When an animal rights activist came up against Neiman Marcus, she had more than some dead fur to contend with

After the incident, Rodney Lewis kept his job and faced no disciplinary action, as Neiman's denied any wrongdoing. The legendary retailer, of course, wanted to keep things quiet. "There is no story here," says Kelly Patrick, a Neiman Marcus spokeswoman. "We have no comment. We don't want to talk about this. There really is no story here." Other Neiman's employees, including Lewis, were instructed not to talk about the incident. The company has been trying to deal with the problem through the justice system and has portrayed Nichols as a radical terrorist with a history of confrontational tactics and civil disobedience. What Neiman Marcus doesn't seem to realize is that it is also making her a martyr in her own movement.

An underground militant group calling itself the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) first grabbed headlines for the animal rights movement in the 1970s by using vandalism and violent tactics to draw attention to its crusade. Activists set fire to seal-hunting boats and broke into university laboratories, destroying documents and freeing lab mice. They shocked fur sellers when they bombed a Harrod's department store in England. Reportedly opposed to physical violence, they were nonetheless willing to inflict any kind of economic pain on people and businesses who they believed were abusing animals.

In the 1980s, ALF began shooting out store windows and throwing paint on fur racks as well as people who were simply walking down the street wearing fur. In 1984, ALF raided and trashed a lab at the University of Pennsylvania. Some of the public seemed to forgive the group's tactics when the evening news aired videos stolen from the lab showing researchers crushing the heads of baboons with concrete blocks and running blow torches across the skin of live pigs. More mainstream animal rights groups such as PETA often got behind ALF--seldom employing ALF's more extreme tactics, but certainly publicizing them. In 1989, the FBI added the ALF to its list of terrorist organizations.

By the late 1980s, the fur business was dying. Some industry analysts choose to believe the economy was the real culprit: People won't spend $5,000 on a full-length mink coat when they're worried about job security. But in more ecologically minded times, where species are suddenly endangered and animals seem to have the same rights as people, it not only became unfashionable to wear fur, it was viewed as downright unethical. And for the fur ranchers and retailers--at risk of having ALF operatives let loose their livestock or vandalize their businesses--fur became unprofitable. "We had to quit the business," says one former furrier who spoke on the condition that he not be identified. "The customers got scared. The animal rights people are so fanatical. They killed the business all around the world."

But by helping furs go out of fashion, anti-fur protesters lost their cause. "No one had any real focus," J.P. Goodwin says. "People were just taking on small, individual incidents of animal abuse." Some got into supporting high school students who didn't want to dissect animals, while others tried to limit the expansion of hunting grounds.

Only in the last three years has fur begun to make a comeback. An aggressive marketing campaign by the fur industry has helped convince designers and consumers alike that fur is acceptable again. The Fur Information Council of America has joined forces with the Fur Council of Canada to produce school material carrying the message that fur is natural, that the species are not endangered, and that animals are killed humanely. Vogue magazine says its fur ads are at a 10-year high. Even supermodel Naomi Campbell, who once posed nude for an ad that read, "I'd rather go naked than wear fur," strolled down a runway last year in a sable-lined coat.

Just lastmonth, The New York Times ran a story about the resurgence, quoting a Neiman Marcus fashion executive who said, "Young designers...have blown a fresh wind through the fur world, not only bringing in younger customers, but also inspiring older designers to look at fur from a fresh viewpoint." She lauded new fur designs for next fall--incorporating fur into blazers, jackets, cardigans, and vests--less expensive "ready-to-wear" apparel.

The fur renaissance has both alarmed and galvanized animal rights groups in this country. ALF once again began burglarizing mink farms and liberating the livestock, allowing millions of dollars worth of minks to escape into the woods. In 1993, its members tossed battery acid and paper-bag bombs into the Chicago outlets of Marshall Field's, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Neiman Marcus. Last year they attacked a Syracuse furrier's house, smashing windows and spray-painting walls. Many of the approximately 400 animal rights groups in the United States, each with its own acronym, are trying to find a way to make their organizations as visible as their ALF predecessors.

Most of these groups are small, consisting of a couple of leaders and a handful of volunteers. About a dozen such grass-roots organizations exist in Texas today, with four headquartered in Dallas. Some are splinter groups that formed during the fur-lull five to 10 years ago, while activists were disagreeing on how to get out their message. Thus, fur retailers have had a difficult time figuring out who the true leaders of the movement are, which makes the ever-shifting animal rights fronts a bit more dangerous--since any crackpot with a website and a can of paint can organize trouble.

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