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San Francisco, a city central to early U.S. fur trade, just banned fur sales

Benjamin Lin talks about the possible closure of the B.B. Hawk showroom because of a ban on the sales of fur in San Francisco on March 16. (Eric Risberg/AP)

Before Ken Kesey and the Grateful Dead held acid parties in Haight-Ashbury, before the Golden Gate Bridge was erected and before the United States built Alcatraz as a fort and later filled it with the city’s prisoners, San Francisco was a fur town.

The coastal city named for Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, was vital to the fur trade beginning in the late 1700s. But on Tuesday, San Francisco became the largest U.S. city to outlaw the sale of fur.

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to ban fur sales, the Associated Press reported. The ban will begin on Jan. 1, 2019, though retailers have until 2020 to sell their current inventory.

“It is estimated that around the world some 50 million animals are slaughtered in gruesome ways so that we can wear their fur and look fashionable,” Katy Tang, the supervisor who drafted the legislation, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “My hope is that it will send a strong message to the rest of the world.”

“I am a huge animal rights advocate, and while in office I would like to use my legislative abilities to help those who can’t speak for themselves,” Tang added.

About 50 businesses in the city, which its Chamber of Commerce says accounts for an estimated $40 million in annual fur sales, will be affected. Many of their owners aren’t happy.

Skip Pas, chief executive of West Coast Leather, said the city’s residents should have been able to vote on the ban.

“It’s the people of San Francisco who should say, ‘Yes, it’s too much,’” Pas told the Los Angeles Times. “What’s next? They’re going to say that you can’t have beef and you can’t have pork and duck in Chinatown? I mean, it’s a little too much.”

Others simply felt defeated.

“I cannot fight it,” 72-year-old Benjamin Lin, who owns B.B. Hawk, told the Associated Press. “I will not win. I do not have the energy and the money.”

While riling some local retailers, the ban is also a turn away from the city’s history.

The waters near San Francisco were once heavily populated with sea otters and seals. In the 1700s and 1800s, the animals covered the coast in seemingly endless numbers. Native Americans who lived in the area hunted them and wore their furs and pelts as defense against the weather, according to historical records.

British explorer Capt. James Cook acquired some of these furs and pelts and bought them to what is now China, during a exploratory voyage of the Pacific Ocean in 1779, according to “The Opening of the Maritime Fur Trade at Bering Strait” by John R. Bockstoce.

Cook was killed en route, but his crew carried on regardless. They were shocked to find they could sell the animal skins in the East for nearly 1,800 percent more than they paid for them. Thus began the trans-Pacific fur trade, with the San Francisco area as its bedrock, Bockstoce writes.

Instead of purchasing furs from Native Americans, everyone from the Spanish to the English to the Americans began killing otters and seals, then skinning them in a mad rush for profit. The animals were so sought after that they sparked the California Fur Rush in the early 1800s, a precursor to the more well-known California Gold Rush that began in 1848, historians note.

The fur rush was enormous. A 1917 book about the fur trade — “The Fur Trade of America and Some of the Men Who Made and Maintain It” by Albert Lord Belden — said that in the late 1700s, Spanish merchants sold “in a single season more otter skins than can now be obtained from all known sources of supply in a decade.”

The traders in the area, whom Belden referred to as “some of the most alert furriers” who made “the American fur trade worthwhile,” kept up those numbers for decades. But the area’s otter and seal populations dwindled, and eventually the gold found in California became the country’s new obsession.

In the centuries since then, furs have lived several lives, going from kitschy to fashionable to, in some eyes, evil. Lately, they’ve become the subject of intense criticism from animal rights activists.

Now, they’ve begun falling out of fashion, quite literally. Many of the world’s most elite fashion house — places where fur was basically a requirement when designing new garments — have disavowed the animal-based material.

Versace became the latest fashion house to ban fur, joining the likes of Micheal Kors and Furla.

The brand’s chief designer, Donatella Versace, offered a simple explanation for the decision, a sentiment echoed by several members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and most animal rights activists.

“I don’t want to kill animals to make fashion. It doesn’t feel right,” she told the Economist.

Correction: A previous version of this story referred to Donatella Versace as the founder of the Versace brand. She is its chief designer.

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