Does every fur coat you see represent an animal who lived or died miserably? It’s hard to believe they trap coyotes or foxes, for example, and then leave them to die slowly and painfully. I’ve heard that farm-bred animals such as minks are kept in tiny cages until they are killed for their coats. Is this true? –Lauren Giles, Chicago

I’ve spent the last week trying to nail down the facts on this, without spectacular success. Not having the time to make personal inspections, I am forced to rely on word from the fur industry on the one hand and the animal-rights crowd on the other. The result is like one of those criminal insanity hearings: you get a lineup of experts saying exactly opposite things. To arrive at a reasonable approximation of the facts we are forced to rely on our inner bullshit detector, which fortunately is pretty acute, due to constant use.

The broad answers to your questions are that (1) yes, at least some of the animals die slowly and painfully, although how many, how slowly, and how painfully is a matter of debate; and (2) yes, farm-bred minks are kept in small if not tiny cages until killed for their coats.

Are they miserable? Some sure are. The folks at Friends of Animals, an antifur group, sent Cecil a video of life on a fur farm. There are some horrifying scenes. Animals pace neurotically in cages, some of them with large open sores. A pup hobbles around with what appears to be a broken leg bone protruding through the flesh. The bodies of several mink are scattered in the dirt; narrator Sally Struthers informs us in a quivering voice that they died of heatstroke.

Fur industry spokespeople say fur farms aren’t like that and that farm operators have an economic incentive to keep their animals healthy. No doubt there is some truth in this. But fur farming is geared to mass production and it’s hard to believe operators are going to lavish a lot of time on the occasional injured or distressed animal. Not that that’s the heart of the argument for animal-rights advocates. They say the fact that humans exploit animals at all is the real crime. We’ll get back to this in a moment.

Trapping, for those troubled by the thought of animals cooped up in cages all their lives, has the advantage that the critters roam free until caught. But the end isn’t pretty–a blow or a bullet to the head, suffocation, etc. Snares (nooses, basically) can cause strangulation or amputation of a limb; even the trappers’ association frowns on them. Then there’s the famous (or infamous) leg-hold trap, which according to the trappers simply immobilizes animals until they can be found and dispatched, typically within 24 hours. Antifur activists say baloney, leg-hold traps seriously injure animals, who may suffer for days until the trapper makes his rounds. Another common type of trap is the Conibear, which kills the animal by crushing its skull–instantly in theory, but Cecil is willing to believe there’s a considerable gap between theory and practice. Whatever really happens out there, we’re not talking about taking old Bowser to the vet to be put to sleep. It may or may not be fast, but it’s definitely violent.

Then again, they didn’t put out silken cushions before offing the cow (steer, whatever) that went into that hamburger you just ate, either. If you wear leather shoes, partake of miracle drugs that involved animal research, or even use no-pest strips, you may be sure that animals were killed, sometimes painfully, in your behalf. Hard-core animal-rights activists denounce this; the fur folks, and for that matter medical researchers and some conservationists, say get a life–nature is cruel; our first responsibility is to our own kind, our second to preserve species, not individuals. Cecil, like any good liberal, opposes the gratuitous destruction of life. But as concerns the exploitation of animals by humans in principle, he is of the view that the means must be considered in light of the ends and, equally important, the alternatives. In the case of furs worn by the wealthy, the ends are frivolous. I don’t try to squish turtles when driving the back roads, either. But I do wear leather shoes, and plan to.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.