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Is Eco-Conscious Fur An Oxymoron?
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Is Eco-Conscious Fur An Oxymoron?

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Is Eco-Conscious Fur An Oxymoron?
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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Here's an example of recasting an image. Fur as environment-friendly. NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports that some ecologists are trying to label a type of fur as green for the sake of Louisiana's marshes.

(Soundbite of music)

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: At this unusual fashion show, a model wearing a fur bikini does acrobatics on a big hoop suspended above the catwalk. The cello player wears a fur bikini too. But this is chilly Brooklyn so many of the models wear fur in more traditional ways.

Unidentified Man: And this '60s retro-style full fur vest is brocade lined and completely reversible.

SHOGREN: This is hardly a typical fur fashion event. The pelts on display aren't sable, mink or fox. They're nutria - a beaver-like rodent with bright orange buckteeth. And the unlikely sponsor of this show and others like it in New Orleans is an environmental group that's trying to rekindle the market for nutria fur.

Cree McCree is the project director of Righteous Fur.

Ms. CREE McCREE (Project Director, Righteous Fur): It sounds crazy to talk about guilt-free fur, unless you really understand that the nutria are destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands every year.

SHOGREN: That's a bit of an exaggeration, but over the years nutria have destroyed large swaths of Louisiana's marshes. That's made New Orleans more vulnerable to hurricanes and done away with habitats for Gulf of Mexico seafood.

State scientists were so concerned that they put a bounty on nutria. They pay trappers and hunters $5 a tail.

(Soundbite of music)

Some of those pelts ended up on this runway.

Invasive species scientist, Michael Massimi, from the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program says he never imagined he'd end up frequenting fashion shows. He even modeled a nutria outfit for a photo shoot.

Mr. MICHAEL MASSIMI (Invasive Species Scientist, Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program): This is a type of field work that I didn't envision.

SHOGREN: He says has no qualms about promoting the fur because these critters don't belong in Louisiana's marshes. They were brought there from Argentina by fur farmers and let go into the wild.

Mr. MASSIMI: The ecosystem down there can't handle this invasive species. It's destroying the environment. It's them or us. So any sort of pangs of conflict that I feel are entirely mitigated by that.

Biologist Edmond Mouton runs the Nutria Control Program for the state. He says it's not easy to convince people that nutria fur is green. But he has no doubt about it, after seeing firsthand what they do to wetlands.

Mr. EDMOND MOUTON (Biologist, Nutria Control Program, Louisiana): The nutria start to dig down to get the roots and the more tender parts of the plants, and once those plants start to die, those floating marshes tend to break up and turn into open water. A lot of that marsh will be lost forever.

SHOGREN: His program is funded by federal taxpayers, and it's making headway. In the eight years since it started, the acres destroyed annually by the rodents is down from 100,000 to 8,000.

Mr. MOUTON: We've had about a 90 percent reduction in damage from nutria. It's very impressive. Much to our surprise, it worked very well.

SHOGREN: Trappers and hunters bring in more than 300,000 nutria tails a year, so part of Mouton's job these days is trying to promote fur. He says sales to China are up. And some American designers - including Oscar de la Renta - are showcasing nutria in their collections.

The plunging back of model Paige Morgan's dress is trimmed with nutria tails. She says she loves the fur and thinks many other people will, too.

Ms. PAIGE MORGAN (Model): To give them a guilt-free option that they can wear without, you know, someone throwing paint on their coat - I think that's going to be a massive thing, at least here in New York.

SHOGREN: Some animal rights groups say traps used to catch nutria aren't humane, and neither is shooting them.

Designer Jennifer Anderson admits it took her awhile to come around to the opinion that using nutria pelts for her creations is ethical - and some of her friends tried to talk her out of it.

Ms. JENNIFER ANDERSON (Designer): They just said, you know, bringing fur back into fashion is only going to cause a ripple effect that it's okay to wear fur.

SHOGREN: That got Anderson thinking about a basic problem with wearing nutria: How will people know that it's eco-friendly? She's trying to come up with a label to attach to nutria fashions to show it's virtuous fur, and not that other kind.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

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