The fashion industry is famously fickle. Ten years ago, supermodels were getting their kits off and tits out for anti-fur adverts, declaring "We Would Rather Go Naked" than wear the pelt of some unfortunate beast clubbed to death by a nasty foreigner. Today some of the very same models wear dead foxes, tail and all, slung over their shoulders, or the fur of aborted lamb fetuses (seriously) as a super-soft winter hat.
Meanwhile, those who foolishly thought that the earlier anti-fur stance was more than a fad are furious. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the ferocious animal lib organization, is hunting down the fur-wearers. PETA has denounced Jennifer Lopez as "Fur Scum" for including rabbit-trimmed jackets in her Sweetface clothing line, and scolded Elizabeth Jagger (Mick's model daughter) for wearing a fox in a Julien Macdonald show at London Fashion Week earlier this year. "Bunnies killed for fur scream as they are skinned alive!" screamed PETA. Today, for the second time in a year, PETA activists assaulted Vogue editor Anna Wintour with a dietetically correct pie.
I am no fan of fur, or the fur industry. But in this unseemly clash between self-obsessed fashionistas and animal rights activists who seriously think that a mink should have the same rights as a man, I'll defend the fur-makers every time. The anti-fur movement is motivated by a base anthropomorphism, by a belief that animals ought to be human's equals. And to that, humanists should say: There is no greater privilege for an animal, which otherwise would scurry around, eat, shit, breed and then die, than to be made into a fur coat, which can be worn and admired for generations.
Animal rights activists say the fur industry is cruel, causing pain, distress and death to innocent animals. "How would you like it?" they ask, as captured in an anti-fur TV ad which showed a woman in a fancy fur being accosted by burly men, clubbed around the head, and stripped of her coat. The implication is that a mink experiences being hunted exactly as the sexy broad who ends up wearing said mink would experience it.
Yet according to Stuart Derbyshire, an expert in the neurophysiology of pain at the University of Pittsburgh, the fact that an animal might scream or recoil when trapped doesn't show that it has an appreciation of pain, much less a conscious thought process. "Chop the head off a chicken and it will continue to run around. If you catch the headless chicken—quickly!—and stick a pin in its foot, it will STILL flinch, despite no longer having a head or a brain," he says. "These reflex responses are coordinated by a spinal-motor loop and do not involve the brain or require conscious experience."
It is different for humans—and profoundly so. A beast runs away out of an instinct for survival, bestowed on it by the evolutionary process. A human, with his self-awareness, meaningful relationships with others, and consciousness, would leg it from a knife-wielding hunter from a dire appreciation of what being skinned alive and killed would entail—for himself, his future, his family and friends. A hunted human might think to himself "I could die today," and what a terrifying thought that would be! An animal is incapable even of thinking "I could die today," as Derbyshire explains: "Animals do not understand the concept of 'today', unless we think foxes use calendars and keep diaries; or 'die', unless we think that mink have funeral rites; or 'could', because they have no sense of probabilistic inference; or even 'I', because they also have no sense of self." Such concepts, says Derbyshire, are "uniquely human."
So while the physical responses of a human and an animal to being hunted would look similar, they could not be more different. The difference is in the screaming. PETA's bunnies that "scream" at the prospect of being made into a jacket for Ms Lopez, apart perhaps from having an elevated sense of fashion, do so only instinctively to grab the attention of a parent or other member of the group. A human scream in similar circumstances would be infinitely more deathly, expressing fear, angst, and a horrible appreciation of what is about to occur. PETA might not be able to tell the difference, but most of us can: If we hear a cat wailing at an ungodly hour, we throw something at it; if we hear a woman scream, we investigate or call the cops. We distinguish between the frankly irritating cry of a distressed beast and the holler of a threatened human.
Of course, the majority of us treat animals humanely, and we should expect the fur industry to do likewise; only weirdos torture cats, dogs or rabbits for kicks. But the animal libbers want more than humane treatment—they want animals to be treated as if they themselves were human, and argue that they deserve equal rights to human beings. They project human characteristics on to beasts, imagining they can smile and scream and perhaps say things like, "Run, Bambi, run!"
This childish attitude toward animals is no longer the preserve of radical vegans who shout abuse at J-Lo; it increasingly informs public debate on important matters of scientific endeavor and even liberty. A Working Party of the British Nuffield Council on Bioethics, a serious scientific body, said in a report on the ethics of animal research published in May that it rejected the idea of "categorical human superiority" over animals. Much of the opposition to fox hunting in the UK is motivated by a Disneyfied view of foxes, so that the practice of this sport, which is mostly the preserve of toffs but which was once described even by Friedrich Engels as "the most magnificent physical pleasure I know," is now severely restricted in England and Wales.
The idea that we are morally superior to animals is not some pose; it is the foundation of human civilization. And the attack on that idea of superiority today, by the anti-fur movement, the anti-hunting lobby and anti-vivisectionists, and the distaste for it even at the highest levels of government and science, represents an attack on our civilization.
In such circumstances, we should defend even Lopez and Lizzie Jagger from the anti-fur lot, and point to the humanizing side of the fur industry. To turn an animal into a fur coat is to ennoble it. As a fashion item, an animal acquires a significance far beyond its own natural existence. Indeed, the only true "purpose" in the life of a mink or rabbit is that bestowed on it by the hunter, skinner and fur-maker: Through their efforts, an animal is elevated from an instinct-driven bundle of reflex responses to an item worthy of being displayed in Paris, London and New York. Through human endeavor and labor an animal is given a use and meaning nature could never have designed for it. What is a fox but a wild dog scrabbling for food on the forest floor, destined to die and rot in a dirthole? The fox worn by Jagger was spared this fate and made into something memorably beautiful.
No finer fate can befall an animal than to be caught by the fur-hunter. And if they "scream" it's only because they are too dumb to realise that.