sale, or use of the steel trap. This league in no way opposes or antagonizes the fur trade; its sole purpose is to bring about the taking of furs in a humane way — either by traps which instantly kill or do not injure, by fair methods of hunting and shooting, or by the new and growing method of fur farming, which is coming rapidly to the front as a highly profitable occupation.

The League is conducted on sane and sensible lines, and sportsmen’s organizations are now backing it up, while the legislature of one state, South Carolina, last winter passed the desired law, and many more are expected to pass it this winter.

Who that has ever had intimate acquaintance with any wild creature can tolerate the thought of the hideous cruelties practised under the present system? Ever since the day when, walking through a beautiful stretch of woods, I came upon a baby skunk circling piteously about, hunting for its lost mother (at that moment probably in the jaws of a steel trap), and, taking up the little thing, found it gentle and grateful and kind as a kitten and in every way as suitable for a pet, I have been as unwilling to think of a skunk suffering such agony as I should be to think of the most favored Persian cat undergoing torment.

And, speaking of cats, it may not be unknown to my readers that in a number of our large cities at the present time are agencies whose purpose is to encourage the catching and stealing of cats, in order to recruit the fur trade — the fur being dyed and sold under counterfeit names, to adorn, possibly, the coat of the very woman who has lamented the loss of the cat.

And coons, — raccoons, I believe the Northerners call them, — who that has had a pet coon and enjoyed its cunning, friendly ways, and felt its small black fingers exploring into one’s ears and nose, and mouth too if one was not careful, can tolerate the thought of long torture being inflicted upon creatures so engaging? Rambling not many months ago along the edge of some Florida woods, I caught my breath with shock at the sight of half a dozen small pink bodies, amazingly like those of tiny human babies, hanging by their heads from a low tree limb. I must have exclaimed, for a man near by ceased his wood-chopping, or whatever he was doing, to look up at me; and when, pointing to the row of small bodies, I asked, ‘What are they?’ he drawled pleasantly, ‘Them’s coons — coons some fellers ketched down in these-here woods, and skint for their hides.’ It then dawned upon me that here were more products of the steel trap — that the tiny black fingers had explored once too often and had come upon long and cruel agony.

I believe that no class of women will be so ready and so able to take hold of this evil of steel-trapping, and put an end to the most outstanding atrocity of modern times, as the thinking women who read the Atlantic. I beg that each one will feel it laid upon her to do something in the matter — to ‘open her mouth for the dumb.’