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My Life With 'Justin Beaver': Confessions Of A Closet Fur-Owner

A photo of the author's mother in the 1960s wearing "Justin Beaver." (Courtesy)
A photo of the author's mother in the 1960s wearing "Justin Beaver." (Courtesy)

For 30 years, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals led the charge to jettison fur from our nation’s collective sales racks. The “I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur” campaign was at the center of their ad blitzkrieg, originally launched in 1990 with rock-and-roll royalty The Go-Go’s serving as the ad’s first tantalizing centerfold. Over the years, countless celebrities and athletes lent their voices and bodies to the cause. Ads featuring supermodel Christy Turlington were soon joined by the tattooed profiles of Dennis Rodman and others calling for “Ink Not Mink”.

Members of the rock band the Go-Go's declared their opposition to the use of animal fur apparel, during a promotional photo session on behalf of PETA in Los Angeles, Oct. 8, 1990. (Sam Jones/AP)
Members of the rock band the Go-Go's declared their opposition to the use of animal fur apparel, during a promotional photo session on behalf of PETA in Los Angeles, Oct. 8, 1990. (Sam Jones/AP)

Now there is little doubt of the growing disdain for real fur products in our domestic market. In October 2019, California became the first state to ban the sale and manufacture of new fur products. Other states -- including Massachusetts — are considering similar measures. In late 2019, Macy’s joined luxury chains Prada, Chanel and Burberry in removing fur from their stores. Even Queen Elizabeth II vowed not to don any new outfits made with real fur. After three decades of activism, PETA claimed victory and ended the campaign.

As a lifelong animal lover, you would think I would revel in this victory. But instead, I find myself oddly conflicted, haunted by the fact that I am a closet fur owner.

I mean that quite literally: It's in the closet. Because like many women my age, I inherited my mother’s treasured fur coat. Given to her as a bride of the 1950s, my mother’s beaver coat hung in the hall closet of my childhood home ever since I can remember, shown the light of day only on the coldest of winter days. It was in vogue in those days to wear fur. And although my mother was far from a clotheshorse, I think there was a part of her that felt that fur coat was a luxurious dalliance from her rather ho-hum suburban existence.

For years and years, it hung unused, balanced on the frame of a thick wooden hanger. I never had any interest in the coat. Truth be told, the idea of donning those pelts made me a bit queasy. That said, I did wear the coat once, at my mother’s insistence. On an absolutely frigid night in the late 1980s, I hoisted it on to my shoulders before walking to the Broadway Theater to see "Les Misérables," then the latest stage sensation. The coat proved to be warm, just as my mother had promised, but it was also enormously heavy and made me feel uncomfortably conspicuous. After the show, it returned to the closet, where it waited silently in the dark until my mother’s death.

Now nicknamed “Justin Beaver,” it has only left my closet once in the 10 years since my mother’s passing.

By that point, the protest movement was operating at full tilt. Women who dared wear their furs in public were often chastised, ridiculed and occasionally doused in red paint by emboldened activists, a not-so-subtle commentary on the cruelty involved in the manufacturing of such apparel. It was a cause that registered only tangentially for me, a non-fur owner -- that is, until the day my mother’s coat came back into my life.

I was in the process of cleaning out her house, a chore I found both difficult and draining. One afternoon I opened the door to the hall closet and there it was, the fur coat, just as I had left it decades before. I knew I didn’t want it. I certainly couldn’t imagine ever wearing it. But as I stood there at the threshold, I was suddenly struck with an overwhelming sense of sadness. Despite my principled objections, I couldn’t part with it. I just couldn’t. So I scooped the coat up into my arms and brought it out to the car. I laid it carefully across the passenger seat and drove home. My own hall closet became its new home, where it hangs on that same wooden hanger.

Now nicknamed “Justin Beaver,” it has only left my closet once in the 10 years since my mother’s passing. On a bitterly cold morning, I brought it to Southie’s L Street Bathhouse on New Year’s Day, to wrap around my wife after she finished the annual “Brownies” polar plunge. While it was well suited to the occasion, my reluctance remained.

I have often thought about what I should do with the coat. The folks at PETA offer various options for people who share my conundrum. They encourage owners to donate fur coats to homeless shelters. They suggest giving garments to animal shelters, to be used as bedding for orphaned or injured wildlife. There are even organizations that ship fur coats to war-torn regions of the world in need of such clothing.

But somehow I just can’t do it. At least not yet. PETA may have moved on but I'm not ready. I am still stuck, along with the ghost of my mother, between a rock and a fur place.

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Anne Gardner Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Anne Gardner is an Episcopal minister and currently leads the chaplaincy program at Harvard-Westlake, a private high school in Los Angeles.

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