I’m vending at an event this weekend and not getting a lot of sleep. Yesterday morning, I woke up to this email, which I assume is from someone who saw me setting up at the event and decided they needed to Take Action:
How are your fox pelts obtained? I cannot think of an ethical method. Plz respond, I intend to protest / flyer your booths.
I’m not proud of my initial brief, terse, and frankly snarly reply to this email, which was born of little rest and a short temper because of that fatigue. I get a lot of these sorts of messages, and they’re usually from people who don’t seem to do any research about who I am and what I do before they decide to take offense at my chosen medium. Still, “Turbowag” did ask a question, and I’m glad he(?)’s at least that curious.
The short answer is that my materials come from a network of suppliers and channels that I’ve cultivated over most of twenty years. Some of these are secondhand pelts recovered from old taxidermy, rugs, coats, museum specimen collections, and the like. Some of them come from subsistence hunters–people who live close to the land, eat what they kill (assuming it’s edible), and sell the furs to pay for essentials like heating fuel. Some are the remains of animals that had to be put down for legal/medical reasons, and some are from food animals.
The last category, and the one you’re probably the most concerned about, is the fur that comes from upholstery and garment discards. When an animal, like a fox, is killed to line a parka (or whatever), the whole hide is tanned, but only the torso is used. The paws, faces, and tails are landfilled or incinerated, unless someone like me reclaims those pieces. Whatever you think of fur farming, bear in mind that unhappy animals don’t have attractive pelts, and that I’ve spent most of twenty years vetting these people.
So why do I dirty my hands like this? Two main reasons: first, because if these animals are going to die, I’d like their deaths to stand for more than somebody’s fashion statement or mantlepiece ornament. My wearable art brings these animals’ existence into a more vivid reality for people who may otherwise tend to misunderstand and abstract them. If you purchase one of my coyote headdresses, for example, you have to embrace the fact that it’s not an disconnected, romanticized representation of “coyoteness” but the skin of an individual creature that felt cold, warmth, hunger, satisfaction, curiosity, and fear. The more people are confronted with these relics of the animals we share the planet with, the more (I hope) they consciously consider the responsibilities that come with our de facto stewardship of Earth’s biosphere*.
The other reason is more direct and personal: a significant portion of the money this art brings in, in excess of rent and bills and business expenses, gets donated to organizations that support wildlife and their habitats. I’ve been able to make frequent, somewhat substantial donations to organizations including but not limited to the Defenders of Wildlife, Wolf Haven International, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and other institutions doing meaningful work, because I retrieve the remains of dead animals from (sometimes literally) our culture’s dustbins and send them to a new “afterlife” where they are cherished and respected. In fact, just a couple of days ago I posted about my most recent donation to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and I have been telling people at the event I am at this weekend that a portion of the funds I make will go to the Oregon Aquarium; both these organizations put in a significant amount of energy and time and money into the preservation of oceans and their inhabitants.
Now that I’ve addressed your questions, “Turbowag”, I’d like to explain why I was annoyed at your email when I was still groggy and cranky this morning, and why I’m still annoyed: because I’ve said all this before. I said it on the internet here, here, here, here, and here (and a whole bunch more times here). I said it in the artist statement that’s posted and distributed at the events where I show and vend. I said it two days in a row in this online workshop. I said it in workshops and panels at numerous pagan and related events over the years. I say it in many of my books, and it’s the central theme of my fourth book, Skin Spirits. Let me repeat that: I wrote an entire book explaining how and why I make the art I do, including how to ethically source reclaimed materials.
I’m annoyed because I keep having to answer this question despite bending over backwards to make the answers available to anyone who looks since 2006, and furthermore, I’m annoyed because I don’t think you’re asking because of an honest curiosity. I think you’re another one of the LEGION of bored internet trolls who is briefly making me your hobby, because I look like an easy target and you think you can turn the kneejerk outrage over OMG DEAD FOXES into however many reblogs and attaboys.
You are not a righteous crusader for the fuzzy critters, and I am not the face of careless wilderness exploitation. I make this art because I care about these creatures, and people pay for it because they care just as much. What’s more, they’ve learned, over years of patronizing my booth at events, buying my work online, consulting with me to do custom work for artistic, personal, and spiritual projects, and asking me for advice in working with their own hides, bones, and other remains, that they can trust my motives and my sources.
And that, “Turbowag”, is why you got me out of the wrong side of the bed this morning.
*As Frank Herbert said through Paul Muad’Dib in Dune, “He who can destroy a thing controls it”.