NEWS

Corner Brook woman's sealskin purse seized at U.S. border

03/22/2015 03:02 EDT | Updated 05/22/2015 05:59 EDT
A Corner Brook, N.L., woman whose sealskin purse was confiscated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection says she'll think twice before accessorizing again on her way south.

Nora Fitzgerald recently visited a friend in New Brunswick, and they decided to drive across the border from Florenceville at Bridgewater, Maine, to do some shopping.

Fitzgerald brought her sealskin purse on the trip — a gift from her mother. It had been purchased at a craft market on West Street in Corner Brook last year.

"I was really excited to take the purse with me," Fitzgerald told CBC News. 

"On my way up, at the airport, I got compliments on it and thought, 'Great, it'll be something different. It's handmade,'" she said.

Compliments

While crossing the border into the U.S., Fitzgerald said the purse caught the eye of a border agent. The woman asked Fitzgerald if the bag was made of real fur. 

"And I said, 'Yes, it's sealskin … I get compliments on it wherever I go.' 

"[The agent] said, 'Can you guys park your car over to the side …. And take your purse with you." And I thought, 'That was kind of odd,'" she said.

Fitzgerald was then asked to show her passport and fill out some forms. 

Forty-five minutes later — after another agent placed a call to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — Fitzgerald was asked to hand over her bag. 

"He told me that the seal was on the endangered species list and it was going to be seized." 

Request denied

Fitzgerald asked if she could speak to a wildlife official, but her request was denied. 

"I said, 'Well, take my cell phone number. Can we get in contact with them?' They wouldn't give us any contact information."

Fitzgerald said the border agents seemed to sympathize with her situation, but stood firm. Her purse was confiscated. 

"He gave me the analogy of, say you were caught with Cuban cigars — and I understood all that," said Fitzgerald.

"And they were really, really nice and almost apologetic … but I didn't know that it was on the endangered species list in the United States. I did not know that." 

And according to Fitzgerald, she's not alone.

After posting about her ordeal on Facebook, Fitzgerald said she was blown away by the number of sealskin-wearing friends who similarly had no idea the product was banned in the United States.

"It's funny, because I came off work the other morning and three of my co-workers had sealskin boots on," said Fitzgerald.

And if she had been wearing boots at the border?

"They would have taken my boots and I would have been wearing plastic bags on my feet, because they gave me a nice plastic bag in place of my purse," said Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald said she thinks manufacturers need to do more to warn consumers that, in some countries, seal products are prohibited. 

While the experience will influence the way Fitzgerald packs for future trips, she said it hasn't changed her view of the seal hunt. 

'Not anti-fur'

"I'm a fur lover. I have other furs. I see nothing wrong with buying furs. I'm not anti-fur."

Still, Fitzgerald doesn't see herself making any sealskin purchases in the future. 

"What's the point if you can't travel somewhere else?

"I know there's people that live in Ontario — I used to live there, I crossed the border all the time," she said. 

"What would be the point if you can't go back and forth with an article of clothing or an accessory? I just don't see the point of it."

The U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) prohibits the taking of marine mammals, and puts a moratorium on the import, export and sale of any marine mammal — along with any marine mammal part or product within the United States.

Other examples of products that are not allowed to be taken into the country are wild cat fur, polar bear fur, certain types of wool and most wild bird feathers.

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