Furs may be the new rage in Washington, but a not-so-silent minority in the District sees the fashion trend as a sign of ignorance and a lack of ethics.
About 180 animal-rights supporters from Virginia, Maryland and the District devoted last Sunday afternoon to protesting the slaughter of baby harp seals. Protesters formed a line in front of the Canadian Consulate at 18th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW, carrying signs and chanting, "Stop the Slaughter," before walking 16 blocks to deliver the same message in front of the Norwegian Embassy on 34th Street NW.
A second protest in front of the embassy was held Monday.
Canada, Norway and the Soviet Union are the only countries that allow hunters to kill newborn harp seals. Each year, fur dealers in Canada and Norway sell about 180,000 of the soft, translucent pelts to furriers throughout the world. The sale of harp seal pelts is illegal in the United States, although the U.S. government funds an annual hunt of a different species, the Alaskan fur seal, on the Pribilof Islands of Alaska.
The seal hunt in Canada began last week, when hunters started searching ice floes for 10-day to 3-week-old pups that are clubbed to death before their valuable pelts are removed.
Last weekend's protest brought out members of 11 national and local groups, including Greenpeace, an international environmental group with headquarters in the District, and the washington Humane Society. tThe march was organized by people for the ethical treatment of Animals (PETA), a Washington-area group formed last fall.
Jo Shoesmith, a spokeswomen for the 30-member PETA, said four areas have priority among animal-rights groups: "factory farming" (i.e., chicken farms and 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 protester Jane Risk, head of the Washington office of the Animal protection Intitute of America. "All the universiies practice it, NIH (the National Institutes of Health), the government -- especially the military, like up at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland -- and then there's experimentation in the private sector also."
Of the Animal Protection Institute's 100,000 members throughout the United States, approximately 5,000 are from the Washington metropolitan area.
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, was one of the group of animal-rights supporters present for a hunt that took place last week on Prince Edward Island in Canada. The hunt was called off after the first day, following charges by several groups that some pups were being skinned alive.
Dykstra said 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," Dykstra explained.
He joined Shoesmith in urging marchers to protest the U.S. government-supported hunt of the Alaskan fur seal.
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 seal hunt, has caused the hunt to come under close scrutiny by most environmental and wildlife protection groups.
Nancy Reagan's love of fur coats, which has boosted sales throughout the country, concerned many protesters Sunday.
"I think Nancy Reagan is like many people who wears 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.
"It seems to me that since she's so caught up with handicapped and mentally retarded people that she could understand the suffering and need to protect all creatures," said the Rev. John A. Shirkey, a Methodist minister who lives in the District and works with antipoverty programs.
Others were more outspoken.
"It's a crime to see someone with as much prestige and influence as Mrs. Reagan go around in a fur coat. She's showing very blatantly that she she has no concern for animals and their welfare," said Cyann Proodian, who works as a volunteer with the Institute for the Study of Animal Problems -- the scientific branch of the Humane Society of the United States -- whose headquarters are in Washington.
"I can't believe she wore a fur coat up in Canada this week when this whole thing is going on (the harp seal hunt)," said a disgusted Marsha Kaplan, who works for the Washington Humane Society.
Several people said they had written the first lady urging her not to wear furs and received two-sentence replies thanking them for their letters.