In Hangzhou, an affluent industrial city in eastern China, a woman is proudly showing off her recent ascent to the middle class by slipping on her 568 Chinese yuan ($91) fox-trimmed knee-high boots and beaver-accented 518 yuan ($83) bolero shrug.
The trendy clothes were purchased at a Nanjing department store, stitched together in a Vietnam garment factory with fur imported from a European wholesaler that bought the pelts in January at the North American Fur Auction (NAFA), where a Southwest Pennsylvania trapper was paid $35 for the fox and $25 for the beaver, both caught in coil spring traps set in fall 2011 near a Fayette County stream a few miles south of Uniontown.
Hypothetical, but entirely plausible. Pelts from animals trapped in Pennsylvania are traded as commodities on the international market. While faux fur is trendy in Western cultural centers, wild fur remains hot in Russia, parts of Eastern Europe and China. For reasons science doesn't quite understand, the domestication of animals changes the colors, patterns and textures of fur, making it in many cases less desirable. Wild-trapped fur remains indispensable in the fashion industry.
Despite the strained global economy, fur prices have remained relatively stable despite some fluctuation. Late last year trappers benefited from a bump in the dollars paid for red fox, muskrat and beaver pelts.
"It's all speculation. There are so many factors," said Dave Eckels of Finleyville, a district manager for the Pennsylvania Trappers Association (PTA). "The NAFA and Fur Harvester Auction results are posted, but the highs are usually higher than most trappers are used to getting. Some of that is just the way the fur industry works -- you'll see red fox go for $150 a pelt and normally everybody gets $40."
Russians continue to like their fur coats, but in recent years many can't afford them. Chinese consumers, however, feeling their newfound economic oats, are buying luxury items including fur-trimmed everything. The international fashion trend is away from full fur coats and hats -- designers apply fur as collar and cuff trim.
"Last year it was red fox used for trim in collars and cuffs on short-hair jackets," Eckels said. "Right now its the short-haired fur from water animals -- muskrat, mink, and sometimes they shear beaver which makes it short-hair, too. Muskrat is a cheap substitute for mink, which is mostly a farmed fur. But where ranch mink might bring $50-$100, muskrat brings $10."
The first of Pennsylvania's trapping seasons opened in late October with no limits on coyote, red and gray fox, opossum, raccoon, skunk and weasel. Mink and muskrat opened Nov. 17. Bobcat opens Dec. 15 in some wildlife management units, and the state's third fisher trapping season starts the same day. A three-month season on beaver begins Dec. 26.
When pelt prices skyrocket on the global market, as they did in the late 1970s, trapping participation rises. PTA reports the number of trappers has held fairly steady in recent years.
But while farmers might bet on wheat one year and corn the next, Eckels said most trappers don't alter their targets or strategies in response to fashion market trend. They specialize, despite the potential advantages of staying ahead of the curve.
"There's a core group of trappers who trap the same animals no matter what. People have their niche," said Eckels, who has trapped on some of the same farms for some 30 years. He runs a line of 40 traps in Washington County. "For me it's raccoons. When the fur market crashed in 1987 and raccoons went to $3, that put a hindrance on everybody, but I still trapped them. Red foxes are higher than they've been for a couple of years, but I'm still targeting raccoons. Guys who just trap canines, they're going to trap them whether the price is up or not."
Successful trapping requires a high level of knowledge about the target animal and its habitat. This year some 500 people participated in PTA-sponsored trapping classes -- Eckels said two-thirds where kids and young adults. The regional NAFA fur auction will be held Jan. 27 at the Washington County Fairgrounds.
"There's money to be made when the market's right, but for most trappers that I know it's a hobby -- a passion," Eckels said. "Once it's in you, it's no different than people who are into archery hunting or turkey hunting or fly fishing."