Q: My uncle recently passed away, and he left me his entire collection of cowboy boots, some of which are exotic. Most notable are the elephant and giraffe. I was told by my cousin that he was also planning to purchase a pair of boots made out of hippo. What I want to know is how the boot-making industry is regulated and how guilty I should feel about wearing boots made from exotic skins?
Richard Harding, Sheffield, U.K.
A: Let the Texanist first offer his sympathies to you and your family. He is sorry for the loss of your uncle. The fact that this man had a collection of cowboy boots sizable enough for bequeathing suggests that he may have been a bit of a character. Likewise, that your uncle chose you as the recipient of his entire caboodle of beloved boots probably says something about you, too. Again, condolences. And, well, the Texanist supposes, congratulations, too.
Thanks for reading Texas Monthly
You’ve come with a couple of interesting questions and your thoughtfulness is to be commended. Like many people today, you seem to have been struck by pangs of conscience with regard to the world around you and the effect your decisions—sartorial choices included—have on it. Time was, folks paid a lot less attention to the origins of the materials that went into making the garb they chose to sport around town. Famous Texan Davy Crockett was known to clad himself in buckskins and a raccoon hat. Sam Houston, the first and third president of the Republic of Texas, often donned a jaguar skin vest. And the Texanist’s own dad, in a bit of a strange aside, was known to carry a toothpick fashioned from the bone of a raccoon’s penis. You can google that; it’s a thing.
Anyway, Crockett was, of course, King of the Wild Frontier and could dress as he pleased. Sam Houston was Sam Houston. And the Texanist’s dad was a favorite son of Temple, Texas, and, well, the Texanist’s dad. But whether or not any of these men would have made use of such animal products were they around today we’ll never know. The Texanist bets, though, that if they were and if they did, they’d probably be subjected to even more sideways glances than they got back in their respective days.
Now, before the Texanist digresses any further, let’s get back to business. To answer the first part of your question, the exotic leather trade is, in fact, monitored and fairly tightly regulated by a number of global organizations and agreements. There’s the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora; the International Union for Conservation of Nature and its Species Survival Commission and Crocodile Specialist Group; the Humane Society International; and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an American group with worldwide reach; as well a number of other organizations operating across the globe. Additionally, speaking for the United States, there’s the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, whose mission is to “conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.” Similar groups and agreements exist in the U.K., which, as you may well know, passed the world’s first animal protection law, the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876.
Regulation is also meted out in a de facto manner by way of the tolerances and tastes of the boot-buying general public, which is making more and more compassionate fashion choices, to use the popular term of art. Just last December the famed French fashion house Chanel announced that it would stop manufacturing products, including boots, made of exotic leathers. And your country’s own luxury fashion retailer Selfridges, which stopped selling fur products in 2005, vowed shortly after Chanel’s announcement to phase out goods made of exotic leathers by February 2020.
The Texanist suspects that it will be a long, long while before bootmakers follow suit, but don’t be surprised to see more boots made out of animal product substitutes showing up next to all those elephant, giraffe, hippo, alligator, anteater, caiman, camel, crocodile, eel, kangaroo, lizard, ostrich, pirarucu, shark, snake, stingray, and yak boots. (Yes, the Texanist said yak.) Synthetic, or faux, or, ahem, vegan leathers, are, like veggie burgers, already a thing in certain circles.
Now, on to the second part of your question, which has to do with the morality of wearing exotic animal products. The examples you’ve mentioned, the elephant and the giraffe, are fair game in many countries, legally speaking, as is the hippopotamus, just so you know. Sea turtles, on the other hand, are not fair game. Boots made of sea turtle leather used to be a thing, but as six of the world’s seven species of sea turtle are now classified as endangered (in part because of all those sea turtle boot-loving consumers), they are a big no-no today.
Of course, your own level of guilt will depend on the particular ethical line you choose to walk in your life and just how comfortable you would be walking that line in boots made from the skins of exotic members of the animal kingdom. The choice is simple: If you are against the slaughter of elephants and giraffes for the purpose of making boots, then you should not wear them. If you’re fine with the slaughter of elephants and giraffes for the purpose of making boots, then you should proceed as you wish. The Texanist, being of fairly sound mind, does hereby leave this decision to you. Solely.
Have a question for the Texanist? He’s always available here. Be sure to tell him where you’re from.