The price of luxury? Storied brand tied to animal abuse

The Birkin bag, coveted as a status symbol and carried by the likes of Kim Kardashian, comes at a cost beyond its exorbitant price.

Apart from the tens of thousands of dollars spent on the fashion accessory sold by French retailer Hermes, thousands of crocodiles and alligators are killed each year to supply the company with skins used to make some Birkins, along with high-end wallets, belts, watchbands and shoes.

Mistreatment of the animals ranges from packing them in overly close quarters to inhumane methods of slaughter, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which on Wednesday released video shot by two undercover investigators documenting conditions at two crocodile and alligator farms, one in Africa, the other in Texas (see video below).

"Whenever animals are used for profit, corners are cut," said one of the PETA investigators.

At Lone Star Alligator Farms in Winnie, Texas, PETA found alligators living in small, concrete pits filled with foul-smelling water made murky with the animals' waste. The alligators could not all fit on a resting platform, so they were mostly in the water with their heads sticking up, with the skin of their jaws irritated, said the PETA investigator, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing future probes.

A second PETA investigator worked undercover at Lone Star for about a month in October and November of last year, where he and other employees stood thigh-deep in water, catching and lifting alligators, some as long as five feet, to be killed.

"Workers had to climb down into the pit, and were told they didn't have to wear shoes in water foul with feces and old food," said one of the PETA investigators.

Although a bolt gun is typically used to kill alligators, it malfunctioned at times. The PETA video shows a Lone Star worker seemingly trying to kill some of the animals by hacking into their necks or plunging a metal rod into their brain. The graphic video appears to show still-conscious animals moving as a manager and another worker cut into their necks in attempts to dislocate their cervical vertebrae. Some alligators flailed and kicked in ice-water bins minutes after they were supposed to be dead, according to PETA.

crocbelt.jpg
This crocodile belt sold by French luxury goods maker Hermes retails for $5,100.
Hermes

"If they are going to do this, we want them to do it as humanely as possible," the investigator said.

A PETA spokeswoman said the group believes the Texas farm violated state law that governs animal slaughter.

In February, PETA filed a complaint with the Chambers County Sheriff's Office, alleging violations of a Texas ban on cruelty to non-livestock animals. The organization also filed a complaint with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, alleging violations of state alligator farm regulations. Both agencies investigated, and the case is now with the district attorney.

"We investigated the health of the animals that had lesions -- basically there were a couple of violations," said Amos Cooper, the alligator program leader at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. "They were written up for not having boards so the alligators could get out of the water. It made a rash under their chin. [Lone Star] knew they had a problem, so they were working on making it better."

"We monitor them pretty closely -- we're looking more closely now," he said, adding that the agency wants to protect the animals.

A spokesperson for the Chambers County Sheriff's Office did not return a call requesting comment.

The case is now in the hands of the Chambers County District Attorney. Assistant district attorney Dane Listi, who is handling the matter, did not return a call requesting comment.

In August of 2014, two other PETA workers toured the Kariba Crocodile Farm and Nyanyana Crocodile Farm in Kariba, a town in Mashonaland West province in Zimbabwe. The pair was given a tour by Charles Boddy, director of operations at the farms, where they were told it typically takes two to three crocodiles to make a high-end Hermes bag, but that it can take as many as four.

The two Zimbabwe facilities are operated by Padenga Holdings, which raises crocodiles in northern Zimbabwe and in 2012 acquired a 50 percent stake in Lone Star. The company rang up $6.4 million in profits last year, up 60 percent from the previous year, according to its annual report. The company disclosed slaughtering more than 43,000 crocodiles and 15,000 alligators last year.

In PETA's video, Boddy described the luxury market as "bulletproof," an apparent reference to the strong global demand for alligator and crocodile hides.

"Charles Boddy told me and my partner that all of Padenga's crocodile skins and alligator skins go to Hermes, and we also saw crates being prepared for shipping that were stamped with TCIM's name and address," said the investigator in referring to a Hermes-owned tannery in Vivoin, France, called TCIM.

"Hermes likely resells lower quality skins -- they don't all become Birkin bags," the investigator said.

Hermes declined comment, and Padenga did not return a request for comment.

Padenga CEO Gary Sharp told The New Zimbabwe, a weekly tabloid published in the United Kingdom, in May that the company planned to expand its alligator business in the U.S. The crocodile breeder projects the Texas site this year will produce 40,00 watchband alligator skins, double its previous capacity, Zimbabwe daily The Herald reported last month.