In a nondescript building in South Minneapolis, a small group of volunteers — all animal-rights activists — grab handfuls of musty old furs and tear them apart.
They aren’t venting their rage or trying to destroy the furs. Instead, they’re giving the furs new life as cuddly blankets for injured and orphaned animals across the country.
By removing the buttons and linings from grandma’s coat or stripping the trim off a shopworn pair of winter boots, members of the local Animal Rights Coalition are turning once-fashionable furs into plain, unadorned pelts that provide warm nesting material for abandoned baby bunnies and food caches for bobcats in wildlife sanctuaries.
“We’re taking a tragedy and doing the best for it,” said Dallas Rising, executive director of the coalition. “We supply a solution to a problem.”
Cuddle Coats, as the program is called, is small, but its reach is growing, said Rising. In the six years she’s been working for the coalition, Cuddle Coats has expanded its network of rehabilitation clinics, animal societies and sanctuaries and widened its circle of donors.
The program receives hundreds of furs a year from donors who hand over furs for different reasons.
For some, it’s about recycling.
People will come in with a box of coats that belonged to a deceased relative, said Rising. Instead of selling them, they donate the furs, which they then might be able to claim as a tax deduction (up to $500 without an appraisal).
For others, the choice to donate is political.
Janice Eckhardt from Arvada, Colo., donates every scrap of fur she can find.
“I’m very opposed to wearing animals because they don’t wear me,” she said. “These skins, the sacrifice that these animals have made, we can use them for the baby animals.”
Tammy Theis, founder and director of the Wildcat Sanctuary in Sandstone, Minn., said the sanctuary uses Cuddle Coats for its small and medium-sized cats, such as bobcats and servals. The pelts, along with other recycled goods, give the cats new textures with which to interact. Staff members also use the pelts to provide new hiding spots for food, which they move to keep the animals entertained.
Cuddle Coats also have made their way to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic in High Ridge, Mo., where they’ve been used to give raccoons, possums, skunks and mice something to cuddle.
In spring, the number of orphaned babies at the clinic spikes, and so does the need for Cuddle Coats. The fur makes the baby animals feel secure and warm, said Jyll Ellis, a manager at the clinic.
“We just had a little raccoon the other day, and he just cried and cried,” she said. “Towels wouldn’t do it, but the Cuddle Coats calmed him down,”
Still, Cuddle Coats aren’t all about warm and fuzzy. The volunteers behind the program hope they can convince more people to stop wearing fur and other clothing made from animal products.
To get vintage furs out of circulation, the volunteers worked with local thrift shops Earth Exchange in Minneapolis and Everyday People and Animal Ark Thrift and Pet Store in St. Paul. As Cuddle Coats affiliates, the stores donate furs they get rather than selling them.
Mike Fry, executive director of Animal Ark, a no-kill shelter and thrift store, said they don’t put out fur products because the items might offend customers. He also noted that he has seen less demand for fur in the store.
Some Cuddle Coats volunteers stage occasional protests at local fur retailers to encourage potential customers to rethink buying a fur coat. But the program’s anti-fur bent hasn’t reached the fashion runways.
Sara Rogers, the Mall of America’s trend specialist, said fur continues to be popular. While some people avoid wearing coats made of fur and leather, real and faux-fur trim is widely accepted.
Cuddle Coats volunteers would beg to differ. And they do — one piece of fur at a time.
“There’s regret around the fact that the fur happened,” said Rising, “but [with Cuddle Coats] it wasn’t for nothing.”
Eric Best is Minneapolis-based journalist on assignment with the Star Tribune.