The road to sustainable fur isn’t pretty. In fact, it can be a bit gruesome.
But Central Massachusetts furrier Pamela Paquin believes the fur industry’s future can be found on the sides of highways and country roads where she is turning — brace yourself — roadkill into high-end fur accessories.
“I knew I’d get attention, but the intention isn’t to sell furs,” said Paquin, who has named her line Petite Mort Fur (meaning “little death” in French). “I’m in my nascent stages of building what it means to wear ‘accidental fur.’ ”
Statistics on roadkill are virtually nonexistent, but the Humane Society of the United States reports that millions of animals die on US roads every week, a number likely to increase as residential development expands into forests and shrub lands.
Locally, the number of roadkills is hard to estimate because no systematic records are kept. Marion E. Larson, chief of information for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, pointed to statistics from State Farm Insurance, which last year reported “the odds drivers will hit a deer in the coming year are 1 out of 169,” to give a sense of the numbers.
For Paquin, who studied at Boston College and worked as a sustainability consultant, even vague numbers were hard to ignore. She saw a possibility for what she admits is a provocative business plan.
“I’ve been trying to foist this idea off on people for years,” she said. “No one wanted to skin roadkill. I decided it would be me.”
Paquin, a single mom, moved from Denmark back to the United States in 2010, and worked for a time as education outreach director at Donella Meadows Institute, an environmental nonprofit in Norwich, Vt. After moving back to Massachusetts, she got her trapper’s license and started Petite Mort.
“It’s never easy to do this work. It’s hard to see the damage to the animals, but someone has to face it,” said Paquin, who keeps careful records of each animal. “I can’t continue to drive by.”
Paquin has a small group of investors, and has slowly developed a network of resources — animal control officers, wildlife specialists — to help supply Petite Mort. She works with deer as well as otter, rabbit, raccoon, beaver, and fox, sending the animals to Vermont for fleshing and drying, then to Idaho for tanning.
When the pelts return to Boston, Paquin works with local fashion designers including M. Miller and Kim’s Fashion Design to create hats, shawls, and other winter accessories. Her pompom hats retail between $380 and $500, and larger accessories (hand muffs, neckwarmers) cost upward of $1,000.
One of her earliest customers was Jessica Cohen. The 38-year-old corporate consultant originally met Paquin when they were both living in Denmark, then reconnected with her in the US. Cohen, who lives in Boston, commissioned a pair of fox mittens to match her black winter coat.
“When I say they’re road kill, half the people still pet the fur,” Cohen said. “Half don’t. Everyone is fascinated by them.”
She loved the mittens so much she went back to Paquin for a fox neck muff.
“When I bought the neck muff, she had a picture of the fox it was made from. It was a male killed on a highway in Connecticut,” she said. “Knowing exactly where it came from meant a lot to me.”
Helping get animals from the side of the road and into Paquin’s hands are animal control specialists like Jeff Thompson. Thompson, who owns Wrentham-based Thompson Wildlife Services, spends most of his days answering calls from people who have a bat in their house or a family of raccoons in their yard. But in the past year, he started acting as a middleman of sorts, collecting roadkill reported to him by animal control officers in towns and cities south of Boston including North Attleborough, Plainville, and Holbrook.
Most routine are the raccoon calls, but fox is becoming a more common sight, Thompson said.
“Especially a beautiful fox — instead of getting thrown in a pile and buried, it’ll be put to use,” he said.
Customers find Paquin through Etsy and her website (www.petitemortfur.com), as well as a rented display space at Newbury Handmade Market in Boston. While Paquin has her fans (a group she has dubbed her Lionesses), she has been criticized by animal lovers who object to her methods and say she helps normalize the wearing of fur.
On the company’s Facebook page, one person posted: “[E]ven though the animals have been killed ‘by accident’ you are still promoting the wearing of fur. . . . [H]ow dare you say that you love animals!”
But another Facebook post defended Paquin: “Man has been wearing fur since before clothing was invented. . . . [W]hen someone has used their creative talent to use a resource . . . which has been destroyed by an act of mankind . . . you thank the people responsible.”
Social media has been a way for Paquin to build a customer base. Kimberly Miller found Petite Mort there, and now owns a pair of raccoon leg warmers and a pair of coyote pompom earrings.
“Sustainable, ethical fur is a personal choice for me — one that I feel good about for many reasons,” she said. “I would like to see a shift on behalf of all furriers, that they would follow Pamela’s lead and expertise in the area of sustainability.”
Miller thinks the pieces are as fashionable as they are sustainable. “Whenever I wear the fur in public — and I emphasize ‘every’ time — someone stops me, gives a compliment, and asks where I bought the beautiful fur,” she said.
But investor Bill Bittinger, who worked with Paquin at Donella Meadows, said Petite Mort must inform as well as sell.
“The biggest challenge is to get people to break through the cultural reality we have,” he said, “to get those trained to stay away from fur.”
Cohen agreed, saying she sees Petite Mort as an extension of the sustainable conversation happening at dinner tables across the country.
“It’s the ultimate farm-to-table kind of thing,” she said.Jill Radsken can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.