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Animal Rights Groups Target China's Fur Industry


China, the world's biggest producer of fur products, has become the latest target of international animal rights groups. The organizations say there are no laws to protect livestock on Chinese fur farms, where animals are kept in appalling conditions and brutally killed.

While many people still consider wearing a fur coat politically incorrect, real fur has begun to make a comeback.

Often dyed and mixed with other materials, fur can be found decorating a variety of fashion items, from clothes to shoes and bags.

China has become the world's biggest producer and exporter of these fur products. Many of the pelts used are imported, but an increasing number are produced domestically.

International animal rights groups say the millions of animals raised for their pelts in China are severely mistreated, with foxes, minks, raccoons and rabbits kept in small, filthy cages and treated cruelly.

The animal rights organizations also say Chinese companies use fur from cats and dogs. These are often deliberately labeled as fur from other species or as fake fur, and sold to unsuspecting shoppers abroad.

But what makes activists especially angry is the cruel way in which fur farms kill the animals.

Barbara Maas, chief executive of British organization Care for the Wild International, says workers often just hit animals on the head and do not always make sure they are dead before skinning them.

"So either animals that have been stunned, they come to it again and then the workers seem almost to get annoyed that the animal is wiggling and they either, if they are lucky, hit them on the head again, or they just put the boot on their neck or hang them upside down from hooks so the animal can't defend itself, and they peel the skin off -- we have video footage of this -- they peel the skin off the animals like you and I would peel a banana," she said.

The China Fur Commission claims these are isolated cases. But PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) says the practice is widespread.

Andrew Butler, PETA's Asia-Pacific representative, says it is hard to take action as China, unlike other fur-producing countries, does not have legislation for the protection of animals.

"We feel this is an important step for China to take, so that when we find cruelty, there is at least legal recourse for concerned groups and individuals to take against those who are being blatantly cruel to animals," said Butler.

But animal rights groups say there is evidence the Chinese public and the government are beginning to listen to their concerns.

Jill Robinson, founder of the Animals Asia Foundation in Hong Kong, says there is growing concern about the mistreatment of animals as more and more Chinese are keeping pets.

"They care just as passionately as people in the West in many, many cases," said Robinson. "And these are the people that are rising up now against this cruelty."

PETA has noticed a growing awareness of the cruelty of the fur industry among Chinese consumers. The group recently ran an anti-fur advertisement on phone cards in Shanghai and visits to its Chinese-language website increased as a result.

Butler believes animal rights issues will gain a lot of momentum in the next few years, especially in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, when the whole world will be watching China.