When I was growing up, I idolized my Aunt Dixie. She was different from the other adult women I knew—less Laura Petrie, more Barbara Stanwyck. Dixie was a fiery redhead who wore fashionable dresses and high heels—not Capri pants and Keds like most of the moms in my neighborhood. She was a divorcée with almost as many exes as Elizabeth Taylor and no kids to tie her down. She had money to spend on stylish clothes and jewelry because she had a real job, unlike my mom (or so I thought then) and my friends’ moms, who were just … moms. Dixie was glamorous and sophisticated and everything I wanted to be.
I loved visiting her apartment and playing with her oversized cocktail rings and old purses. One purse in particular always caught my eye. It was a rich golden-brown, with a long strap and a genuine, dead alligator. You know the type: The body of the alligator stretched across the top of the bag, glass eyes staring accusingly. I was fascinated by that purse and also repulsed by it.
I was reminded of Aunt Dixie’s alligator purse recently while flipping through the September fashion magazines. Alligator skin, it seems—along with python, anaconda and crocodile—is “in.” The September Elle alone features an ark full of crocodile coats and gloves, alligator bags and clutches and python pumps.
At one time, purses like my aunt’s were the ultimate in chic accessories; now they just seem tacky. Today’s bags are dyed fantasy colors—bright silver or pink, for example—and adorned with semiprecious stones and gold trim, not alligators’ feet and claws. But I think my aunt’s purse was more honest: One look and you knew immediately that an animal had died to make it.
Today, it’s not so easy to tell that for every alligator handbag, two alligators have to be killed. High-end designers prefer alligators’ belly skins, and it takes two to make a bag. It takes six to make a jacket.
Most alligator skins come from farmed animals who are raised in crowded tanks of fetid, stinking water. When a PETA undercover investigator visited an alligator farm in Florida, he saw workers smash the animals over the head with baseball bats in a crude attempt to kill them. Many continued to writhe and move after they had supposedly been killed.
“Humans have historically treated alligators badly,” says British herpetologist Clifford Warwick. “Skin and meat traders in the U.S. continue to do so by ranching them and slaughtering them via slices through their spinal cords or bludgeoning them with hammers. The ‘lucky’ ones get shot.” He adds, “There is no scientific question as to whether alligators are capable of feeling pain and sensitivity to stress—they are.”
Pythons and crocodiles fare no better, of course. In Asia and South America, snakes are nailed to trees and their skin is ripped off their bodies while they are still alive, in the belief that live flaying keeps the skins supple. Crocodiles poached in the wild are caught with huge hooks and wires, then reeled in by hunters when they become weakened from loss of blood.
In the 1970s, many reptiles were close to extinction, and exotic skins became very unfashionable. Environmentalists say that the new trend, if it continues, may again put them at risk. According to London’s Daily Mail newspaper, in the past decade Chanel, Gucci and Fendi have all been fined for trading in crocodile skins from illegal sources.
I’m not worried: I predict that it won’t be long before the new reptilian accessories are as out of fashion as my aunt’s alligator purse. Today’s consumers are smart—and increasingly conscious about what we buy and what we wear and how it affects the world around us. And despite what fashion editors might say, we know that there is nothing glamorous about stealing another animal’s skin.
Paula Moore is a senior writer for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org.