As Jews, our faith teaches us that having mercy and empathy for animals, and recognizing that they are also able to suffer and feel pain, fear and despair, is a gift from God. Tsa’ar ba’alei chayim is the gift of compassion and enlightenment and of treating animals, with whom we share this world, with dignity and kindness. And while this gift can sometimes feel like a curse when we learn about the suffering that we humans inflict upon animals, it is a true joy when we practice this blessing properly.
So the question remains: With such a mitzvah, why do some of us still choose to wear fur? While it may have made sense long ago for people to kill, eat and wear animals, it no longer does. We don’t need to harm animals to feed ourselves or stay warm.
Since wearing fur isn’t necessary for survival, perhaps those who wear it do so to make some sort of statement. But can one truly argue that wearing the skin of an animal who was killed after being caught in a painful steel-jaw trap or kept in a filthy, tiny cage is a reflection of goodness, prosperity, success or fashion? On the contrary, fur outs its wearer as uncaring and out of touch.
In our age of instant access to information, it’s not difficult to find out that real fur comes from two sources, both horrifically cruel.
Animals caught in traps face prolonged pain, hypothermia, attacks by predators, starvation and thirst before finally being bludgeoned, drowned or shot to death. They are separated from their cubs, mates and families, who also suffer the consequences. And for every one of the intended species caught in traps, two to three other “nontarget” animals — eagles, wolverines and even endangered species — are potentially additional casualties of these cruel contraptions.
On fur farms, gentle animals are crammed into tiny wire cages that are stacked on top of each other. They are killed by being anally electrocuted, gassed and often skinned alive. Sometimes, they languish for hours, suffering in agony with exposed, raw nerves, or are suffocated under the weight of their fellow victims, who are thrown on top of them after enduring the same fate.
Fur is devastating to the environment, too. Turning animals’ pelts into finished furs by staving off the natural process of degradation requires a toxic chemical brew, which pollutes our soil, water and air. Obtaining fur from animals who are raised on farms is responsible for between two and 28 times as much climate change and land use as the production of other textiles is. Furthermore, the food these animals need as well as the waste they create are responsible for 20 times more greenhouse gases than the inputs and outputs of other textile industries. How can we justify this wastefulness in a world created by God?
We display true success by our depth of compassion and our generosity of spirit — not by how much we can take but by how much we can give. After all, that is what mitzvah and tzedakah are all about.
Sandra Iseman holds master’s and doctorate degrees in the fields of environmentalism, sustainability, and climate change. A vegan for many years, she lives with her family in Toronto, where they enjoy temperatures as low as -30F without fur or down.