A Fashion Faux Pas: The High Price of Using Animals for Fashion

A parrot feather hat, a crocodile skin corset, boots made of elephant skin: Doni Sprague has it all in a warehouse of fashion.

“There’s really no bounds or limits in this business,” she said.

But Sprague didn't buy this stuff. This collection costs more than money, so the U.S. government seized it.

"It's greed in a lot of sense, that's what it boils down to," said Special Agent in Charge Steve Oberholtzer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Oberholtzer oversees the government's multi-million dollar collection of goods made out of wild animals that people have been caught bringing into the United States illegally. And he says fashion drives much of what they see coming through the door.

"There's a wide variety of animals that have perfectly legal commercialization,” he said. “But there's also a lot of illegal commercialization in endangered and threatened species, so those are the ones that really need protection."

Which is why Fish and Wildlife agents seized elephant-tail bracelets from tourists, a reticulated python purse from a celebrity and a runway gown trimmed with caiman, which is a cousin to the crocodile.

Then there’s the trunk full of scarves, each made from Tibetan antelope, and which take five to seven animals to make. Each scarf costs up to $10,000.

Oberholtzer said that means their trunk is worth at least $1 million.


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He showed how agents can tell it’s Tibetan antelope: by running the scarf through his wedding ring. Only Tibetan antelope is fine enough not to bunch up and get stuck.

The News 4 I-Team analyzed a government database of all the fashion items people tried to sneak into the country in the last five years. Fish and Wildlife intercepted more than 9,800 illegal shipments worth in excess of $20 million.

Python, alligator, crocodile and caiman make up 48 percent, almost half, of all those shipments.

Sprague said, “If people would start looking at alternatives like simulated leathers, which are very good, instead of using genuine skin from a live animal, we could make a huge difference."

In the collection, Sprague has boots made of nearly every animal imaginable. As she showed off one pair, she said, “I kind of see a giraffe type of pattern but when you feel this, this is actually made of sting ray."

It’s all housed in a warehouse called the National Wildlife Property Repository.

Some of what’s in the warehouse comes from tourists who don't know the rules. A lot of it comes from companies who didn't get the right permits.

Then there are the people who tried to smuggle it in, including the huge pile of white boxes stacked in a corner of the warehouse. Each box contains one pair of boots made from the skin of the critically endangered Hawksbill sea turtle.

"It requires one turtle to make a single pair," Sprague said.

And it takes dozens of endangered cats to make a coat. "On average, a mid-length coat might contain fifteen to twenty cats just to create a single garment," she said.

“To the eye they can be very beautiful," Sprague said. "But you have to understand that beauty comes with a price, and in this case part of the price is the depletion of a species."

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