This is not Granny's possum
In 2004, Chrys Hutchings, her husband and their three young children spent a year in New Zealand, home to about 4. 2 million people ...
Newhouse News Service
On the Internet
Eco-Luxury Fur: www.eco-luxuryfur.com.
PORTLAND — In 2004, Chrys Hutchings, her husband and their three young children spent a year in New Zealand, home to about 4.2 million people — and about 60 million Australian brushtail possums.
Hutchings' sabbatical included plenty of talk about the ecological havoc imposed by possums, which exploded in numbers after would-be fur traders introduced them to New Zealand in the 1800s. It also included her 40th birthday, which prompted her husband, Brent, to give her a possum-fur throw.
Four years later, Hutchings, an active school mom in Portland, decided to start a one-woman business called Eco-Luxury Fur, with the tall task of convincing Americans that buying fur — more precisely, a brushtail possum pillow or throw — is good for the environment.
Hutchings' small business raises some big questions: Can any fur, the product of killing an animal and tanning a hide, be eco-friendly? And can the capitalistic urge that sparked New Zealand's possum problem in the first place really help eradicate it?
Hutchings says yes. She says she's in it for the ecological benefit. And she wanted to follow in the entrepreneurial footsteps of her late father, a lawyer who emigrated from Greece as a boy and built and rented apartment buildings on the side in Uxbridge, Mass., where she grew up.
"I'm not one to choose a provocative path in life," says Hutchings, who started her Internet business in March. "I don't have a fur [coat]. I have no interest in owning a fur. I would not have done this unless I truly believed in the conservation ideals behind it."
The Hutchings' kids are ages 8 to 12, old enough for Chrys, who has a law degree from Boston University, to feel comfortable pursuing a side business. Brent, a Stanford MBA and Lewis & Clark College graduate, is an executive for Avamere, which operates assisted-care facilities, and sold a packaging company in Fresno before the New Zealand trip. Afterward, the family settled in Portland, in part to be closer to Brent's family in Medford.
Chrys Hutchings' business strategy includes getting away from Americans' image of the possum, or opossum, which in its North American iteration has a ratlike tail. She discarded her first idea for a business name: Awesome Possum. On her Web site, www.eco-luxuryfur.com, she refers to the Australian possum by its native Maori handle, the paihamu.
Buying possum fur from New Zealand creates jobs for rural trappers, Hutchings says. And it encourages more humane trapping or poisoning with potassium cyanide, shown in studies to kill relatively quickly, instead of the government's controversial aerial drops of 1080, or sodium fluoroacetate, which kills more slowly and can harm dogs and wildlife.
After her business was featured on an online lifestyle site, her 12-year-old son picked up a phone call from a woman threatening to report his mom to PETA, or People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
"I don't fit with the fur people," Hutchings says. "One of my taglines is, 'All the luxury, none of the guilt.' They look sideways at me on that one."
Still, Matt Rossell, Northwest outreach coordinator for In Defense of Animals, rejects the eco-friendly label.
He says it's good the possums aren't coming from fur farms. But fur suppliers often try to make buyers feel less guilty by stressing the nuisance status of the animals they use, Rossell said. Tanning typically includes toxic chemicals such as chromium and lead. Traps malfunction. Animals suffer. Potassium cyanide can kill the wrong animals, too. And there are humane alternatives to animal fur, from synthetics to "soy silk fur."
It's also unlikely that a luxury fur trade would significantly dent New Zealand's fast-breeding possum population, which can replace lost members quickly, Rossell said.
"I don't think trying to create some fur industry out of this is a realistic solution," he said. "And I think finding some eco-friendly way to label this product is a step in the wrong direction."
In New Zealand, the killing of possums is controversial, but possum-based garments are not, said Helen Bain, spokeswoman for the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society. The group, New Zealand's largest environmental organization, supports possum eradication.
"They're probably the No. 1 threat to our native species, to the birds and native forest plants of New Zealand," Bain said. An expanded fur trade "would be helpful" in dealing with the problem, she said.
New Zealanders aren't big on fur coats, Bain said. But a lot of possum-fur accessories are available in the country, including hats, earmuffs and — don't try to picture this — possum lingerie. More popular are sweaters and scarves with blends of Merino wool and possum fur.
In Australia, the brushtail possum is hunted by dingoes and faces plants with spines, prickles and poisonous leaves that evolved to fend off possums. There are no possum predators in New Zealand, and some of the country's rarest native plants have few defenses. The tree-climbing marsupial also chews up rare-bird habitat and eggs, including eggs of the endangered kiwi bird.
By the 1940s, possums ranged over about half the country, according to New Zealand's Landcare Research institute. Now it's close to 99 percent.
Hutchings says she has no quarrel with those who reject animal products: "I completely respect that. I've had some wonderful conversations with vegans — I mean, this is Portland. Anyone who doesn't like leather will not like this product."
But she's also not shy about touting the fur. This spring, she spoke to an environmental-studies class at Lewis & Clark College. Without prodding from her mother, Hutchings' youngest daughter gave a presentation on the subject in her second-grade class last year and sent it to Time for Kids magazine.
Hutchings is targeting stores in high-end ski areas and hopes to sign a deal with a bed-accessory manufacturer. She won't disclose sales figures, either from the Web or from the three U.S. stores that carry the products.
Barbara Browning, a saleswoman at Charles Stuhlberg Interiors in Ketchum, Idaho, said customers are intrigued by the fur, but the products came in after Sun Valley's winter rush and just two pillows and a throw have sold so far. "They're beautiful," Browning said. "I think they will sell during the winter."
Hutchings says business is "going OK."
"If I have steady sales and I've achieved an environmental good, I'll be very satisfied."
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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