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Bearskin Hats Under Animal Rights Fire - 3/11/03

LONDON (Reuters) - They're as British as red double deckers and Big Ben but the bearskin hats of the Queen's bodyguard could soon fall victim to the anti-fur lobby.

The Ministry of Defense said on Tuesday it was looking at alternatives to the skin of Ursus Americanus, Canada's black bear, which are used for the tall "busby" helmets of 2,500 scarlet-clad soldiers in the Foot Guards.

"We are aware that their use distresses some people," a ministry spokesman told Reuters.

He said a search for alternatives was in response to calls from campaign group PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).

"No bears are killed specifically to make the headgear," the spokesman said. "The skins are a by-product of culls which are necessary because the bears are becoming a danger to other wildlife in their natural habitat."

Past attempts to find alternatives have not met with success. Synthetic fur either became too spiky when wet, produced too much static electricity or took on unusual shapes in strong winds.

Wearing bearskins has been a tradition for the Foot Guards since 1815 when the sovereign granted the regiments the right to don the head gear in recognition of their defeat of Napoleon's bearskin-wearing Imperial Guard at the Battle of Waterloo.

Worn on ceremonial occasions and at the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, the sight of soldiers marching in bearskins has become a firm favorite with tourists.

"Natural bearskins can last years and years. In some cases they are passed from father to son," the spokesman said.
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