Very sexy. Big mistake

Supermodels lay bare their feelings against the fur trade, while the EU decides on whether to ban the leghold trap. But the noisy animal welfarists could do more harm than good, argues Richard D North
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The Independent Online
Millions of women will soon be sighing for the chance to emulate Madonna's wearing of fur, as paraded before them in the movie Evita, which opens here after Christmas.

Already, the European fur trade is enjoying a recovery. The economy is out of recession, and - perhaps as important - the world seems tired of being bullied by campaigners.

Many of the fur trade's best customers are sassy young women celebrating their earning power and not easily intimidated. Yet next Monday EU environment ministers will decide whether or not finally to bring into force a ban on the leghold trap, a device which epitomises the fur trade.

If they do, after a year's delay, nearly everyone, from the British Veterinary Association to the animal rights campaigners, and including John Gummer, the Secretary of State for the Environment, will believe they are helping to bring to an end an abuse of animals so gross that only the most hard- hearted could object.

For most animal campaigners, the leghold trap is (as the groups' most recent ad has it) a "hideously cruel device", in which an animal will endure "agonising pain, as it is caught in the vice-like grip of the trap's jaws". Actually, judging by its effect on a human hand (yes, I've tried it), the moment of impact of a modern leghold trap is not painful, and its grip is firm rather than vice-like. Still, while some welfarists will concede that a killing trap (one which dispatches quickly and with minimal suffering) could be described as humane, it is unlikely any would accept that a leghold trap might ever be.

But even the welfare issue is not what is commonly thought. Bob Carmichael is not obviously hard-hearted. He is the chief of game and fur management for the wildlife branch of the Manitoba Department of Natural Resources. A wildlife biologist, he is a gentle type, and says of the fur trade: "I feel very good about it. The net effect of buying a fur coat is to reduce animal suffering and to help people."

Throughout the northern part of North America there is a tundra wilderness which shades into Arctic barrenness. It is home to fir and fur, the latter carried on hardy and beautiful animals.

The continent's native peoples - Indian populations shading into Inuit, or Eskimos - are relatively few. Many of them are wholly welfare-dependent, and quite a high proportion alcohol- and drugs-dependent too.

A very few of these people go out trapping, which, on the whole, they do rather less efficiently and vigorously than the similar number of trappers among the even fewer white people who live in the region.

Sandy Beardy, a Swampy Cree from Cross Lake, Manitoba, told me, and his dignity was compelling if partisan: "I went off from my village to fight for the Mother Country in the Second World War. I was in an anti-tank regiment and we fought from Normandy to Germany. I think I earned the right to be heard when I ask for the freedom to use what God has put here."

One often hears native people talk about their relationship with nature, their respect for and even veneration of their prey. What is sure is that it is the best - the more independent, the more feisty - of the aboriginal people who go out trapping, and there is real moral value in that. With average trapper earnings at about $1,000 a year, its being a minority activity of small economic consequence makes it all the more poignant.

But the native trapper is not the whole of the story. His rights have been much promoted by the US and Canadian governments, but do not to the degree one might suppose actually drive official anxieties about the proposed ban.

About half of Canada's $450m fur trade is in farmed fur, and only about 15 per cent of fur sold in Europe is trapped.

The EU regulation under discussion this week is supposed to bring into force from next January a ban on the import of any fur from 13 mostly valuable species, and whether it is trapped or farmed, from countries which have not banned the leghold trap.

But there is a let-out clause, and in recent days it has been the subject of intense international negotiation. The proposed regulation says that countries which can persuade the EU that they have invented and will use a "humane" trap could carry on with the leghold trap.

Welfarists such as John Gummer and almost all the campaigners believe that no leghold trap, however modified, could ever be called humane, and that the let-out clause can't be invoked.

But it looked last week as though the EU might strike a deal in which welfarism and pragmatism would be renconciled. Mr Gummer has already said that provided he is persuaded that there will ultimately be a ban on the leghold trap, and that it happens within a strict timetable, he can accept some delay in its introduction. More to the point, a ban might be agreed on Monday, but not be implemented due to fears of diplomatic pressure from northern America on its implications for free trade. In short, European environment minsisters may satisfy their constituencies that they argued for virtuous policy, but add that nasty trade ministers scuppered it.

Although campaigners will be angry at any compromise, there is actually much to be said for it. While a humane trap is widely regarded as being oxymoronic, the fur trade and the governments of Canada and, to a lesser extent, the US have invested large sums of money in trying to improve the operation of all traps, including the leghold. They seem to have been quite successful.

Most species of animal - the weasel, mink and marten, for instance - are mostly and best trapped by killing devices which break their victims' necks, or brain them. Improved versions of these traps have been made more widespread. The less fundamentalist of the welfarists accept they cause little suffering. Some traps drown their target - a five- or 10- minute process whose nastiness is obvious - but acceptable to many. It's only for fox, coyote and wolf that the leghold trap is regarded as the best option, because the animals are too big for it to be sure that a killing trap could be powerful enough to effect quick death.

At sufficient expense, Canada and the US could buy in most of the leghold traps and replace them with killing traps for use with all but the larger species most of the time. Only recent budget cuts stopped such a programme in Canada. But even if the policy was a success, it would still be necessary to leghold many and perhaps most of the animals now trapped that way.

The fur trade is not the main reason for this. The leghold is used to hold animals which damage roads and drains at a cost of millions of dollars a year, and in these cases is used precisely because it seldom damages and hardly ever cripples its prey: in other words, it's as safe as anything could be near pets who might wander inadvertently into the trap.

In Louisiana, the state says it must use the leghold to trap the nutria - or coypu - which is wrecking coastal wetlands. It says shooting would not work in the swampy forests, and in any case would rob the hunters of a useful income.

Of course, it is important to consider the degree of suffering caused by legholds. Alex Sanderson, who trains trappers for the Manitoba Department of Natural Resources (another man who impresses with his ordinary gentleness), remarks: "I had to use leghold traps when I was asked to move six foxes from a golf course. They were all fine after a day in a trap."

This accords with respectable Canadian research which suggest that stress levels in leghold traps are often quite low. Mr Sanderson says: "The important thing is that the animal should be able to move the trap so that it can get off the path and if possible hide. Then you find him lying down and relaxed. It's when you approach that he gets excited". This may explain, the traps' defenders say, why it is so easy to get pictures of distressed animals in traps.

I have met no one who admits to having seen the classic protesters' image: an animal which has chewed off its own leg. But knowledgeable people, admitting there is sometimes damage and pain, say the worst case must be very rare and would represent wasted time and money on the trapper's part: a wounded animal means a damaged pelt.

But in any case, does causing some suffering to wild animals really matter? Plenty of fur-bearing animals die of crippling diseases; most of the young of some species die in their first year or so of hunger and cold; only a few have the luxury of dying of the same causes in a ripe old age.

"Wild animals don't get up in the morning and expect to go through their day without stress," says Bob Carmichael. A few - even, in rare cases, tens - of hours in a trap followed by a quick death may not be as bad a fate as nature had designed unaided.

But even if the leghold trap in any form were the abomination it is commonly supposed, the EU ban might well not achieve its desired effects.

It almost certainly would not much damage the fur trade in Europe, and might not much influence trapping in the northern countries. According to Frank Zilberkweit, chairman of the British Fur Trade Association, his members have plenty of farmed skins to offer their customers. More important, he points out that Europe is by no means the only market for wild fur - Asia and Russia are coming along fast.

Even if fur-trapping countries decided to ban the leghold, they would continue with the killing traps which would be nearly as offensive to rich and noisy welfarists.

If the northern countries decide to continue with the leghold, and incur the ban on imports to the EU, one difference would be that wild fur coats would be made up in Asia, where they are now often bought, instead of in Greece and Italy, the current main manufacturing areas. The number of animals suffering in legholds might eventually be returned to present levels.

But the amount of animal suffering might be increased, because the impetus for reform of trapping methods would be lost. According to Mr Zilberkweit, "As long as the EU is involved my voice as a leading trader has some influence. I can say to the Americans and Canadians, `You've got to improve your systems'. If we don't have that clout, the people with the loudest voice will be those with less concern." Leaving aside how much the trade has really campaigned on welfare issues, the point holds good for EU pressure in general.

Any Saturday, customers slip into one of London's smartest furriers in Conduit Street to fulfil one of the oldest sartorial dreams. They pass a small band of protesters shouting anti-fur slogans. Perhaps neither group is ethically attractive: the affluent thoughtlessly pursuing luxury and the protesters hysterically pursuing self-righteousness.

But beyond the risk to the rights of human minorities - in this case the rich and the native - there are serious doubts about whether the latest outburst of EU moralising would by itself do much for the animals either.

In fact, what is likely to happen is that international negotiations continue to apply pressure on the northern countries to improve trapping methods where they can and to defend obviously cruel methods where they must. Between defending freedom for trade and quieting welfarist clamour, the suffering that demand for fur inflicts might be substantially reduced, with talk of bans never far away, but their implementation never quite achieved.