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Guilt-free fur? Fashion embraces rodents

A fur that’s politically correct and even ecology-friendly to wear? Is such a thing possible?

Well, maybe. Oscar de la Renta, Michael Kors, Patrik Ervell and Gilles Mendel are among the designers who might be described as nuts for nutria fur.

Nutrias are large semiaquatic rodents that are indigenous to South America. In the late 1880s, fur trappers imported these beaverlike creatures to Louisiana to breed. But the business wasn’t as lucrative as they expected, and many of the critters were released into the wetlands of the Gulf Coast.

Too many nutriasIn addition to sporting a thick, lustrous fur, nutrias are quite prolific. So 100 years later, it was found that the nutria population of Louisiana was decimating the wetlands by devouring marsh grasses, eroding and damaging the area’s delicate ecosystem.

In response, the Coastwide Nutria Control Program was introduced in 2002. Managed by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and funded with federal dollars, the program is currently paying $5 for each nutria tail turned in to the program, enabling coastal trappers — many of them survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita — to make a living.

“Lots of coastal trappers are earning money through the Coastwide Nutria Control Program,” Edmond Mouton, biologist and program manager for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, told TODAYshow.com. “We took in about 300,000 tails in the years before Katrina and Rita. Post Katrina and Rita, it dropped a bit because of the impact of the storms, but this is a fairly resilient group of people. In the past year, they set a record of 445,963 tails.”

This intake has had a direct effect on the wetlands. “We’ve gone from 100,000 acres damaged in 2001 to a little more than 8,000 acres damaged now coastwide,” Mouton added, “It’s a successful program.”

ROBIN LOZNAK
MARCH 3, 2010 - ROSEBURG, Oregon, USA- A group of baby nutria, including one albino, gather for warmth as they rest near a pond in Roseburg, Oregon. (Credit Image: ? Robin Loznak)

After the state takes the tail, the trappers can then sell the pelts for additional income. “A lot of the fur is shipped to China and used in the Russian and Eastern European markets to make hats and coats — medium-price type garments,” Mouton explained. “They get $1 to $1.50, sometimes $2 per pelt, depending on the quality.”

“China is the single biggest fur market today and Russia is right after that,” Keith Kaplan, executive director of the Fur Information Council of America, told TODAYshow.com. But, he added, each fur has its own “fashion” cycle.

Back in fashion?“Nutria has been quiet in the past few years,” Kaplan said, but it is on the rise in fits and starts: “Last season, Oscar de la Renta did a nutria vest.” Michael Kors has used sheared nutria to line raincoats, which is a perfect application. “It’s a durable, dense fur that is traditionally used as trims or in linings. It can have a rich, rugged look.”

Designers de la Renta and Kors are in the last stages of preparing their Spring 2011 collections to show at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York this week, and consequently declined to comment. However, Mel Castro, product development director at Pologeorgis Furs, which holds the license and makes Michael Kors’ furs, said, “We’re not currently using a lot of nutria, but who is to say it’s not going to be the big trend next season?”

In addition to fashion dictating what is popular, current events also affect what is socially acceptable, Kaplan said. “There have been coyote incidences in Los Angeles and Chicago, so there are calls for increased trapping. In Maryland, there was a law passed about not trapping beavers, and all these trees started coming down. Now there’s a movement to trap beavers. In New York, there’s a raccoon problem,” he cited. “States don’t have the budget to deal with these problems, so things like financial incentives help wildlife agencies manage overpopulation.

“Fur is a renewable, sustainable resource,” Kaplan added. “And faux fur is a petroleum product.” Which is a particularly sensitive issue for residents along the Gulf these days.

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