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Exclusive – What the Danish mink-cull means for the future of fur production

Humane Society International/Europe’s senior director of public affairs Dr Joanna Swabe expands on the looming nationwide mink cull to combat Covid mutation fears, an animal welfare tragedy, but a significant development in the fight to end fur farming.

On November 6, the Danish government ordered a cull of every mink in the country due to fears that a Covid-19 mutation spreading from animals to humans could seriously jeopardise future vaccines. The newly discovered strain, currently referred to as the ‘Coronavirus-mink variant,’ is already circulating rapidly amongst mink farms and consequently the Danish population, with approximately 214 citizens already known to have been infected.

According to the World Health Organisation, though not an ideal solution, the risk of keeping these virus reservoirs operating is far too great and a mass-cull is the only means of ensuring the effectiveness of a vaccine isn’t compromised by mutations in the SARS-CoV-2 virus from its mink hosts.

‘Mutation happens all the time, but once in a while these mutations happen in the spike protein which is when it becomes concerning,’ states the report. With disease control at the forefront of every governmental decision in 2020, WHO is working hard to understand whether this will in fact have any biological effects but is also required to ‘look into this immediately before the problem grows because keeping animals in intensive farming conditions creates a potential hotbed for the transfer of disease.’

For Dr Joanna Swabe, senior public affairs director for animal lobby group Humane Society International/Europe, there has never been a more compelling time for Denmark to shut down this ‘sick industry’ for good. ‘Although the death of millions of mink is an animal welfare tragedy,’ she says, ‘fur farmers will now have a clear opportunity to pivot away from this cruel, dying industry and choose a more humane, sustainable livelihood instead.’ Currently the second biggest producer of fur on the planet after China, Denmark’s substantial industry – comprising well over one thousand farms – was responsible for a $650 million turnover in 2019, with mink production alone accounting for a staggering 3.8% of all Danish agricultural exports the same year. With Denmark being the bastion of the industry that it is, Dr Swabe attributes the inherent lack of action up until this point to the prevalence of fur farming in Danish society.

‘It’s an issue that’s always been rather politically untouchable,’ she explains. ‘If you look at the amount of fur farms in comparison with the Danish population, almost everyone will have a family member or know someone involved in the industry.’ What Dr Swabe alludes to is the various failed attempts from far-left political parties in Denmark to ban fur farming altogether, their proposals rejected time and time again by rural voters reliant on the industry as a primary source of income and reluctant to retrain.

‘There’s been a great deal of political posturing going on in Denmark, especially within the more Conservative parties because they need to be seen as defending the rights of farmers,’ she says.

Owing to the economic importance of fur production in Denmark, the country is decades behind in terms of any progress towards ending the suffering of millions of animals that exist solely for the purposes of a trivial and outdated fashion trend, and it’s for this reason that, to date, so little change has come about.

Presented with an unavoidable situation whereby hindering transmission of a new Covid strain is of utmost importance to save human lives, Dr Swabe believes it could be the last nail in the fur industry’s coffin. ‘What you have is an industry already struggling to keep up with the dramatic decrease in consumer demand for fur which has brought about a drop in pelt prices and stockpiles of skins going unsold at auctions, alongside an increasing number of prominent retailers and designers doing away with the material,’ she says. ‘It’s an opportunity for Denmark to finally – and quite elegantly – change the conversation surrounding fur farming, without alienating the communities that depend on it.’

However, while Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen’s science-led actions are indeed commendable in what many are calling a fait accompli, particularly for the animal rights activists that have been consistently urging Denmark to terminate fur production, it does not deter from the fact that an estimated 17 million minks are to be killed en masse.

‘It’s hardly something worth celebrating,’ says Dr Swabe, ‘but the fundamental question we must ask ourselves is: “what did you think was going to happen to these animals in the first place?” They weren’t exactly going to have a happy ending and if the move is something that’ll prevent further exploitation and suffering then that’s the way we ought to look at it.’

From an animal rights perspective, Dr Swabe deems the situation an impossible one because the life of every animal has undeniable value. Given the unnatural conditions in which mink are being kept however, she stresses that ‘you could theoretically agree killing them earlier actually spares them from any more suffering.’

Mink on the Brink: The Troubles Facing Fur Farmers in Denmark - Modern Farmer

Confined to small wire cages and destined to eventually die in exactly the same way they will during the mass-cull – by gassing with carbon monoxide – Dr Swabe argues that the real tragedy is that these mink were even born.

‘It’s one of those things that’s impossible to articulate or communicate because we don’t want to be seen as being in favour of the culling, but these minks never had a good quality of life to begin with,’ she says. ‘If mink on a farm are infected​, suffering respiratory problems and are not being treated or culled, their welfare ​will also be seriously compromised.’

Taking this into account, though Denmark is the only country so far to order a nationwide mink cull, others including Ireland, The Netherlands, and Spain are killing mink showing signs of carrying Covid-19 and just yesterday, Greece found that cases had shot up on several of its farms as well. As the virus spreads, these states have been encouraged to urgently re-examine proposals for transitioning away from fur farming and trade, and citizens are beginning to explore employment opportunities in other sectors.

Additionally, Denmark’s Breeder Association and the world’s largest fur auction house, Kopenhagen, announced earlier this week a ‘controlled shutdown’ to take place over the next three years. ‘The ECDC risk report and the announcement by Kopenhagen Fur that it will cease trading could very well signal the beginning of the end of the worldwide fur trade,’ finishes Dr Swabe. ‘Fur farms are not only the cause of immense and unnecessary animal suffering, but they are also ticking time bombs for deadly diseases, potential virus factories capable of churning out mutations of Covid-19 and even undermining medical progress towards reliable treatments. We cannot simply wait for the next pandemic to emerge. Stopping breeding them altogether would be the best way to prevent animals suffering in the future for the fickle whims of fashion.’

Despite the controversial nature of this issue, and although many have found themselves divided at an ethical crossroads of sorts, it’s most certainly a start. Evidently, fur is out of fashion and while bittersweet, the Danish nationwide mink-cull is undoubtedly a significant development in the fight to end unethical production processes, marking the beginning of the end of fur farming around the world. Hopefully the UK’s involvement with seeing to the industry’s demise comes into fruition sooner rather than later.