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As fur demand dwindles, some find success in taxidermy, damage-control trapping

 Buyers inspect fur pelts during a Missouri Trappers Association auction hosted in Montgomery City in February.
Skyler Rossi
/
Missouri Business Alert
Buyers inspect fur pelts during a Missouri Trappers Association auction hosted in Montgomery City in February.

The once dominant Missouri fur industry has been declining due to shifting attitudes around the use of fur and increased trade tariffs. Missouri Business Alert’s Skyler Rossi has the story of how this enduring market is changing.

Ben Trumblee travels the U.S. selling some highly unusual items.

Some of his most popular products include purses made from invasive toads and the cleaned bone of a raccoon penis, which his customers use to make earrings and hair picks.

Trumblee’s business, Midwest Taxidermy, offers a range of items made from various animal parts, like taxidermy squirrels and beaver skulls. He does pop-ups at trade shows and sells on the online marketplace Etsy.

He said he brings in more than $200,000 annually selling what many fur trappers traditionally would deem useless.

“Utilizing the skull is almost worth more than the hide anymore,” Trumblee said.

Trapping entails catching wild animals — such as racoons or bobcats — through devices like cages and foot traps. Missouri trappers must follow a set of rules dictated by the state, which include requirements on checking traps every day and set seasons for harvesting furs. Ethical trapping is part of the state’s effort to conserve animal populations, conservation officials say.

 A sign at Ben Trumblee's table at a February fur auction displays the taxidermy business owner's interest in animal bones.
Rebecca Smith
/
KBIA
A sign at Ben Trumblee's table at a February fur auction displays the taxidermy business owner's interest in animal bones.

The fur industry has shrunk as more people oppose the use of fur and increased trade tariffs have downsized international sales. Around 50 years ago, a winter of successful trapping would yield thousands of dollars. At a Missouri fur auction last month, trappers were thrilled to walk away with $1,500.

As demand changes, some trappers are earning new income catching animals causing damage to homes and properties.

Others are finding success selling items like skulls, tails and bones. Trumblee says he can buy uncleaned racoon skulls for $2 to $3 and sell them for up to $25. Meanwhile, the average price for a dried racoon pelt at a Missouri fur auction last month was about $8.

“To me, it's easier to get rid of the skulls and the claws and everything else than it is to get rid of fur,” Trumblee said.

Changing industry

The fur trade has a long history in Missouri. Hundreds of years ago, both Native Americans and early settlers helped to make Missouri a hub for the western trade.

Up until a few decades ago, a successful season of hobby trapping would yield significant revenue, many trappers said.

“There was a time in the ‘80s when guys would go out and they’d trap all winter long, and then they can go buy a brand new pickup truck with the money that they got from trapping,” said Charles Samuels, the president of the Missouri Trappers Association. “Those days are long over, and they're not coming back.”

While the fur industry is much smaller than it used to be, it still exists.

Over 100 people attended an auction last month hosted by the Missouri Trappers Association, an organization of trappers in the state that follows a code of ethics. The annual auction is the biggest fur-buying event in the state.

Trappers brought bundles of pelts of more than a dozen types of animals — from raccoons to possums to coyotes. Some sold glands in brown paper bags. One buyer purchased a large bobcat for $290.

A popular item this year: beaver. The fur is in high demand due to the popular TV show Yellowstone, which has increased the popularity of cowboy hats made from beaver fur. More than 560 beaver pelts sold at this year’s auction for a total of nearly $16,000.

Samuels sold stacks of beaver pelts during the auction. The demand is one of many trends the longtime trapper has seen over the years.

“It goes through cycles – like the beaver thing won't last very long,” Samuels said. “Guys that have never trapped beavers in their lives were out trying to trap beavers this year.”

Charles Samuels sold mostly beaver pelts during the a recent auction hosted by the Missouri Trappers Association. The fur was a hot item this year after the popular show Yellowstone increased demand for beaver-made cowboy hats.
Skyler Rossi
/
Missouri Business Alert
Charles Samuels sold mostly beaver pelts during the a recent auction hosted by the Missouri Trappers Association. The fur was a hot item this year after the popular show Yellowstone increased demand for beaver-made cowboy hats.

Doren Miller has been purchasing fur for more than 30 years. His business, Miller Fur, is based in the eastern part of the state in Clarksville. The company sells the fur to brokers, who then distribute it to international buyers in countries like Russia and China. However, increased trade tariffs with these countries has hurt business.

“There was a time probably 20 years ago when we were selling billions of dollars of raccoons into Russia,” Miller said. “And today, of course, the sanctions in Russia — we're not friends right now. So the sanctions have hurt the fur industry as far as that particular product.”

Miller said he’s had to make alterations over the years to navigate the changing market. He and his family used to drive all over the Midwest to purchase furs to stock his shop. But he’s slowed down — partly due to his age, he said, but also because the demand has fallen.

“We can put it into the shop, but if we can't get it out of the shop, why buy it?” he said.

However, the industry is a tight-knit one. Miller knows many of the trappers who attended the auction in February. This sometimes influences his purchasing decisions, he said.

“Sometimes I'll pay a little more than I should, because this particular customer come in and bought $1,000 worth of supplies out of my business,” Miller said. “So I'm somewhat returning a favor.”

More than 100 people attended the Missouri Trappers Association fur auction in February. The event is the largest fur-buying auction in the state.
Skyler Rossi
/
Missouri Business Alert
More than 100 people attended the Missouri Trappers Association fur auction in February. The event is the largest fur-buying auction in the state.

Shift to damage control

With the decline in revenue potential from selling pelts, more trappers are turning to damage control as a way to make some additional money. This could mean trapping squirrels from attics or racoons from corn fields.

Jim Love has been in the damage-control industry for more than 20 years. His business, Advanced Wildlife Control, is based in Sullivan and services the area between St. Louis and Rolla. He charges about $345 for an inspection, laying traps and following up.

He said there’s more competition in the space than when he first entered the industry.

“When I first started this 23 years ago, there was me and one other guy in the service area,” Love said. “We had it all. Now, I'm running against about four to five other companies in my area besides us, and then we also have some of the fur trappers that is doing it really dirt cheap.”

Businesses like Love’s hold liability insurance and follow a set of ethical standards — such as making sure traps are covered so animals aren’t sitting in the hot sun for hours. But as the space changes, he says some trappers are getting into damage control by helping out a neighbor or a friend.

This can sometimes lead to improper trapping, Love said. He’s working with a group of operators to try and change this.

“We feel that if you're going to do nuisance control here in Missouri, everybody should be somewhat on the same page,” Love said. “ You should have some kind of training on this. Because we see a lot of people that do bad work that makes us look bad.”

Looking to the future

It’s possible that damage control is the future of fur trapping, Samuels said. He hopes it’s not, but he suspects that’s where the industry is heading.

“I think what you'll be seeing more and more is your trapper will become an (animal damage-control) man,” Samuels said. “He's no longer going to trap to get a pallet full of pelts to sell at the end of the year. He's going to go out and trap your beavers so they don't flood your cornfield. He's going to trap your raccoons so they don't eat your sweet corn.”

Ben Trumblee, owner of Midwest Taxidermy, sees the future of the fur industry in the oddities market.
Skyler Rossi
/
Missouri Business Alert
Ben Trumblee, owner of Midwest Taxidermy, sees the future of the fur industry in the oddities market.

Trappers like Love can harvest and sell the pelts from the animals trapped during damage-control calls— but it has to be in season. If it’s not, they must dispose of it.

Trumblee, the taxidermy business owner, has seen more people seeking products from the so-called “oddities” market. Trappers are catching on — more are changing the way they dispatch animals to keep the skull intact.

Trumblee sees the future of the fur industry in sellers like himself, who are using all parts of the animal.

“These guys’ way of conservation is different than what I think conservation is,” Trumblee said. “Even like, the younger generation, the more you use of an animal, the more accepting they are.”

This story was produced through a reporting collaboration between Missouri Business Alert and KBIA, the NPR member station for mid-Missouri.

Copyright 2024 KBIA. To see more, visit KBIA.

Missouri Business Alert