FEATURE: KNOWING THE (ANIMAL) SKIN YOU’RE IN
Last March, Thai police discovered a chilling site near the Laos border: a mass grave full of hundreds of bones and skins. The carcasses were all canine, and it is unlikely that any of the animals died natural deaths. The market for dog meat is well-documented in Asia, but this discovery leads to a still obscure issue in animal rights. As reported by Bloomberg Businessweek the next month, the pile of dog remains had likely been stockpiled by smugglers planning to transport them into Vietnam and China to satisfy clothing manufacturers’ high demand for dog pelts.
“The skins would be bleached — some are then sent (by smugglers) to other countries to be made into gloves for playing golf,” said Lamai Sakolpitak, an investigator working with a special police force unit to combat smuggling in the region.
John Dalley, an animal rights activist, says that a good deal of dog leather is made from testicle skin, because “that skin is very soft.” Dalley, a British expat living in Thailand, is the co-founder and Vice-President of Soi Dog Foundation and cautions locals to guard their own dogs’ safety. Familiar and trusting of human interaction, domesticated dogs are easier prey than strays to smugglers.
Golf accessories are far from the only dog leather merchandise produced in Asia. With the lowest production costs and least regulated manufacturing standards in the world, the majority of global leather products come from China, where dog slaughter not only occurs; it’s commonplace.
In November 2014, PETA conducted an undercover investigation at a Chinese facility where up to 200 dogs a day ware seized “around the neck with metal pinchers and bashed over the head with a wooden pole.” Those still breathing have their throats cut before being promptly skinned alive. PETA Asia says it visited three slaughterhouses and six processing plants during its year-long investigation in China. In on-site video footage recorded by investigators, dogs are seen huddled in crude cages and others in a holding cell, some hurtling over others in attempts at escape. The slaughterhouse owner informed the undercover crew that he had about 30,000 pieces of unfinished dog leather stock.
The skins harvested from the dogs’ bodies are heavily treated, dyed and fashioned into the myriad leather gloves one finds in accessories departments in the West. The look and feel of these products are identical to any basic bovine hide, and without costly DNA testing, there is no way to verify the animal source of the leather. Belts, jacket collar trim, cat toys and other accessories are also included in PETA’s list of dog leather products at which most consumers wouldn’t look twice.
Despite massive ramp-up in animal rights activism since the early 90s, use of animal skin persists in fashion. While dog leather wouldn’t pass the quality checks of designers showing at Fashion Week in New York, London, Milan or Paris, fur is still the luxury material of choice on the runway. From Ann Demeulemeester to Tracy Reese, pelts have littered the Fall/Winter runways, and Instagram is everyday replete with posts of fashion show goers donning lustrous fox coats while cuddling their pets. There remains a disconnect between the industry’s adoration of animals and the implications of its aesthetic priorities.
But fashion’s leaders form a spectrum of opinion on the use of fur. Stella McCartney is famous for founding her brand on ethical principles, and made a statement in her most recent collection, dressing models in “fur-free fur” coats. McCartney noted in the Guardian:
“I’ve been speaking to younger women about it recently and they don’t even want real fur. So I feel like maybe things have moved on, and it’s time, and we can do fabrics which look like fur, if we take them somewhere else.”
In the opposing camp, Karl Lagerfeld is staunchly pro-fur, citing the hypocrisy of critics who also wear leather and eat meat while glossing over the methods used to slaughter animals.
“I’m very sympathetic. I hate the idea of killing animals in a horrible way, but I think all that improved a lot,” said Lagerfeld, who published a book about his beloved cat, Choupette. “I think a butcher shop is even worse. It’s like visiting a murder. It’s horrible, no? So I prefer not to know it.”
Reconciling lifestyle choices with affection for pets is an issue at individual discretion, and that decision is just as crucial to the welfare of animals as any formal advocacy for them. But for fashion consumers, the dilemma is still this: Upon entering a major retailer, it is impossible to know the original source of a leather belt, glove or shoe. Until retailers vow to globally regulate and survey the supply chains that feed their businesses, smugglers will continue to leave gruesome evidence of their trade.
Image via PETA/Thumbnail via Chien Bizarreby