Furs may be the new rage in Washington, but there are many people in this town who see the fashion trend as a sign of ignorance and a lack of ethics.
About 180 animal-rights supporters from Maryland, Virginia and the District spent last Sunday afternoon protesting the annual hunt for young harp seals. Protesters formed a line in front of the Canadian Consulate, carrying signs and chanting, "Stop the Slaughteer," and then walked 16 blocks to deliver the same message in front of the Norwegian Embassy.
Canada, Norway and the Soviet Union are the only countries that allow the killing of newborn harp seals. Each year, fur dealers in Canada and Norway sell about 180,000 of the soft, transluscent pelts to furriers throughout the world. The sale of harp seal pelts is illegal in the United States, although the U.S. government sponsors an annual hunt for a different species, the Alaskan fur seal, on the Pribilof Islands of Alaska.
The seal hunt in Canada began last week when hunters began searching ice floes for seal pups 10 days to 3 weeks old. The hunters club the seals to death before removing their valuable pelts.
Last weekend's demonstration drew members of 11 national and local groups, including the Fairfax County-based American Animal Protection Association, the Washington Humane Society and Noah's Ark, a Montgomery County animal-rescue group.
Organizers of the protest were members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), a metropolitan area group formed last fall.
Jo Shoesmith, leader of the 30-member PETA, said animal-rights groups are focusing their efforts on four issues: "factory farming" (such as chicken farms, mink ranches), research projects involving animals, the fur industry and species threatened with extinction.
"The major issue in the D.C. area is experimentation," said Jane Risk, who heads the Washington office of the Animal Protection Institute of America. "All the universities practice it -- NIH, the government, especially the the military, like up at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland. And then there's experimentation in the private sector, also."
But the focus of Sunday's protest was seals, and the main speaker, Peter Dykstra, rallied the crowd when he spoke of the Canadian harp seal hunt. Dykstra, New England director of Greenpeace, an international environmental group known for its opposition to whaling, was one of a group of animal-rights supporters who watched a seal hunt last week on Prince Edward Island in Canada. The hunt was called off after the first day, when members of several humane groups charged that some pups were being skinned alive.
Dykstra says he was haunted by the cry of the young seals on the island.
"It's something that will stay with me the rest of my life. All I can say is that the call or cry of a baby harp seal sounds just like the cry of a baby human," explained Dykstra.
Dykstra joined Shoesmith in urging marchers to protest the U.S. government-supported hunting of Alaskan fur seals.
A 40 percent decline in the population of the Alaskan fur seal in the last decade, coupled with the upcoming renewal this year of the treaty that governs the Alaskan seal hunt, has caused the hunt to come under close scrutiny from most enviornmental and wildlife-protection groups.
Nancy Reagan's love of fur coats, which has boosted fur sales throughout the country, was noted by many of the protesters.
"I think Nancy Reagan is like many people who wear furs. They don't connect the brutal suffering caused by a steel leg-hold trap, or the horrible life of animals raised for fur, to the actual coat itself. If she did, I'm sure she wouldn't wear fur," said Karin Jackson, a PETA member from Takoma Park.
Several people said they had written Mrs. Reagan urging her not to wear furs, and had received two-sentence replies thanking them for their letters