The economic downturn in our nation, and throughout the world, has been tough on animals—with more relinquishment or abandonment of pets and also with many animal protection charities and local animal services programs financially squeezed and trimming or cutting programs. But as I have written on a couple of prior occasions, it’s also been tough for animal use industries, particularly the fur industry. Some pet stores selling puppy mills dogs have closed, hog factory farms are having a tougher go of it, and all manner of other individuals who profit from animal exploitation are feeling the effects of the credit crisis and the other causes of the economic malaise—which has clearly cut both ways for animals.
Yesterday, The New York Times published a front-page story by Campbell Robertson about the travails of the alligator farming business in Louisiana, a state with perhaps more than a million wild alligators. Like people with get-rich-quick schemes who dove into the ostrich business or the exotic game farm business for antlers, hides, or meat, this latest band of Louisiana entrepreneurs saw an opportunity to make a fast buck by exploiting animals.
It’s standard practice for them to collect alligator eggs from the wild, see the animals hatch in a captive setting, and then kill the animals before they get too big, perhaps when they are four-feet long. Robertson wrote, “After the gators are killed with a stab to the brain, they are skinned and sorted: heads and claws for the French Quarter souvenir shops, meat for the Cajun restaurants, guts for turtles, dogs or anything else whose tastes run that way. For decades, the skins would be sold to 10 or 15 independent, often family-owned tanneries around the world that specialized in reptile skin, or so-called exotics. The prices were generally good, even generous. Some farmers, the ones that ran big operations, made millions of dollars.”
But the international market for luxury goods has suffered, since people are tamping down on their major discretionary purchases. And that means that companies like Cartier, Hermes, and Gucci are not selling as many alligator shoes, alligator bags, and alligator-band watches. Robertson wrote that the alligator farmers are bitter because they think Hermes is controlling prices by stocking up on alligator skins, dropping prices to levels that don’t allow the farmers to turn a profit. Many of them are shutting down their alligator farming operations. In short, they argue that the purchasers are disconnected from the producers.
I was actually more struck by another disconnect—between the consumer and the poor alligators. A casual purchase of a product made from the skin of a wild animal certainly results in the suffering and death of sentient creatures. It’s not a big deal for the consumer to opt for an alternative to a wild animal skin. But it is a certainly a big deal for the animal, who pays with his or her life as a result of our fashion decisions.
I don’t lament the economic hardship for the alligator farmer. I lament the removal of wild animals from their natural environment and the loss of life for the alligators and the other silent victims of the exotic skins trade. Something to remember as the holiday shopping season kicks into gear.