A DAY AT THE FUR AUCTION • by Stephen Taylor

I gagged and I fought hard not to barf up breakfast. On about the third heave, Wade handed me a small bottle of Vicks.

“Put some of this under your nose,” he said.

Wade carried the little bottle in his tool belt for the newbies. Wade was a tall, lanky thirty-something native guy that walked with a cane. His high auburn cheekbones, black eye patch and long black ponytail reminded me of a kind of Indian pirate.

The powerful menthol fumes from the Vicks hardly masked the sickening reek of death in the old warehouse, that seemed to permeate every olfactory nerve in my body. The furs coming in the back door of this four-storey, nineteenth century red brick warehouse, had once covered living, breathing animals, now deceased and subject to the Law of Entropy. Although dutifully gutted and stripped of their fur-bearing skin in the field by the trappers, the remaining bits of rotting flesh and grizzle began to give off a stink as the pelts thawed in boxes on the warehouse floor. I lit another cigarette and tried hard not to breathe in the fetid warehouse air too deeply.

Coyote, beaver, lynx, fox, wolverine, ermine and squirrel all gave up their furry coats to satisfy the fashion needs of the US and European market. They were shot or snared in leg-hold traps by the hundreds of trappers that worked their lines either on a full-time or part-time basis in the vast and desolate Northern region of Canada.

“It’s a lot worse in the summer,” Wade said. 

After having my bones rattled for three days and nights on the bench seat of a VIA train, I had arrived in Edmonton from Toronto. But shortly after arrival in that winter of 1979, I learned that the $20-an-hour oil field jobs I had heard about were not an option for a 18-year-old whose only work experience since graduating high school had been washing dishes and bussing restaurant tables. The job I found that frigid January at the Edmonton Fur Auction paid ten dollars per hour, which was twice what I had been paid to bus tables at Fran’s Restaurant in Toronto.

“You can work as many hours as you want,” the hiring manager told me.

Planning a tour of Europe the following summer, I would work twelve hours per day for the next few months, live at the Downtown YMCA for $7.50 per day, and fly to Amsterdam in May with a pocket full of cash. I was golden!

“I’m gonna put you on squirrels,” Wade said.

My job that first morning on the job was to unpack boxes of recently thawed, stinking squirrel pelts. There were hundreds of pelts in each box. I turned each little squirrel skin inside out like a sock and stacked them in piles, two skins abreast like strips of bacon, and then laid another two perpendicularly on top, alternatively, until each stack contained a hundred skins ready to be graded. I then doused them with a chemical spray that smelled like diesel fuel.

“It kills the maggot eggs,” Wade explained.

The stacks of squirrel pelts were lined neatly in a row along the length of the metal warehouse bench. As I processed the soft little furs, I remembered the little black stub-tailed squirrel that had scurried along the thick black phone wire outside my bedroom window in a high wire act one summer long ago. I had lied to my friend Brady that it had lost its tail when I tried to catch it one time.

“So where is the tail then?” he had asked. I told him the cat had eaten it.

I tallied twenty piles of squirrel pelt that morning; two thousand little shells of formerly living woodland creatures. Wade told me it took 150 squirrel skins to make a lady’s winter coat.

I was on coyote and fox duty next. I thought of my boyhood dog, King, as I unpacked the wet canine furs. They were more difficult to handle than the squirrels. The occasional remaining eyeball, paw or lump of putrid entrail remained, missed by the trapper who had liberated the animal from its leg-hold trap and then gutted and skinned it in field; sometimes still partially alive, Wade told me.

“What do I do with the feet,” I asked.

“Watch what I do,” said Wade. He pulled out a large cleaver and severed a remaining paw.

“Two points,” he said, as it arced through the air landing in the metal waste bin at the end of the workbench. I could only imagine scraping the maggots from the inside of the furs in warmer weather. Wade told me I had that to look forward to when the weather warmed up.

“Sometimes they fall down your boots and you can feel them nibbling at your feet,” Wade said.

The sub-zero weather during their frozen voyage in the back of a mail truck to the auction, from the Northern Canadian hinterland, eliminated that nasty process step in January. Maggots were not going to be an issue for me because I would be sitting around a campfire drinking wine with a pretty young German girl somewhere in the Black Forest by the time the warm weather hit Edmonton, I thought.

I worked until 9 PM and didn’t eat supper that evening. That night I dreamt I was opening boxes of human heads, their anguished eyes still open and mouths moving silently. I didn’t return to work at the Auction the next day. I phoned in from the payphone in the lobby of the Y.

“My grandmother died and I have to return to Toronto,” I lied. “Can you mail my paycheck to my mother’s house in Toronto, please?” I finished out that winter and spring in Edmonton bussing tables at the International House of Pancakes for five dollars an hour.

Stephen Taylor is a graduate of the University of Toronto and works as a consultant in the Oil and Gas industry in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

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Every Day Fiction

  • Must say, I’ve never read anything about this trade 9though have had the pleasure of processing deer for meat). Nicely gruesome in all the right places, and goes to show: money ain’t everything. Peace, Linda

  • This felt more like a good piece of non fiction to me. I could also see the end coming. I am glad to have read this story. I hope some of those fur wearing ladies also get to read it. Thanks for this Stephen.

  • Gross yet riveting. Deftly handled issue in entertaining flash.

    Hats off to EDF for publishing this. Would have been convenient to pass this one up; EDF didn’t take the easy way.

  • Louise Michelle

    Oh, Stephen, I’ve been an animal welfare person for many, many years and have read horrific articles on the way man uses animals. Even so, I found myself having to hurry through some of the details in your story because you captured the plight of those animals so well. I gave you four stars.

  • The ending made this one. I was prepared to not like this guy for his choice in employment.

    I would not consider the gross parts riveting. I found myself skipping over parts of the story. I don’t think that’s a good thing.

  • Margie

    A wonderfully written, absolutely horrific story of the plight of animals. I second the ‘hats off’ to EDF for publishing this bit of flash.

  • J.C. Towler

    A vivid imagination at work here or somebody who has dealt with this sort of thing up close and personal. As a reader, I enjoy looks into realms I know little or nothing about.

    However, I thought this needed a few more passes through the editorial taxidermist. Far too many occasions of the word “little”; I think “grizzle” should have been “gristle” and there; and the narrative occasionally veered into encyclopedia-speak.


  • Sharon

    Title gave too much away. There’s no wondering whether he’ll skip out or grit his teeth for money’s sake.

  • Nicely written, but this one seemed more like a “slice-of-life” piece to me. Would mske a nice chapter in a autobiography or an autobiographical novel, but doesn’t have enough action or plot to stand on its own as a short story.

    Some of the description was verging on the disgusting side, but tough, that happens.

  • Brian Dolton

    Interesting to see people commenting that EDF was “right” to publish this (inevitably, people who agree with its apparent premise; it would be so nice to see people so resolute in the defence of things they personally find unpleasant). I’d have to disagree (in the sense that if I were editor at EDF, I would not have published this; but frankly I don’t believe it’s my job to tell the editors of EDF what to publish or not to). I’ve nothing against addressing important social issues in fiction – far from it – but I feel the job of this kind of fiction is to raise questions in the reader, not to provide pat answers. I don’t think this does anything of the sort; this is a thinly disguised – no, undisguised – opinion piece, and certainly so indistinguishable from an autobiographical anecdote that it’s hard to call it fition in a meaningful sense.

    I speak, in case someone wants to label me, as someone who has read and learned from Fast Food Nation, No Logo and a number of other such books. My objection is not to the message presented here. It is simply to do with how I personally feel fiction should address such issues.

  • You certainly got my interest with this one, a very enjoyable tale. That said, I hate squirrels!!


  • David

    I don’t see this as an opinion piece, nor do I see it as providing any answers. I’ve read similar stories about people who have worked in slaughterhouses and ended up with nightmares. The narrator made no value judgment on the work or on Wade. He quit because he couldn’t stomach it, not because he thought it was wrong. If the moral of the story was “I worked in a fur warehouse and found out it is morally objectionable work” he wouldn’t have asked for his paycheck. Take from the story what you will, but I don’t think it’s political at all.

  • Brian (Dolton),

    I read with interest your thoughtful comments.

    Personally, I commended EDF because they could have very easily avoided negative reactions and the like. I eat meat and outside of being skinned alive, many of the issues are the same. But I agree that applauding the publication of a piece simply because one agrees with the premise with it gets boring fast.

    Also, I hate work that is a veiled opinion or preaches. If I read, say, Diary of Anne Frank and find myself changed, fine, but it had better be a story. This passed for me, but your points are well taken.

  • Bob

    Opinion piece, editorial, advocacy or autobiography – none of these matter to me if the piece doesn’t grab me. And this one didn’t grab me. Too much description with too little actually happening.

    I thought Wade was an interesting character; perhaps exploration of him would have made this more compelling.

  • I liked this piece, even though it disgusted me. Your descriptions are very vivid and it reads as believable non-fiction.

  • Lisa C.

    Basically a series of descriptions, which I skimmed. Didn’t seem to be much point here, story-wise.