Bill OKs California alligator products

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Rodeo Drive’s high-fashion boutiques are making fast progress persuading California lawmakers to let them keep selling luxury goods made from alligator skin, including purses, wallets, boots, shoes and watch bands.

With the help of the state of Louisiana, the retailers hope to preserve an alligator exemption to a decades-old law aimed at protecting threatened and endangered species, such as American alligators and crocodiles, by banning the importation of their skins into the Golden State.

By 2006, alligator populations in Louisiana and Florida had bounced back sufficiently that the California Legislature allowed the costly accessories to be sold at tony Beverly Hills, Calif., and West Los Angeles retailers such as Bijan, Battaglia, Lanvin and Fendi.

The Legislature renewed the exemption for five years in 2010. The state Assembly’s Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee this month unanimously approved a bill, AB 2075 by Democratic Assemblyman Luis Alejo, that would give a green light to continued sales of gator skin for a decade longer, beginning Jan. 1.

The measure is set for an Assembly floor vote Tuesday.

A cutoff of alligator-skin products would be an economic blow to California’s fanciest retailers, boutique managers argued in dozens of letters of support for the bill.

“The city of Beverly Hills is famous around the world for its diverse and comprehensive luxury retail offerings, and a prohibition of these skins would place our city and our state at a great competitive disadvantage with other states where there is no such prohibition,” wrote Battaglia, a menswear shop that bills itself as the oldest store on Rodeo Drive.

So far, proponents have rolled over opposition from a normally potent adversary: the Humane Society of the U.S. and its top Sacramento lobbyist, Jennifer Fearing.

In recent years, Fearing and her group helped pass legislation into law that banned the sale of shark fins for soup in Chinese restaurants and eliminated foie gras from restaurant menus. The society also led a successful voter initiative that provides bigger, more comfortable cages for egg-laying hens.

On top of that, Fearing is chummy with Gov. Jerry Brown. She walks his Pembroke Welsh corgi, Sutter, and even dog-sits him occasionally.

Fearing and other animal rights advocates argued that there’s no way to know at the retail level whether a finished product was made with skins from non-endangered American alligators or from another endangered gator species.

But the Humane Society and its supporters couldn’t sway the Assembly committee members once Louisiana officials and experts in alligator population management testified.

They told the committee that Louisiana and Florida literally are crawling with the gators. Their population in Louisiana alone ballooned to more than 1.5 million wild and farm-raised reptiles from a low of a couple of hundred thousand in the early 1960s, officials said.

“There are alligators everywhere, on golf courses and in people’s pools,” said Don Ashley, a consultant to the Louisiana Alligator Advisory Council, a panel of landowners, hunters and alligator farmers that provides industry input to the state.

No-longer-endangered American alligators account for about 60 percent of all gator hides that get turned into luxury goods. The raw skin trade is worth about $150 million a year, the tanned hides go for $300 million and sales of the finished goods are worth about $1 billion, Ashley said.

Hunting and raising alligators for the luxury goods market is a modest but important source of income for Louisianians who live in the marshes and bayous near the Gulf Coast, said Bob Love of the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission.

“We need California customers,” he testified at the committee hearing, stressing that the trade in American alligator skins is “legal . sustainable and verifiable.”

Louisiana and California are missing the point, Fearing of the Humane Society countered.

“California’s penal code rightly protects our consumers from unwittingly supporting the trade in products made from imperiled species,” she said after the hearing. “It’s unfortunate when Rodeo Drive’s interests trump sound wildlife protection.”

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