San Diego Moscow, Helsinki, Stockholm, Minneapolis; these are the places that come to mind when one thinks of fur clothing, places where the temperature can drop below zero and stay there for weeks. But since last April, San Diego has also been a fur center. Not because of La Niña, but because of Teresa Platt.
"I'm the executive director of Fur Commission USA," says the 43-year-old Platt, sitting behind an antique writing table in her Coronado home office. "The commission represents about 600 farms, mink and fox, throughout the country. So I represent fur farmers. I deal with government affairs, public education, law-enforcement issues. It's a typical trade association, but I'm not based in D.C., which I'm glad about. I didn't have to move to D.C. or St. Paul. The people who had the job before me were in St. Paul."
You can chalk up to the computer age that a woman in San Diego, 700 miles from the nearest fur farm in Utah, can run a commission that represents fur farmers. But there's more to it than that. What earned Platt this job was her involvement in an issue very much tied to San Diego: tuna-fishing.
"My dad had a fishing boat here," she explains, "and I did shore-side operations for the boat for about seven years. Then, the fleet had changes through the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which defined dolphin-safe. But the dolphin-safe definition that was pushed on the fleet was environmentally unsound. Dolphins associate with very, very clean schools of very, very large tuna, which is what you want to harvest. But the dolphin-safe definition said you can't go near dolphins. If you don't go near dolphins, you go onto juvenile tuna. Juvenile tuna associate with sharks, billfish, and all kinds of other animals that you end up throwing over the side. My family's boat, in one year, we threw tons overboard. Before, most of the stuff we didn't sell we would use for dinner for the 18 guys on the boat. But when we started fishing dolphin-safe, we were throwing tons over the side. We had no idea what the impact on those species was because nobody studied it long enough.
"Sharks, for instance, reproduce slowly. Our first dolphin-safe trip, we threw away 40 tons of sharks. Forty tons of shark! That's an environmental impact that I don't want to think about. Before that, in an entire year on my fishing boat we didn't throw away 40 tons of anything. If everybody fished that way, we would have an unprecedented environmental disaster.
"So I went back to D.C. to change the law, the definition of dolphin-safe. We had to go through the political system to change the definition. It took several years to lay the groundwork, to educate the public, see what the problems were, and how the fishery functioned. And in that process, Greenpeace came onboard, along with other conservation groups, in support of the fishermen. Then it took two years to get a bill through Congress. It passed in October '97, and the definition changes will go into effect in March of this year."
After the change to the dolphin-safe laws had passed, Platt found that she had "worked myself out of a job, really. I was left thinking, 'What am I going to do? Am I going to run a fishing boat? It's been years and my skills are really rusty.' So I went up to L.A. and I got into marketing and advertising. I had done that before I worked with my dad. But selling hotel rooms wasn't my forte. I really like environmental issues. Well, I had sat on a board with a furrier who had heard about this job, and he suggested I interview for it. It turned out the president of the Fur Commission had seen me give a speech on tuna in Portland during a conference on animal issues. He remembered me. So I interviewed and got the job in April of last year and I haven't been bored since."
Though Platt -- whose salary comes from a ten-cent-per-pelt assessment the farmers she represents pay -- refers to the state of the fur industry as "Tuna, the early years," she admits that it lacks the clear-cut legal battle that the dolphin-safe-tuna issue had. Still, in addition to attending trade shows, conferences, and industry auctions, she spends her time compiling information on fur and posting it on Fur Commission USA's Web site as an answer to anti-fur rhetoric. "I like to go back to the basics," she says. "I'm in this industry trying to find more information on how fur works, when it works, when it doesn't, how does it work at 20 below versus 40 below, how does it work when it's wet. The fur industry has been around a long time, so some of those things are in print, but they are in print in Danish. Oh boy! So you've got to track down the basic questions and work your way through the argument and see if it makes sense."
What is the argument?
"The argument," she answers, "is that most of the world is not as pleasant as it is here. It can get awfully cold out there. You can buy a nice, fake, synthetic-fur, petrochemical coat, or you can buy an organic product. We live in California. Most people here wouldn't consider buying a fake leather coat. They want the natural product. That's what fur is. What's our average temperature, 73 degrees? Well, I was in Milwaukee recently and it was 40 below zero. You can freeze in 15 minutes in that kind of weather. Fur is a good choice in that sort of situation. Even if it's just a little bit of trim around your neck and thermal spots. You'll notice an immediate difference. It's a first-clothing choice. It's what we wore when we left the garden."
Who is the argument with? Platt says it's with animal-rights activists who play on what she calls a "disconnect" in people who live in large urban areas. Having lived away from agriculture all their lives, they don't know where the food they eat and the clothes they wear really come from.
"There is a disconnect between producer and consumer, and there are groups that are exploiting it," she says. "Now, most of what I see that the other side of the issue puts out is not educational material. It doesn't discuss how we should do this better; it's all hate propaganda and it spurs people on toward attacking the producer in order to 'save the earth.' Look at what animal research scientists go through. There's a school of thought that says you cannot use animals to benefit human beings. I talked to someone who told me, we don't need fur from animals; we can use hemp to produce clothes. He had no idea of becoming a hemp farmer. He was in the controversy business." She continues, "Only 25 percent of the earth's surface is land. Out of that land, about 10 percent can support crops. You're talking about 2.5 percent of the earth's surface can support crops. And you're saying that six billion people can live off of food and clothing produced on 2.5 percent of the earth. It's not true. Well, a lot of them say, 'It doesn't matter, we'll stop using animals and then we'll figure it out. No animals should be owned or used.' It's a disconnect.
"If you lived in the San Joaquin Valley and you said to a farmer, 'Hey, we're going to feed everybody and clothe everybody off of crop production,' they'd do the numbers in their head automatically and tell you it's impossible. There's not enough land. But most of the earth can support grazers, it can support fish, it can support birds. Then, as a supplement, you have domesticated production."
An example of domesticated production is fur farming, raising minks or foxes on a farm with the ultimate goal of selling their pelts. This involves killing the animal. Is this cruel? Platt says no.
"When you're dealing with animals," she explains, "you're dealing with them birth to death. We care for the animals from birth. Every part of this animal's life is taken care of by the farmer. Everything the animal needs it has been given all its life. And at the end, the farmer is responsible for its humane death. The American Veterinary Association recommends certain methods, and that's what we use."
For foxes, the method is lethal injection. For minks, it's gassing. If there's one word that sums up what Teresa Platt does for fur farmers, it's communication. She writes, answers e-mail queries and accusations, does radio and press interviews, and has put a video tour of a fur farm on the commission's Web site.
"Fur is global," she says. "It's got everything in it from indigenous trappers in the Arctic to fashion models. Diversity is probably the strength of the industry. Its weakness over the years has been a lack of communication. That's what I'm trying to fix. They certainly haven't used the Internet like they should. Now, we use the Internet a lot. I write pieces that get picked up by publications and it just bubbles up. It's like what we did with tuna. We did coalition work, gave a lot of speeches, wrote newsletters, got the information out there, and it worked. The information started to flow. The extremists were saying, 'One dead dolphin is one too many,' and the reporter would hear that. But he'd be able to go on the Internet and find our information and be able to write a balanced piece."