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This time it's war, say fur protesters
As hostilities escalate, activists warn of guerrilla tactics against traders ... and wearers
By Iain S Bruce

Protests at the fashion industry's revived love affair with fur are just the opening shots in a new war that could see anyone wearing animal skins daubed in the street and attacks on retailers who sell pelts.

Activists have confirmed they will return to the guerilla tactics which they controversially adopted in the 1980s and 1990s after a week in which hostilities have rapidly escalated.

On Monday, singer Sophie Ellis Bextor fronted an anti-fur campaign for People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta), appearing on a poster holding the bloody corpse of a skinned fox above the message: 'Here's the rest of your fur coat.' And on Thursday activists from the organisation invaded a high-profile Manhattan fashion show to protest against the appearance of supermodel Gisele BŸndchen, who reportedly received two mink coats worth $250,000 as part of a recent deal to promote pelt producers Blackglama.

Now Peta, the world's largest animal rights organisation, has threatened to mount a campaign of direct action similar to the one it ran successfully throughout the 1990s.

Then, a hard-hitting media campaign was complemented by a series of naked protests, incidents in which furs worn in public were daubed with blood-red paint and retailers were attacked. The industry's turnover fell by up to 70% -- but now fur is making a big comeback. Coats and trimmed garments have begun reappearing at fashion shows and on the covers of magazines such as Vogue.

'There can be no justification for a business that is about ripping the skins from animals' backs to decorate our own. It is safe to assume that the kind of direct action we have used so successfully in the past will be seen again,' said Dawn Carr, Peta's European director.

Scottish campaigners have confirmed that they are ready for action. Edinburgh-based Yvonne Taylor, who was deported from China in March for staging a nude protest behind a banner declaring 'I'd rather go naked than wear fur' at a trade show, told the Sunday Herald she was prepared to resort to civil disobedience when required.

Taylor, a campaigner with Advocates for Animals, said: 'I've been arrested everywhere from New York to Beijing and I'm ready to risk it again. We're not a rich organisation, and so sometimes we have to go to far greater lengths to get our point across to the public.'

Yet the fur trade remains defiant . 'These protests have virtually no impact at all. They are orchestrated by an extremely vocal minority who work very hard at forcing a skewed argument down everybody else's throats, but ultimately have little effect upon the business,' said Laura Phillips, of London furriers Philip Hockley.

According to the British Fur Trade Association (BFTA), the number of designers working with animal pelts worldwide has doubled to 400 over the past year and more high-street stores than ever before are stocking it .

'Globally, the appeal of fur is as strong as ever, making this a $10 billion business,' said BFTA spokeswoman Andrea Martin. 'UK sales alone leapt some 35% last year and we are confident that trend will continue into the foreseeable future.'

Peta's Dawn Carr is outraged: 'Some of the biggest names in the industry worked with us to firmly establish the fact that fur is not acceptable in fashion. How any designer can have the rank hypocrisy to use it now is beyond me. They are propagating violence and cruelty for the purposes of pure vanity.'

Peta's research depicts an industry in which animals are kept cramped in horrendous conditions before being brutally killed. The focus is on preserving the creatures' pelts, and with lethal injections considered too expensive, the most common practice is to electrocute the animals using metal rods inserted into the mouth and anus. Other methods, reports Peta, include drowning, poisoning and crushing animals' necks between two boards.

But the fur trade denies accusations of cruelty. Mink farmer Mike Cobbledick, who moved his generations-old family business to Denmark after legislation in the Scottish and Westminster parliaments outlawed the practice last year, claims standards are as high as anywhere else in agriculture.

'I thoroughly object to any insinuation that the animals are treated cruelly,' he said. 'The people in this business adhere to the most rigorous code of practice in modern farming. These horror stories are blatant propaganda, and all they achieve is to place the livelihoods of thousands of families at risk.'

The pro-fur lobby claims that in Europe alone some 8500 businesses employing more than 225,000 people would be destroyed by a ban on the fur trade.

With 50% of the pelts produced every year passing through the hands of London traders the impact would certainly be felt in the UK.

But many leading figures in the fashion world support Peta's protests. Calvin Klein and Donna Karan have reaffirmed their commitment never to use animal pelts, while Stella McCartney is sending colleagues copies of her own video detailing the case against fur.

But, said furrier Laura Phillips: 'It's all very well for McCartney to take the moral high ground, but her company [ChloŽ] is sponsored by Gucci, which made its name in leather, so who's she kidding? What's the distinction between wearing cured animal hides on your feet and pelts on your back?'

Certainly, the public is not up in arms just yet. According to a survey commissioned by BFTA, 86% of Scots are in favour of farming animals for any purpose so long as they are treated humanely.

Such results may have motivated some of the leading designers to begin using the material again. Christian Dior, Versace, Chanel, Christian Lacroix and Jean Paul Gaultier lead a host of top houses currently working with fur, while pelts have become increasingly popular among the fashion world's rising talents.

Such facts do not deter Peta, which claims this apparent resurgence is merely the result of a massive last-ditch effort to revive an industry maimed by evolving public values.

'Fur trade organisations across Europe have been giving away huge amounts of free material to designers as an incentive, and some of these have used it to create shock value,' said Carr. 'But that doesn't disguise the reality that they are scraping the barrel in a desperate attempt to save a dying industry.'

As a renewed campaign of direct action and unflinching advertisements looms, protesters are moving in for the kill. Fur farming might be illegal in the UK, but Peta activists are intent on moving towards a total ban on the sale of imported pelts.

'Britain is certainly heading in the right direction, but what's the point of saying we won't tolerate cruelty in this country if we then import it from others? We cannot afford to be complacent on this issue,' said Taylor.

'We may be facing a tough battle against a multi-million dollar global industry, but we are vigilant, committed and ready to take any course of action that proves necessary.'