Last month, the city of San Francisco, in a unanimous vote by the Board of Supervisors, banned the sale of new fur in the city, including online sales but not including sheep and lamb skin. Some have hailed the new law as an important victory for animal rights. Others have expressed skepticism about the likely impact of the law. In this column, I want to explore and analyze some of the assumptions implicit in a fur ban, including the view that fur is a luxury (and leather a necessity) and the view that wild animals (but not farmed animals) have a right to live. By considering these assumptions, we can better evaluate the new law, which goes into effect in January 2019.
There are some, among those who either favor animal rights or consider themselves allies of those who do, who believe that banning fur in San Francisco is a positive step towards achieving rights for animals. And just to be clear, by “rights,” I mean freedom from human violence, including both the cruelty of captivity and the subsequent slaughter involved in bringing an animal product, such as a fur coat or a slice of dairy cheese pizza, to market.
If people are willing to stop themselves and others from selling the pelts of electrocuted and clubbed baby seals, minks, raccoons, and foxes, then—the thinking goes—those same people will eventually stop themselves and others from buying and selling leather, chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, cows, pigs, fishes, chickens’ eggs, and the breast milk stolen from nursing baby calves to create cheese, yogurt, etc. Also, even before the expansion of animal rights, fur ban supporters could argue that removing fur from the market will at least protect the animal targets of the fur industry from cruelty and violent death. That is a positive thing, on this theory, regardless of what might happen next.
And last but not least, the campaign to end fur sale in San Francisco may have created communities of likeminded people who could gather, in person and online, to share their commitment to animal rights. With the passage of the law, such communities can work toward even more ambitious objectives together.
Not everyone who seeks rights for animals regards the fur ban as a cause for celebration. On a less celebratory approach, the animal movement (which mixes advocates of animal rights and animal welfare along with random others) has long focused its energy on fur. This focus is arguably both arbitrary and problematic. It may be arbitrary because there is nothing about fur or the animals from whom fur is taken that makes it morally distinguishable from any other animal products. It is all violent, so why emphasize fur?
The focus on fur, however, has to be more than arbitrary to be truly objectionable. After all, one must start somewhere, so choosing a place at random, if that is what fur represents, might make some sense. The choice of fur is not just arbitrary, though, but also problematic. Why? Because it singles out for moral stigma an animal product that is primarily used by women while leaving untouched those equally violent animal products that men are likely to use too, including leather (jackets, shoes, car upholstery) and wool (sweaters, carpets). Trying to protect animals through sex discrimination (or any invidious discrimination) does little to further the cause of animal rights but does alienate potential allies who oppose bigotry.
When I was much younger, long before I became aware of how much cruelty and abuse is involved in creating animal products of all kinds, I opposed fur. I saw a video on the street in which a man was killing what looked like a group of black foxes. I cried in response to what I saw and subsequently learned that lots of people were against fur. My mom had a fur coat, so I told her that fur is wrong because it involves animal cruelty. She still wore the coat but less frequently than before. I still wore my shearling coat, concluding that for some reason, it did not count as fur. (Incidentally, the San Francisco law draws that same line, exempting lamb and sheep skin from the ban). Meanwhile, my mother and I both continued to wear leather shoes and wool and cashmere sweaters, and we continued to eat meat, fish, dairy, and eggs and do everything else just as we did before. I did not change any of that for over 20 years and did not truly perceive the inconsistency.
I tell this story because it illustrates what skeptics might predict about a campaign urging people to boycott fur, the sort of campaign that might culminate in laws like the San Francisco fur ban. I was exposed to materials about the cruelty of just one form of animal exploitation, fur. I made a commitment to refrain from buying or wearing what I regarded as fur (which did not include my shearling) but failed to extend the empathy that the materials ignited to any other animal or to extend the opposition that had developed to other animal products.
One can, of course, expose people to the truth behind fur and then add that there lies a similarly horrifying truth behind all animal products. It makes sense to present the fate of particular animals rather than limit oneself to inaccessible statistics in one’s advocacy about the world of animal exploitation. But follow-up is necessary. Otherwise, fur becomes a “token” issue rather than the advertised entry into concern about animal rights. People in the US now, for example, condemn Asians for consuming the flesh of dogs, while refusing to end their own consumption of animals who are quite similar to dogs in many ways (such as calves and pigs).
But maybe the ban on fur will, if it does nothing else, spare a subset of the animals who would otherwise have been tortured and killed. That would be a good thing, even absent anything else. One response to this argument, though, is that a ban on fur will likely have little impact on demand for the product. San Francisco has not legally prohibited the wearing of fur, just the sale of it. The people who were planning to buy fur in San Francisco might accordingly go to a neighboring city and buy it there instead. If fur were truly stigmatized, then a fur ban might be unnecessary. And as long as it is not, the ban might not actually save any animals, especially if the people who previously sold fur in San Francisco move to selling other animal skins (including the fur of lambs and sheep) instead, a seamless transition.
Finally, on the critic’s side of the ledger, is the wasted opportunity. The work that went into politically organizing around a fur ban could have gone in a different direction. The very same people who favor animal rights and were able to find each other through the fur ban campaign could have united to challenge animal slaughter and use more broadly. They could perhaps have tried (though undoubtedly without success) to ban the sale of all animal skins, including that of cows, sheep, and lambs. People persuaded to stop wearing leather shoes would almost certainly avoid fur, though things do not go as smoothly in the other direction.
What’s the Difference?
If asked to distinguish between the animals who are tortured and killed for fur and those who suffer and die for leather and for foods, many people would cite the “luxury” distinction. Fur is a luxury product that people do not need (even in cold climates, and certainly not in San Francisco), so it is wrong to inflict suffering and death on an animal for such a luxury. People use leather and food, by contrast, for necessities—everyone needs shoes and food—so harming animals for these products is justified. In reality, the argument trades on a lack of precision about the level of generality or specificity at which we describe the product in question. Shoes and food may be a necessity, but leather shoes and animal-based food are not. There are many vegan shoes, and there are plentiful vegan foods, both healthful and delicious. Just as one might need a coat but not a fur coat, then, one might need breakfast, but not a breakfast that includes the flesh of a pig or a product involving cruelty to baby roosters and a grieving mother cow’s breast milk.
Another distinction between the fur animals and those whom we hurt and kill for leather and food is that the former are typically wild (or free living) and the latter are domesticated. A defender of the distinction might say that wild animals are entitled to live on their own and be free of human intervention and violence, because they ask nothing of us but to be left alone. I have spoken to at least one person, for instance, who says that hunting is wrong but feels no hesitation about paying for slaughterhouses to terrorize and end the lives of farmed animals. Some people have a certain respect for the animals who can live on their own in the wild without depending on humans to take care of them (as it were). With respect for their independence may come the willingness to view violence against these animals as real violence.
This distinction is not absolute, to be sure. The same people who respect wild animals and oppose fur and hunting might feel that we should refrain from hurting domesticated dogs precisely because they are vulnerable and dependent. And, going in the other direction, all bets seem to be off when it comes to fishes, who live on their own, want little to do with human “caregivers,” but whose slaughter is nonetheless associated with the calm and meditative silence of a fisherman near a body of water.
Still, I think there is a wild/domesticated line that helps us to understand the fur/other animal products distinction. We can say that we have arranged a kind of “trade” between the domesticated animals and ourselves. We give them food and shelter and, in exchange, they give us their skin, their flesh, and their bodily secretions (and, after enduring torture, their lives).
Quite apart from its inconsistent application, though, the wild/domesticated distinction does not actually justify anything. The domesticated animals whom we use are dependent on us because we have bred them to be, finding their “wild” traits inconvenient. Many of them (like pigs, for instance) might actually do fine in the “wild,” if we released them, and we could stop breeding those who must live with us, so that after living out their lives, their niche might be filled by wildlife.
We have done animals no favors by making them docile and defenseless in the face of our guns, knives, and bloody clubs. No animal ever sat down with us and said, “if you agree to give me slop and some semblance of shelter, I will agree to endure torture and slaughter, for me and all of my descendants.” Just imagine if someone were to argue, “I conceived and gave birth to this dependent human child because I wanted a heart donor for my other child. We have an unwritten agreement. I have given the donor child a life that he would not otherwise have had, along with food and a place to live, and he owes me his heart in return.”
Creating someone does not entitle us to cause him harm or to take his life. Indeed, it makes us responsible for guarding his wellbeing and his right to live. We understand that in the human context, regardless of why we might have decided to have the child. There is no good reason to invent spurious contracts and entitlements just because we are talking about nonhuman animals and we want to rationalize exploitation.
The line between fur and other animal products is ultimately indefensible, however attractive it might appear to many people. And perhaps because so many people draw that line, it seems unlikely that a fur ban will lead to a ban (or, even better, a refusal to consume) the more common animal products. All animal products require shocking cruelty, and all animal products are luxury items, because we do not need them. They accordingly require utterly unnecessary violence against animals.
A campaign culminating in a ban such as the one in San Francisco, might therefore be useless, especially because people can easily go elsewhere to buy fur. It might not, however, be too late to make lemonade out of lemons. In advertising the San Francisco fur ban, proponents of it can begin to let people know that there is plenty of vegan food, in San Francisco and elsewhere, and that no one needs to spend another moment participating in cruelty to animals. If you oppose fur, then you have already embraced the ethic of veganism, even if you never thought about it that way before. The next step is up to you.