From crocodile boots to snakeskin wallets, the use of exotic animal skins is prevalent throughout the fashion industry. Unfortunately, more thought is given to the look and price of the product than the animal killed to produce it.
People’s lack of empathy for the wild animals most commonly killed for their exotic skins – alligators, crocodiles, and pythons – is apparent through the use of “cold-blooded” as a term for an unfeeling and callous act or person. In reality, ectothermic (i.e. cold-blooded) simply means that reptiles have a body temperature that cannot be self-regulated and so they must rely on external sources of heat in the environment (like basking in the sun) for temperature regulation. These reptiles are also intelligent, feel pain, and care for their babies like any protective mom would. Alligators are considered one of the most attentive parents among reptiles,¹ crocodiles “use their mouths to help their young out of their shells and to hold the offspring between their jaws for protection,”² and even pythons have been observed caring for their babies for around two weeks after birth.³
Despite these attributes, the exotic skins trade is big business and worth millions. Exotic leather products can be seen on fashion runways in New York, London, and Paris and worn by celebrities such as Kourtney Kardashian and Chrisy Teigen. Luxury companies like Hermès, LVMH, and Kering (who owns Gucci, Saint Laurent, and Alexander McQueen) have gotten further into the business by purchasing their own animal farms and tanneries to produce the skins. Hermès owns an alligator farm in Louisiana, two crocodile farms in Australia, and six tanneries, while Kering owns python farms in Thailand and China.⁴
The two most exported crocodilian species are the American alligator from the US and the Nile crocodile from Africa, together accounting for 80% of the total trade in what’s considered “classic” exotic skins.⁵ Contrasting to conventional domesticated animals, the main product from crocodiles and alligators is the skin, and their meat is the by-product.⁶
At the same time, some luxury fashion brands like Prada and Chanel have announced they will no longer use exotic skins and celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres, Miley Cyrus, Pamela Anderson, and Simon Cowell are outspoken advocates against their use. Undercover investigations by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and other animal welfare organizations have shown the immense cruelty involved in the “harvesting” of these reptiles for the exotic leather trade and the poor living conditions these wild animals are subjected to as they await their fate on farms in the US and abroad.⁷
When raised in captivity on commercial farms, the behavioral needs and sensitive biology of alligators and crocodiles can be easily overlooked, leading to extremely poor welfare conditions. On farms, they are trapped in an environment that deprives them of their basic needs such as fresh air, clean water, ample sunshine, space, and a proper diet. The overcrowded conditions lead to bloody cuts and scratches from fighting and stress, and the lack of available dry spaces leave many reptiles stranded in dirty water resulting in infected wounds and skin rashes.⁸
In the wild, alligators can live between 30 to 50 years, while crocodiles can live up to 80 years. On commercial farms, however, both species are usually slaughtered by the age of four. And despite assurances from farms that the alligators and crocodiles are rendered unconscious before being quickly killed, undercover investigations revealed this was not the case. At an alligator farm in Texas and two crocodile farms in Zimbabwe, both of which supply skins to a tannery owned by Hermès, investigators documented frequent occurrences of brutal and inhumane practices in which the animals were crudely stabbed, cut into, and skinned while still alive and conscious, causing a horribly slow death filled with immense pain and suffering.⁹
Unlike alligator and crocodile farming, the farming of snakes is considered less lucrative, making the taking of wild animals a much more attractive method. Italy is “one of the largest manufactures of snakeskin products” and “the United States accounts for about 50% of the Italian export market for the finished goods.”¹⁰ The legal trade in some wild species, like reticulated pythons, provides a very useful cover for the even more profitable illegal trade in wild snakes, contributing to the continuing decimation of threatened snake populations.¹¹ With fewer animal protection laws for reptiles, the illegal trade, and poor traceability standards, it is very difficult for brands and consumers to know the true source of the snakeskin used in exotic leather products.
Whether a snake is wild or “farmed”, the process to kill a snake for its skin is a cruel one. Accounts of the cruelty range from snakes being hit on the head with a hammer and pumped full of water (to make their bodies swell and the skin easier to remove)¹², large snakes being starved to death to make the skin looser and then pumped full of water, to snakes being nailed to trees and skinned alive.¹³
In the United States, two native reptile species are the American alligator and the American crocodile. Unlike saltwater crocodiles that are farmed in Australia and Nile crocodiles farmed in Africa, the American crocodile is protected as a threatened species under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) and it is illegal to hunt them in south Florida, the only place they are found in the US.¹⁴
The American alligator on the other hand is considered one of the great success stories of the ESA. In 1967, it was listed as endangered due to unregulated hunting and habitat loss. Now, they are considered to be fully recovered at an estimated population of five million¹⁵ and can be found throughout the southeastern region of the US, from Florida to Texas and as far north as North Carolina. Although recovered, the trade in American alligators is still monitored by the government; they are listed on Appendix II under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) due to their similar appearance to other alligators and crocodiles that are listed as threatened or endangered with extinction.
American alligators are intensively farmed in the US for the leather trade, with most farms located in Louisiana then Florida, plus one or two in Texas and a few other states. American alligator skin is considered one of the most valuable skins for exotic leathers, is the only “alligator” species allowed in the exotic skins trade and is the most plentiful of any crocodilian skin available for the leather market.¹⁶ Typically, farmed alligator skin is considered more valuable than wild skin.¹⁷
To replenish their stocks, alligator farms can collect a certain number of wild alligator eggs and hunting is allowed throughout most of their native habitat but is subject to specific seasons and various state regulations. Louisiana has the largest number of farms and kills over 300,000 alligators each year, with the vast majority coming from farms. Between 1999 and 2008, over 2.5 million alligators were killed on farms in Louisiana and their skins valued at over $335 million.¹⁸
5. Caldwell, J 2017, World trade in crocodilian skins 2013-2015, UNEP-WCMC, p. 10. https://www.unep-wcmc.org/resources-and-data/international-alligator-and-crocodile-trade-study
6. International Union for Conservation of Nature Crocodile Specialist Group (IUCNCSG) n.d., Farming and the crocodile industry. http://www.iucncsg.org/pages/Farming-and-the-Crocodile-Industry.html