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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Slaughter Season Gets Early Start

CHURILOVICHI, Belarus -- Late in the year always has been the slaughter season at Belarussian fur farms, but the economic crisis in the former Soviet republic made this year a bit different.

With sales of fur hats and coats down, the Voikov collective farm just outside the capital, Minsk, couldn't afford to feed its polar foxes and minks. So it has slaughtered most of them rather than watch them starve.

The farm is trying to move the pelts at fire-sale prices, but the result is reduced breeding stocks. "We had to do it, because the farm had huge debts to the meat plants that were supplying food for our fur animals," said Yury Mikhailov, manager of the farm. "We had to slaughter so many animals in order not to torture them any longer."

The farm had 1,143 polar foxes and 845 minks, and killed all but 400 foxes that they will use to rebuild the stocks.

On a recent day, the slaughtered animals were laid out in rows on the ground or piled high in the back of trucks at the rundown farm.

Watchdogs barked fiercely to warn off visitors, but most of the cages they were protecting were empty. Young silver polar foxes, among the few that survived, bared their small, sharp teeth and barked.

The farm's foxes and minks long have fed the big demand for fur coats and hats in Russia, Belarus and other former Soviet states, where there has never been an active anti-fur movement as in some Western countries.

Although expensive, fur is not only for the elite. Many middle-class Russians and Belarussians also own coats, and most consider them necessities in the harsh winter.

"Our people want to impress their neighbors, friends, relatives - with crystal, furniture and furs, which some of them buy at the expense of eating properly," said Maxim Kapran, a member of Belarus' Youth Ecological Movement.

Until recently, Russia purchased about 40 percent of the world's fur, but that figure is declining, say Russians in the fur industry.

The economic crisis in Russia and Belarus has shrunk the pool of potential customers in both countries and may drive more fur farms out of business.

Stores in Belarus have all but stopped carrying fur coats. Sales in Russia are down by half or more compared to last winter, and fur coats are piling up in storerooms, said Viktor Chipurnoi, vice president of Soyuzpushnina, Russia's fur trading company.

"After the crisis the situation changed, of course, because people don't have money to pay for luxury items," Chipurnoi said. As a result, fur farms in both Russia and Belarus are in trouble. Only 30 of the 200 fur farms that Russia had in the early 1990s are still operating, he said. The others have closed, or are reducing their stock and gradually phasing out production.

In Belarus, the conditions are as bad, if not worse.

"The problems the fur breeding industry is experiencing are common to the entire agricultural sector in Belarus," said Sergei Stranadkin, chairman of the Voikov collective farm, which includes the fur farm.

In both Russia and Belarus, the best hope for an improvement in the fur business is an upswing in the overall economy.

"We are trying to help fur farms," said Chipurnoi, the Russian fur trader. "If the economy gets through the crisis, people will be buying fur again."

"Russia is a fur country," he added.