Reports of a COVID-19 mutation in mink first surfaced in Denmark five months ago. Since then, similar cases have been identified in farmed mink populations in the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the US. Worryingly, these mutations are also transmissible to humans, and have now infected people in seven different countries. Although symptoms appear to be in keeping with those experienced with regular COVID-19, there are fears that these new strains may prove to be immune to a vaccine. Furthermore, any efforts to limit the spread of coronaviruses among humans will be futile if this virus continues circulating within mink populations.
Denmark, which is the world’s top fur producer and until now hosted a staggering population of 17 million farmed mink, has found itself at the centre of this storm. Novel coronavirus strains have been found in 5 commercial mink farms in Denmark, and Danish authorities estimate that at least 200 people have contracted mink-borne variants of the virus since June. In order to prevent the spread of the disease, Denmark announced on 6th November that it would cull its entire mink population. Since then, 10 million mink have been slaughtered, many of them healthy animals. Denmark is not the first country to take such drastic action; in July, almost 100,000 mink were culled in Spain after many tested positive for COVID-19. However, the Danish public reacted with outrage last week when it transpired that politicians had called for the cull without proper legislative backing. Denmark’s agriculture minister has since resigned but the government is still attempting to push through legislation to support the cull.
The frustration of those farmers who have lost their livelihoods is understandable, but there are also those criticising the Danish government for the needless deaths of 10 million mink. Yet, surely this outrage is misdirected? Is it any less moral to cull mink en masse than to breed them in substandard conditions only to later slaughter them for their fur? The conditions in fur farms are notoriously poor. As Henriette Mackensen from the German Animal Welfare Federation explains, “Minks are crammed into cages and cannot move. They vegetate and develop behavioural problems that lead to self-mutilation and cannibalism.” This practice frankly cannot be justified – it is appalling that animals should be raised up for slaughter and kept in such dreadful conditions, just to satisfy the demand for luxury fur products.
Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom. Although the cull’s immediate cost in lives is shocking, there is a silver lining. Mink culls are serving to significantly accelerate the decline of the fur industry. Last week, Kopenhagen Fur (the Danish auction house that accounts for 40% of global mink pelt sales) announced that this month’s culls had forced them to cut back on their operations, with a view to permanently closing within the next couple of years. Denmark had already committed to phasing out fur farming by 2024, but this deadline has now been brought forwards to March 2021, sparing millions of mink the suffering of a short and degrading life in captivity.
Although the mass slaughter of animals is not to be celebrated, the recent mink culls have provided a long-overdue reason to challenge a deeply unethical industry. Furthermore, this episode can teach humanity a valuable lesson: it has further cemented the link between our treatment of animals and the increasing frequency of zoonotic diseases. It is human practices that have facilitated the emergence and transmission of zoonoses such as swine flu, bovine TB and, of course, the infamous virus that is currently plaguing us.
We must stop relying on reactionary measures, and instead act pre-emptively, by reconsidering the ways in which we farm and treat animals. If animal welfare was regarded as highly as human welfare, there would be no mink farms to cull, and no COVID-19 at all. When will we stop prioritising economic gain over animal rights?
Image: ‘Mink culled in Denmark’ Becca Tyler via Flickr