Why you should care
Because trading in alligator leather can be good for business and the success of the animal’s population, too.
Christy Redd remembers seeing a video by PETA, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and frankly being pretty grossed out. It showed an alligator being skinned alive, presumably for a tannery, and Redd watched the beast twist and writhe in agony. “I was so upset,” she says.
But guess who happens to make a living out of those skins?
At 35 years old, Redd is the co-owner of America’s largest alligator leather tannery. Based in the small town of Griffin, Georgia, American Tanning & Leather treats and sells the canvas that produces some of the finest luxury handbags, shoes and other products in the world, featured in high-end stores across the globe. You can find them in Prada, Ralph Lauren and Louis Vuitton. And while the average alligator bag might sell for $30,000, some can go as high as $50,000.
According to Redd, a typical bag requires the skins of about three gators, and in a year, her firm will use the skins of some 25,000 alligators, a point of some serious contention among animal rights groups. Yet the “Alligator Queen,” as some know her, makes the case that the alligator leather industry is actually one of the reasons the gator population is thriving — experts agree. Most alligator habitats are privately owned, she says. Unless landowners had an incentive to sell the animal’s eggs to alligator farms, they’d develop the area instead, killing the alligator’s habitat.
Naturally, animal rights groups don’t agree. Most farms treat alligators cruelly, says Danielle Katz, a campaign manager at PETA. She paints a harrowing picture of animals being kept in crowded cages brimming with feces and urine, then being killed by a bludgeon or chisel to the head and sometimes being skinned while still alive for up to 45 minutes. With so many vegan options, there is no reason to buy and wear the skin of an animal, Katz says. “Alligators should not have to suffer for our vanity.” People who hear about the skinning of gators have an emotional response like the one she had watching the PETA video, but “they don’t have the same response at the supermarket in the chicken nugget section,” Redd says.
Speaking to OZY from her bare-bones office, Redd emphasizes that it is essential for alligators to be given abundant space and a quick death, for ethical reasons, sure, but also because the skin of an alligator that has been stressed doesn’t make the grade. Donning a custom-made-in-Istanbul python coat, she chats with a lively Southern drawl about a childhood spent with international fashion gurus. There was the excitement of going to her first major trade show in Hong Kong, when she was 10, and working 40-hour weeks during the summer ever since. She started full-time with the tannery when she was 22, fresh out of the University of Georgia. A brief internship with General Electric was enough to turn her off a more conventional corporate path.
“I’d never be happy as a worker bee,” she says. “I can’t keep my mouth shut.”
The industry has had a tremendous impact on the success of the gator population.
— Biologist Lance Campbell, Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries
She’s talked her way into a profitable spot in a thriving luxury goods market, which has tripled in less than 20 years to $300 billion in 2013. The future looks bright, too: A Credit Suisse report predicts the number of millionaires will jump by 50 percent to 47.6 million by 2016.
To match demand, American Tanning & Leather cut out the middle man in 2006 and started buying skins straight from alligator hunters in Louisiana. Since then, output has doubled from 10,000-plus to approximately 25,000 skins, though the company declines to release exact revenue figures. The key to its growth strategy has been finding customers who want lesser quality skins — which is the majority of those produced in the wild. Last year, AmTan and its Italian partner, Whiteline, opened a warehouse in Milan aimed at selling to small-scale craftsmen who buy and improve lesser quality skins. Already they’ve sold 3,000 skins.
Redd is also eyeing opening a warehouse in Hong Kong and a partnership with an interior designer in Dubai. She’s now finalizing a partnership with a large, unnamed American footwear company for lesser quality leather (the initial order is 1,000 skins).
Redd says she isn’t worried about animal rights groups slowing her business. And experts like Lance Campbell, a biologist from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, hope she’s right. The alligator leather industry provides substantial incentive to private landowners, $150–200 per gator, to maintain the habitat. Out of an alligator population of approximately 2 million, an average of 35,000 are legally hunted, which has no effect on the overall population but represents around $10 million for landowners, he says. “The industry has had a tremendous impact on the success of the gator population.”
In any case, the family firm is no stranger to controversy. Redd’s great-grandfather started buying and selling fur in 1923. Her grandfather and father continued the business: buying otters, minks, foxes and the like from trappers, scraping the fat, flipping the animals inside out, then stretching them out to dry.
When Redd’s father, Chris, bought 12,000 gator skins in the first auction after legalization of the trade in 1978, he didn’t know what he was doing. “It was either the dumbest or luckiest decision I ever made,” he told her. For 10 years, the leather business lost money, supported only by the thriving fur trade. You know what happens next: Fur becomes taboo and Redd and company have to make gator leather profitable, and fast.
“I hope alligator leather doesn’t go the same way as fur,” says Redd, confident it won’t.
Photography by Zach Wolfe for OZY