"Do you know what this is?" the girl asked in a mischievous tone. She had taken the seat next to me on our streetcar ride home and flipped open her laptop. A beaver splashed in a pond, a tree branch wedged in its orange teeth.
"A beaver?" I asked, confused.
"And do you know what this is?" she asked.
As her screen filled with dozens of foxes flailing in cages, I understood: more anti-fur activism.
It was the second strike that day, a brisk one last January. For three months, I'd been wearing my new fur coat around the city. I had received a few hostile gawks, but that was just Toronto.
I had purchased the coat a summer earlier on the advice of a stylish friend who sashayed around in an enormous pearl mink handed down from her great-aunt.
We found mine at an antique market in Thornbury, Ont., among porcelain teacups and yellowing Life magazines. It was a vintage Alan Cherry from the seventies, muskrat and raccoon. A wide leather belt cinched the waist and a woman's name was embroidered on the grey satin lining. The coat made me look like a working girl crossed with a bear, just the look I was going for.
As a particularly chilly November took hold, I put the coat on for the first time. I grew nervous not about paint attacks but about people's stares: The colossal fur mound was the most ostentatious thing I'd ever worn.
Months went by without incident. I loved that I could wear just a summer dress under the fur on -30 C days. I loved the way the fur heated up around me, the way it smelled when it was damp out and the way strangers reached out and touched it.
The first offensive came at a café. Stirring honey into my tea, I felt someone watching me. "What did those animals ever do to you?" the woman hissed. She stared at me, tears welling up in her eyes.
I stuttered something about what appeared to be her leather shoes, but she was not to be silenced, yelling about animals being electrocuted and skinned alive. I apologized for upsetting her as she stormed out.
The sting was mortifying: How did my banal morning tea become an assault on my humanity, or lack thereof? The fur felt heavy and ridiculous as I walked out. I cursed my fashionable friend.
I spent the morning e-mailing friends and family about the encounter. "It's vintage," "It was dead in the seventies," "It comes with the (fur) territory," came their replies.
The scene continued swirling in my brain as I boarded the streetcar for home that evening. The rush-hour car also happened to be carrying two budding anti-fur activists with a PowerPoint presentation on a laptop, at the ready.
They wore windbreakers - environmentally friendly eco-cotton, I later learned. The young woman was more rabid than the man, who chimed in as she fired off statistics about foxes being skinned alive. I didn't bother looking at the other passengers but could see the tip of my beet-red nose.
Pushed into a corner, I felt my temper rear its ugly head. What made them think they could terrorize people on the streetcar, I asked. Were they as interested in animals as they were in shoving their righteousness down my (fur-warmed) throat? This only yielded a smile from the pair.
I told them the coat was vintage and the animals had been dead probably longer than either of them were alive. It was not in a landfill, but on my back. The only thing that placated the man was the word "vintage." He suggested I wear a "vintage" button to avoid further attacks. No thanks, I retorted like a teenager.
Still, the contempt we had felt for each other was somehow mellowing into a debate. I was starting to feel guilty for not knowing where my fur came from: Had the animals been farmed or trapped? Should I have the information at hand, and would it matter?
Mercifully, my stop was coming up, but the pair stood up and followed: We were neighbours. Getting off the car, an unlikely trio, they asked me what possible benefits the fur mound could hold and I listed all the aesthetic pleasures. As we stood in the middle of the road, they gave me the name of their website and we peacefully parted ways.
For a city as socially spineless as Toronto, the encounters remain confounding, not less so because of their proximity: two in one day, never before and never after that season. Were the gods of chance laughing? Or had Oprah hosted PETA the day before?
I've started wearing my fur this winter and already had my first fuming run-in. Walking a puppy with two friends, all of us decided to don our furs. I knew this was asking for it.
In a parking lot, a tall, lanky man approached us. He wore knee-high leather boots and a leather jacket. "I'd rather wear leather than kill animals for fur," he said.
After circling us for some time, his eyes beady and intense, he stared at the puppy and cried, "How can you walk that dog when 10 per cent of that fur is made of dogs?"
We stayed quiet this time. I'm learning not all activists were created equal.
Zosia Bielski is a Globe and Mail reporter and lives in Toronto.
Illustration by Tiffy Thompson.
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