Trapping Muskrat, the mother of humankind (no Muskrat Love here)

From the Yet More Bad News for Wild Animals department: The North American Fur Auctions (NAFA) has just concluded its most successful sale with what it calls “advancing wild fur prices.”

For you bargain shoppers, a squirrel’s skin goes for a paltry $0.63. (Sixty-three cents? For someone’s life?) Top-dollar-getter is the lynx cat (aka bobcat) at $426.31 for a Western animal’s skin (see “pelt” categories here).

NAFA is aggressively marketing to international consumers–particularly young, flush Chinese–with its “Northern Lights” wild fur collection. It’s all about “fun, fantasies and the feeling of just being young and beautiful,” according to its oh-so-breezy website write-up. “The amount of wild fur exhibited at the Beijing Fair shows the growing importance of many species, particularly muskrat, beaver, coyote, red fox and raccoon within the fashion industry, this being outside of the traditional fur retailer.”

Particularly bad news for the North American musquash: The muskrat fur market is booming. More specifically, the muskrat belly fur market is booming, according to the Wall Street Journal. This is “thanks to soaring purchases by Chinese and other newly rich nations that need muskrat fur to line coats and footwear.” That’s right. You mind your own business, pursue the things important to you–engineering a den, gnawing on cattails, nursing your babies, plying the marshy waters and basking in the warm sun, and snap! just like that! you’re ten bucks lining Grizzly Adams’ pocket…and you literally are the lining in Xiulan’s fashion boots.

The fur on a muskrat’s stomach is felt-like and virtually waterproof. This is good and bad. Good, because Nature outfitted the semi-aquatic rodent with the perfect wetlands drysuit. Bad, for the obvious reason (photo). “Rats, as trappers call them, have never fetched a higher price,” reports the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch. “An auction in North Bay, Ontario, this month (January) featured 55,000 muskrat pelts — including a bundle, known as a lot…sent by way of an Ohio agent.” Says the trapper: “The Chinese bought them all.”

Muskrats live in families–mom, dad, the kids, and coexist with their neighbors, the Beavers. (Evidence from one den-cam shows muskrats actually livingwith their beaver hosts.)* And like all of Nature’s denizens, they’re an integral part of an intricate web, serving as prey for many species and provider of habitat for others–their feeding activities serve to maintain open areas in wetlands, which in turn provide habitat for birds. Other animals–snakes, turtles, frogs, ducks, and geese—use muskrat lodges and platforms to rest and nest in.


Click image for book info

Many Native American tribes place their creation myths on Muskrat’s amazing and able back, and no wonder: “Muskrats can swim under water for 12 to 17 minutes. Their bodies, like those of seals and whales, are less sensitive to the buildup of carbon dioxide than those of most other mammals. They can close off their ears to keep the water out” (Wikipedia).

But let’s get down to brass tacks–or should we say, steel traps, which have nothing to do with respect. Muskrats are killed in body gripping traps, foothold traps (video) (from The “if a standard foot-hold trap is used and the muskrat isn’t submerged, it may twist and pull until it escapes, leaving its foot in the trap. This is called wring-off…”), and cage traps set at a den’s under-water opening so the animal drowns. (A primer on muskrat trapping and skinning can be found here.) Lest anyone labor under the misconception that drowning is a peaceful, easy death–a fiction sometimes promulgated by trappers–note this comment at a discussion forum:

Yeah, trapping bites, all right. And what really bites–now that fur is no longer cool in the U.S. thanks to groups big and small crusading against cruelty–is that a global market comes roaring to life, making trim of coyotes from Montana, making lining of muskrats from Michigan. Just so the nouveau riche in China can get their“fun and fantasies” on, NAFA having convinced them this is necessary.

But given that we here in the U.S. are still struggling ourselves to drive the last few nails into the coffin of this anachronistic brutality, we’ll have to be patient with our Asian neighbors. Indeed, they’re already making terrific progress in their animal activism, taking on shark finning, rodeo, and more; in our well-connected, linked-up world, let’s hope their progress comes faster than ours has.

Finally, for those who are wondering, “OK, this is all well and good, but what about the obvious connection between beauty queens and muskrat skinning?” –wonder no longer. The tradition continues in Dorchester County, MD, where Miss Outdoors is crowned on the same stage–and thankfully, prior to–the muskrat skinning contest. Pretty teens vying for one title; men with knives vying for another. Absent is any notion that Muskrat is the mother of humankind.

*The original webcam I posted showed muskrats and beavers co-habitating. That link disappeared, but you can read about it here.

This post also appears at Animal Blawg, where comments are accepted.