While news of the decision to gas and burn 17 million mink in Denmark to halt the spread of a COVID-19 mutation from humans to animals made global headlines, what has often been missed is that the mink would have been killed regardless because of demand for their fur.
The only difference now is that the killing is taking place in the full glare of the media, but animal rights charities say it also provides an opportunity to end the fur trade, an opportunity that may not come again. The culling of mink during the pandemic is just the tip of the iceberg in what one animal rights worker says is a lifetime of pain and suffering for the animals.
“The life of a mink on a fur farm is one of deprivation and monotony,” Wendy Higgins, of the animal welfare charity Humane Society International, tells Newsweek. “Often the hallmarks of fur trade existence – animals with infected eyes, self-inflicted wounding, cannibalism – are all stereotypical behavior. Deprivation in their lives leads to mental decline and at the end of that they are gassed.”
Higgins along with other animal rights groups says the spread of COVID-19 on mink farms wouldn’t have taken place if the fur trade was banned and are now calling for an end to the trade once and for all.
The culling of mink in Denmark had been ongoing for several weeks after fears that a mutated form of COVID-19 in the animals could hamper the effectiveness of any potential vaccine for a virus that has resulted in over a million deaths worldwide. The sheer scale of the culling resulted in widespread outcry in Denmark, with the prime minister of the country recently admitting that the plan had been rushed and has no legal basis.
The resulting pushback has meant that the country’s government has rolled back on the cull order, instead recommending farmers cull mink rather than issuing an order.
In the U.S., according to Reuters, more than 15,000 mink have died as a result of the virus since August, though there has been no evidence of mink making people sick in the country and there has been no directive issued to cull mink on farms. “These investigations are ongoing, and we will release data once available,” Jasmine Reed, a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokesperson, said.
According to the International Fur Federation, demand for fur is growing in China, South Korea and Ukraine.
In the U.S., however, the mink industry is in decline. In 2019, the industry had its worst year on record, according to data from a U.S. Department of Agriculture report. The value of all mink pelts, the skin of an animal usually with its fur, produced fell to $59.2 million, which is the lowest since the USDA started recording such data in 1975.
In Denmark, many farmers have already expressed alarm that the call to cull mink threatens the entire industry. In France, mink farming will be outlawed from the beginning of 2025. In the U.S. the state of California has banned the sale of fur from 2023.
There is no federal regulation or requirement concerning methods for handling COVID-19 infections at mink farms in the U.S.. Federal authorities have left it to states to handle outbreaks. Higgins thinks the current method of gassing the mink isn’t the most effective either, given that they are semiaquatic, meaning that they live in and near water which enables them to hold their breath for long periods of time. Gassing, she says, causes the animals unnecessary pain and suffering.
“You could euthanize them individually like we would with our pets and dogs, but these animals are not afforded that same respect,” she says. But Higgins thinks the mink should never have been on the farms in the first place and blames the degrading conditions of intensive farming for the outbreak among mink.
“When you intensively farm and mass produce that number of animals, particularly wild species, that are kept in such close proximity, then if you introduce something like COVID-19, it’s little wonder how quickly it can spread.”
According to the British Fur Trade Association, the fur trade in the U.K. is worth £200 million a year. It also claims that the demand for fur in the country is high and growing.
Responding to the culling of mink in Denmark, the group said: “Mink farming continues in other countries around the world and the farming community has already put in place extensive biosecurity measures. Other fur types such as fox and wild fur are not impacted by the virus.
“Fur in the UK is popular with a third of British households owning an item of fur and sales have increased by nearly 200 percent in the last few years particularly among young age groups who reject synthetic fast fashion in favor of sustainable, natural materials.”
For Higgins, the current moment provides not only an ethical reason for ending fur farming but also compelling human health reasons too.
“The Danish government now have a clear opportunity to capitalize on this moment,”
she says. “It makes no sense whatsoever to recognize the potential petri dish, the reservoir of a virus that these fur farms represent, which is precisely why they have decided to move forward with a cull in the first place.
“You can’t on the one hand decide to cull all those animals and then a few months later allow fur farms to just fill up those cages again. It just makes no sense. There’s never been a better time for them to have a state-sponsored phase-out and introduce a ban and by all means transition those fur farmers into alternative more human, more sustainable livelihoods.”
Dyrenes Beskyttelse, an animal rights group in Denmark says it has witnessed heartbreaking cullings that have gone wrong. Britta Riis, the CEO of the charity, told Newsweek: “The scale and haste with which this is being done in mind, we have contacted Danish authorities to ensure that the laws protecting animal welfare are being upheld.”
However, Riis thinks there was no option but to cull the mink. “The decision to cull the mink to protect public health is the right decision,” he says. “There is no outcome that would spare the life of these poor animals, I’m afraid. If they weren’t culled because of COVID-19, they would have been culled this time of year anyway to be made into furs. This happens year after year. We find the whole mink industry highly unethical. Millions of animals should not be crammed into tiny cages their entire lives just to culled, skinned and end up as coats.”
Higgins too hopes the cull of mink will force people to think twice before buying fur.
“If anyone had any illusions up until this point that fur was a luxury item they will have been disavowed of that belief by looking at the conditions and killing methods that we’re seeing in Denmark,” she says.