Raccoon or Dog? US Government Decides the Fate of Animal Fur

Is this animal, Nyctereutes procyonoides, best referred to as an Asiatic raccoon or as a raccoon dog? The answer to that question is actually more complicated than you might think — and could determine whether this animal will be killed for its fur or not.

Earlier this week, the US government announced its answer: These cute creatures are "Asiatic raccoons."

This is the latest round in a pitched battle over the fate of this species. On one side is the fur industry, whose argument boils down to the fact that fur from that species has been sold and labeled for decades in the United States as "Asiatic raccoon," and that changing the name will lead to confusion for consumers. Animal rights groups, led by the Humane Society of the United States, argue instead that "Raccoon dog" is a more accurate English name for the species, and that "Asiatic raccoon" misleadingly implies that the species is related to raccoons.

This is really a debate about values that's masquerading as a debate about nomenclature. If these animals are called dogs, few people will want to buy their fur anymore. If they continue to be called raccoons, consumers will be less worried about the ethics of buying a coat made from their fur.

But how did an animal name become a political football in the first place?

A Tradition of Taxonomic Confusion

When a plant has a seed-bearing structure that grows from the plant's flower, that device is called a fruit. Botanically, a tomato is a fruit. But in 1893, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Nix v. Hedden that the tomato was a vegetable. It isn't that the justices were completely confused by the basics of botany. Rather, by labeling the tomato as a vegetable, it would be subject to vegetable import tariffs.

Indeed, the Tariff Act of March 3, 1883 levied a tax on imported vegetables, but not fruits. While both the plaintiffs and defendants relied on dictionary definitions to support their cases, ultimately the court decided that there was a distinction between a word's "ordinary" or "common" meanings, and its scientific or technical meaning. And since most people use the tomato as they do other vegetables (they use it in main courses instead of desserts, for example), the highest court in the land deemed the tomato a vegetable.

Now, the Federal Trade Commission, which enforces the Fur Products Labeling Act, has been asked to make a similar decision: is the critter better described as an Asiatic raccoon or as a raccoon dog?

Raccoon or Dog? US Government Decides the Fate of Animal Fur

A Brief History of Fur Labeling Laws in America

The Fur Labeling Products Act (which is usually simply called the "Fur Act") "prohibits misbranding and false advertising of fur products, and requires labeling of most fur products." In addition to specifications regarding the label's size and placement, to help consumers understand what it is they're buying, those labels must indicate whether there is any bleached, dyed, or artificially colored fur; what parts of the animal the fur came from (e.g. paws, bellies, tails, flanks, etc), the fur's country of origin, the name and ID number of the manufacturer, and the animal's name.

It's that last part that's the tricky bit. The animal's name comes from something called the Fur Products Name Guide. The name guide, which was first published in 1951, is designed to operate as a "a register setting forth the names of hair, fleece, and fur-bearing animals," and requires that those names "be the true English names for the animals in question, or in the absence of a true English name for an animal, the name by which such animal can be properly identified in the United States." The Name Guide includes both the "true English name" as well as the binominal species classification for each animal. Musela vison, for example, is identified as "mink."

The Dispute

Since 1961, the species Nyctereutes procyonoides, which is sometimes referred to as "tanuki" for the Japanese sub-species, has been matched with Asiatic raccoon as its "true English name." But some people would like to change that, and are arguing that Raccoon dog would be more fitting.

The Fur Act does allow for changes and amendments to the Name Guide, but only "with the assistance and cooperation of the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Interior," and only after public hearings are held. Several years ago, as part of its routine review, the FTC allowed for comments to be made on the Fur Act and Name Guide. Those hearings were held on December 6, 2011, and the FTC announced its decision earlier this week.

In Life of Mammals, David Attenborough splits the difference: he calls its an "Asiatic raccoon dog."

The Arguments

The crux of the arguments in favor of retaining "Asiatic raccoon" were based upon the animal's overt similarity to raccoons, and also to the fact that the label has been in constant use for decades.

"Asiatic Raccoon" accurately describes an animal that originated in Asia and that has raccoon-like characteristics. Specifically, much like a raccoon, it has rings around its eyes and it climbs trees.

Although the Asiatic Raccoon is part of the Canidae family, like many other animals (e.g., fox, wolves, coyotes), it is completely dissimilar from a domestic dog and should not be confused with a dog or referenced as a dog…The fox and the wolf are also members of the Canidae family and they have never been identified as dogs.

Asiatic raccoon supporters also argued,

[Nyctereutes procyonoides] behavioral and anatomical characteristics are so unique that it qualifies the species for its own genus listing (Nyctereutes)…The [Asiatic raccoon] split from the "true dog" evolutionary line between seven and ten million years ago. The [Asiatic Raccoon] exhibits vastly different behaviors than the dog. For example, it hibernates, climbs trees, and it participates in social grooming.

In essence, they argue that referring to the animal as a "Raccoon dog" will mislead consumers into thinking that the species is actually a type of dog.

On the other hand, supporters of the "Raccoon dog" identification argue that "Asiatic raccoon" will mislead consumers into thinking that the species is actually a type of raccoon. They argue that superficial similarities in appearance or behavior between two widely divergent species, such as the raccoon Procyon lotor and the raccoon dog Nyctereutes procyonoides are not sufficient to warrant classifying the canid as a raccoon.

Such distinctions can be found between many species within the same taxonomic families – the distinctions noted do not change the zoological characteristics that make raccoon dogs a member of the Canidae family. Indeed, a kangaroo rat looks like a kangaroo, and while it has many of the same characteristics of so-called "true-rats" in the genus Rattus (e.g., cheek pouches for food storage) kangaroo rats also have several distinct characteristics from "true-rats" (e.g., their bi-pedal hopping gait that makes them appear kangaroo-like). But it would not be appropriate to call the kangaroo rat a "small desert kangaroo."

Raccoon dog advocates further argued that journalists and TV presenters overwhelmingly refer to the animal as a raccoon dog, rather than as an Asiatic raccoon, except when referring to fur-related news items. They also leaned on grammar to explain that the term "Asiatic raccoon" was an imaginary creature invented by the fur industry: "Using the adjective 'Asiatic' to modify the word 'raccoon' creates a fictitious and non-existent type of raccoon."

The Decision

The central issue here is whether a given animal has at least one "true English name." If it does not, then the FTC is permitted to choose an alternative "name by which such animal can be properly identified in the United States." But if the species has more than one true English name, than the FTC may decide which to use in the Name Guide.

Significantly, a given animal can have more than one "true English name." For example, the species puma concolor goes by several alternative "true English names," including Mountain Lion, Cougar, Puma, and Panther. Those terms are all commonly used synonyms, and no one of them occupies any special status as the most "true" English name for the animal in question. Certainly nothing in the statutory text reveals any congressional determination that, for each animal, there can be at most one "true English name[]" in common usage. As the puma concolor example illustrates, that view would conflict with everyday speech…

In other words, the FTC seems to rely on similar arguments made by the Supreme Court in Nix v. Hedden. In particular, the meaning of a word in everyday speech is sometimes more important than the technical meaning of a word.

In this case, the Commission finds that the animal in question—nyctereutes procyonoides—has two "true English names": Asiatic Raccoon and Raccoon Dog. Although commenters disagree about which of these terms is more appropriate, there can be no serious dispute that "Asiatic Raccoon" has been in common use for many decades. Indeed, for more than half a century, that term has appeared on countless product labels to denote the animal in question, and consumers of fur products now closely associate that name with this animal… The Commission exercises its discretion to maintain the use of that "true English name," rather than the alternative such name (Raccoon Dog) on the product labels for the furs of this animal. Although opponents of the name "Asiatic Raccoon" argue that the name is confusing because the animal in question is "not a raccoon," [it is] equally true that the animal is not a "dog" as consumers understand that term. Indeed, the animal is no more closely related to domestic dogs than are coyotes and jackals.

Truth in Labeling

Raccoon or Dog? US Government Decides the Fate of Animal Fur

What this is really about is the fur industry's ability to sell the fur of Nyctereutes procyonoides in the first place. It is implicit in the arguments of Raccoon dog advocates that such a label would discourage folks from purchasing garments made from that fur, while the fur industry would prefer to keep on using the Asiatic raccoon label, because it is easier to sell raccoon fur than dog fur.

The problem with the Humane Society's argument is that while Nyctereutes procyonoides is indeed a canid, many people seem to incorrectly think that the Raccoon dog is a type or breed of domestic dog. Individual Humane Society members wrote things like "Make no mistake. This is a DOG. A companion animal"; or "[the animals] are dogs, just like Fido and Spot." They asked, "would you treat a Collie like this? How about Pomeranian, or a Beagle or a Poodle?" and insisted that Raccoon dog is the proper label so "consumers will know that they are wearing man's best friend on their backs." In all, the FTC received 188 such comments.

The issue before the FTC wasn't a question of whether Nyctereutes procyonoides can be bred for their fur, it's simply a matter of how to label it. Animal rights and animal welfare groups think (probably accurately) that calling it a dog will drive demand for the fur down, resulting in reduced incentives to farm the animals in the first place.

But is that any less deceptive? Calling the animal a Raccoon dog may be just as misleading as calling it in Asiatic raccoon, if the comments from Humane Society members are any indication. Instead, it seems as if their decision was based mostly on the long history of the use of the name "Asiatic raccoon."

But from a values perspective, it's probably time we had a conversation about the practice of wearing fur in the first place, rather than substituting one misleading label for another in an effort to trick consumers into leaving the Asiatic raccoon pelt on the rack.

Read the full FTC decision online (PDF).

Images: 663Highland/Wikimedia Commons; Pkuczynski/Wikimedia Commons; public domain.