Ellie Willingham: Fur trapper and fashion designer

This 26-year-old Floridian also has Asperger's syndrome, but it hasn't stopped her pursuit of an unusual career

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Ellie Willingham
Ellie Willingham

FLORIDA, January 21, 2015 – Drive up to Ellie Willingham’s home and you’ll find a fairly typical upscale suburban neighborhood with large oak trees, fountains, and well manicured lawns.

Even Willingham’s garage is pretty characteristic in that it serves as her art studio versus a place to shelter her car. But the commonalities end there as the 26 year old college graduate designs and creates fashion items made from pelts that she harvests as a hunter and a trapper.

Frontier Furs by Ellie Willingham
Frontier Furs by Ellie Willingham

A longtime outdoors woman, Willingham only first learned to use a firearm in her teens, and didn’t even own a gun till just a few years ago (her mom’s old .22 Remington). Now they are tools of her trade, along with bait, lures, and humane, padded animal traps that she uses.

Winter is a busy season for Willingham, who sets traps on land by permission of the owners.


Willingham  took a few minutes out of her day to tell her unusual story of being a professional trapper that lives, and works, in the middle of suburbia.

Sheryl Kay: How and when did you first get into trapping, and what got you interested in the first place?

Ellie Willingham: I’ve been interested in taxidermy ever since I was 10 or 12 years old. I had seen some mounted animals at a nature center my family used to volunteer at, and decided it was something I wanted to learn how to do on my own. The nature center was right next door to a library, so my mom checked out a taxidermy book for me and let me read it. I remember checking out that book so many times afterward!

A few years later my mom got in contact with a local taxidermist who let me apprentice there, and learn from him. I got into trapping while I was apprenticing at the taxidermy shop and met some trappers during my time there.

I became interested in learning how they caught the animals and decided I’d like to try it on my own. I got in touch with the Florida Trappers Association, and took one of their trapping classes, and found it to be something I really, really enjoyed.

SK: Are there any difficulties you encounter while trapping? Are you ever afraid out there in the woods?

EW: Trapping can involve several difficulties–especially hauling heavy steel traps, gear, and animals over long distances which can become quite tiring after a while. Trapped animals can become aggressive as well, but if you know how to handle yourself around them, it’s not too bad.

Trapping isn’t what I’d consider an easy job, but the challenge of it is part of the reason I enjoy it so much. I can’t say I’ve ever gotten downright scared while trapping, though. Sure, I’ve gotten startled a few times by critters lunging at me, or by running into a big sticky spider web or two, but I’m generally more comfortable in the woods than I am in the city, any day.

SK: I understand you’re now using the pelts from your trapping to create fashions, purses, even costume masks. What kinds of pelts do you work most often with and how did you learn to make such a broad array of items?

EW: I work with all kinds of pelts for all kinds of purposes. I frequently use raccoon because they are what I can trap most of in my area. Plus, raccoon skin hats are very popular sellers at the events and conventions where I sell my wares.

For more unique items, I also get some fur from out-of-state trappers, which I can’t obtain here in Florida. Pelts like beaver, muskrat, fox, and mink, which make for very high quality and beautiful items.

I taught myself how to craft with fur, mostly by using existing clothing and hat patterns and altering them somewhat to work better with fur. It took a lot of practice but I eventually got it down to where I could produce very professional, quality items.

SK: I’m guessing you don’t know too many other twenty-something year old women living in the Tampa Bay area who trap like you do.

EW: I don’t know anyone else in my immediate area that traps, although I’m sure there are a few regular nuisance trappers around. I seem to be the only one in the Tampa area who actively traps for fur, though.

SK: You have gotten some really bad feedback from people who don’t approve of trapping, or making clothing out of animal furs. What’s that like? How do you deal with all of that?

EW:  I do occasionally run into the animal rights folks who are vehemently opposed to the use of fur, or any animal products for that matter. They have shown up at local events, or spammed up my Facebook page with all kinds of unpleasant remarks. It’s no fun, but I’ve found that the best way to deal with them is to act like the kinder, more polite person, agree to disagree with them but don’t argue back.

Arguing with them will not solve anything because most refuse to try and see things from my point of view and their remarks will only become more heated.

Of course, if someone asks me legitimate questions I will reply respectfully and factually, and if they want to learn more, they’ll tell me, or if they try to start a debate, I’ll politely explain that I won’t get into it with them like that. There’s just no point in it. They won’t change, and I won’t change, and life’s too short for that kind of needless drama.

SK: You also shared with me that you have Asperger’s Syndrome. How does that affect your trapping, and your creative work?

EW: I wouldn’t know if it makes what I do harder or easier because I’ve had this condition throughout my entire life, so there’s really nothing I can compare to. But it’s been said that people with Asperger’s Syndrome have higher levels of perception and senses than quote unquote regular people do, so I suppose in a way it can actually help me when I trap, because I tend to notice smaller details and animal sign that others may overlook.

I also seem to have a stronger sense of hearing and smell than others do, which has for sure led me to a few good trapping spots that might have otherwise been missed. People with Aspergers also tend to be quite creative or artistic, and have very specific, narrow interests.

I suppose this is why I’ve just always had hobbies connected to fur and animals throughout my life.

SK: What advice would you share with parents who may be faced with a child who desires a similar career path to yours, especially if those parents don’t know the first thing about trapping or the great outdoors?

EW: My parents knew nothing about trapping, fur, or taxidermy when I first got interested in those things, but they did support me in my interests and helped me find the resources for learning more about it on my own. So that’s what I’d suggest for other parents who may be faced with a similar situation.

No matter what your child is interested in, even if it seems odd or out of the norm, let them explore it and learn about it and help them find ways of connecting with others who share the same interests. There are all kinds of clubs and organizations existing for just about any hobby or interest group, and usually it just takes a simple Google search or a look through a magazine or local directory to find them.

I am incredibly thankful for my own parents for being so supportive, because if it wasn’t for them, I’m sure I wouldn’t be quite where I am today!

For more information about Willingham’s fashions, visit the Facebook page, Frontier Furs

 

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  • choosecompassionalways

    Well, how refreshing to hear how this woman with self-declared superior senses to the rest of us has no problem torturing animals and using their skins to make and sell useless fashion items to shallow, vain customers. I certainly can believe that she’s more at home in the woods. For some of us, that would mean we appreciate nature and the other beings who live in the woods. For her, I suspect it means she is uncomfortable around people and is a bit of an outcast. With her sterling heart, her heightened sensibilities and sensitivity to suffering, and the obvious good will she feels towards other beings who share this planet, how could someone think she’s other than a goddess?

    And Sheryl Kay, as the interviewer and writer, why do you avoid the tough questions? Why not show the reader the whole picture? Why didn’t you ask Ellie how she kills the animals? How often she checks the traps? How many orphans meet horrible ends because she kills their mothers? Instead of glorifying this filthy “sport,” why don’t you tell the whole story and let readers decide for themselves? By the way, there’s no such thing as a “humane padded trap” — but nice try.

    • As “this woman” you’re referring to, I felt I should reply to this myself as it seems there’s been some misunderstanding here. I am not any more an “outcast” than a fisherman or anybody else who prefers to spend their time in the great outdoors. I’m no “goddess” either, I am human just like you. I don’t torture animals. I trap them with humane and modern equipment that also allows for easy and safe release if I do not choose to harvest the animal. The items I create are not useless. They keep people warm in the winter.

      Sheryl actually did ask me the “tough questions” when interviewing me for this article, though they seemed to have been edited out in the final version (I was not a part of this process so I couldn’t explain why) but in short, my answers were:

      -I check my traps every 24 hours as required by law.
      -I put animals down with a single shot from my .22 rifle which is quick and humane.
      -Yes there is such thing as a humane padded trap, I can even put my own hand in them and they won’t hurt!
      -(and she didn’t ask about orphan animals) but the answer to that would be: Animals don’t get orphaned from trapping, because fur trapping seasons take place during the fall and winter when all young have grown enough to fend for themselves and no longer rely on their mothers. Newborn animals don’t come around til spring and summer, when fur trapping seasons are over. And if I have to take on any nuisance trapping jobs during these spring/summer months, I simply release any and all females, no matter what species.

      I hope this helps you understand a few things better, but if not, please feel free to ask me more questions and I’ll be glad to explain further. This article was fairly limited in its final version, but I do volunteer as a Trapper Training instructor with the FL Trappers Association, so teaching people all about what we do is part of the job! 🙂

      Regards,
      -Ellie Willingham

  • Mark&Josie Gentry

    I don’t agree with killing and trapping animals, however growing up on a farm I do know how some animals can be a bother or even terrorist like with their behaviors. Such as eating roofs off barns, electrical wiring and rooting up plumbing, etc. However their furs provide no more warmth than the fake materials or the coats you can buy without killing them for their fur. I am from a native American ancestry ( “Black foot also known as The Crow”) and was raised with many Seminole Indians who taught respect to the land and its living creatures that provide what we need. You go by the rule of survival ” If you are not going to eat it, then do not take its life.” May I ask what you do with the meat of the animals that you trap and kill. I could justify this behavior if I knew that these coats were going to freezing children in Alaska or Siberia, however they are not. They are being sold for profit and greed thus showing the animal like nature of yourself. There is nothing humane about this, if profit is being made off the lives of animals that are dwindling as we speak. Have you ever had a pet raccoon or possum? Have you ever looked into the eyes of a brown bear from 4 feet away? No my friend you have not.Will you share an ear of corn with a buck that has a rack of 12pts sitting upon its head then lead it’s heard back into the forest? No, people like you who don’t love thy brothers and sisters of the earth are far from ever being free from the filth within it. As for the writer of the article she is morally disturbed and has her own demons within herself. I pity the both of you. One has nothing better to do than write about someone who kills animals for fur and the other thinks it is ok and justifiable to kill animals for their pelts. Do we not have better things to write about? Like women who are aborting babies at 8 months into their pregnancy. People who are deceiving the government by collecting welfare and using loop holes in the laws to have profitable gains. Colleges charging our children with their school fees yet make millions upon millions off their sports but charge our students phenomenal fees to come to the school. This article just displays the writers personal attachment and interest with her subject. Only to get publicity to promote her fur business. It also displays how inexperienced she really is with reality as well as the real world journalism. Its writers like this we have so many of and is why we have all this garbage on the web, almost anyone can become a writer now days.