HENDERSON, Texas (Reuters) - Harold Renfro, a stocky east Texan, pulls on a submerged cable and hauls a dead beaver out of a chilly farm pond.
“Here he is, a small one,” he said. It was the third of the day.
Hired to kill an animal whose dams can cause flooding on farmland, Renfro would also like to sell the pelt. But his usual buyers are not interested.
“Nobody’s buying right now,” he said.
Renfro, 46, is the first cog in the many-layered, $15 billion global fur industry, one that is caught in the steel jaws of the global economic downturn.
Thirty years ago, when he started trapping, a beaver pelt would fetch $50. Last year, prices fell to about $12 a pelt.
Now, they are so low he reckons it’s not worth the trouble of taking the pelts to the buyers -- if he could find any.
As an economic recession grips the United States and other major economies around the world, luxury goods like fur coats are among the first items to be shunned by shoppers.
“We expect fur sales in the United States to be their lowest in several years, perhaps in a decade,” said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, which opposes the use of fur on cruelty grounds.
There was a similar drop after the stock market crash of 1987, the Humane Society said.
Sales of fur and fur-trimmed apparel and accessories were $1.61 billion in the United States in 2006, the latest year for which the Fur Information Council of America (FICA) has data.
And the outlook for this year is not good, said Keith Kaplan, FICA’s executive director. “It’s the same impact that general retailers and the apparel industry across the board are having.”
Imports of fur for apparel were down 18 percent in the first nine months of 2008 compared with the same period in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
As early as May this year, Fur Commission USA identified fear of an economic recession as the major factor behind the slowing of imports. Since then, the economic situation has only worsened.
In Russia, one of the industry’s biggest markets, total fur sales will halve to around $2.5 billion this year and will remain tough in 2009, according to the Russian Fur Union.
While much of the North American economy was built on fur -- trappers set up trading posts that are now big cities like Detroit and explored the West -- wild animal skins account for only about 15 percent of global fur trade, according to the International Fur Trade Federation.
The majority are farmed animals like mink and chinchilla.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, beaver pelts were exported to Europe, where they were in high demand to make felt. These days, Stetson cowboy hats are often made from beaver, and its fur is also used in trim for things like boots.
Renfro said he has been hit on all sides by the recession. He formerly worked exclusively as an independent operator, trapping nuisance animals for paying customers and selling the pelts on the side.
As well as beaver, he has also trapped coyotes, raccoons, bobcats and other species. Human/animal conflict is common in rural and even suburban America, from raccoons seeking food in homes to beavers building dams in drainage ditches which then cause flooding .
But in recent months business has dried up as people couldn’t pay his fees.
He now works as a municipal animal control officer for a town in east Texas. A recent weekend trapping excursion was for one of his few remaining private clients.
“This recession is going to devastate trapping for awhile,” he said.
This is music to the ears of those who regard the industry as barbaric.
“Trapping is a dying industry ... and we do think the recession is going to hurt,” said Pacelle.
Renfro maintains he uses humane methods and traps designed to inflict as little suffering as possible.
“This kill here went text book,” he said as he pointed to the bruising on the neck of one of the beavers as he skinned it -- an indication, he said, that its neck was broken instantly.
Renfro admits it doesn’t always go as well, but he says he tries to minimize the suffering.
As he skinned the animals back at his house, Renfro fed scraps of the fatty beaver meat to some of his family’s eight dogs and 16 cats and floured and fried some fresh cuts for his human guests.
“I hate to waste an animal,” he said. “Morally, it’s wrong just to kill an animal and not do anything with it.”
He’d also like to sell the pelts, if he could only find a buyer.
Reporting by Ed Stoddard and Jessica Rinaldi; Editing by Eddie Evans