COVID-19 has killed millions of people, crippled economies, and unmasked inherent inequities in our society. It has also demonstrated how human health is intricately linked with the health of other animals. In the early months of the pandemic, after realizing the disease may have originated in a wet market in Wuhan China, authorities warned that wildlife trade and trafficking and human encroachment and destruction of natural habitat has “increased interactions between us and wild animals” thus increasing the potential for the spread of zoonotic diseases. As the One Health approach embraced by the United Nations and the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention recognizes, the health of humans and the risk of disease spilling over to humans from animals (zoonotic disease) is directly related to the health of animals.
A devastating example of the link between human treatment of animals and the spread of zoonotic disease is the outbreak of COVID-19 on mink fur farms in 10 nations. In late October, Denmark, the world’s largest producer of mink with more than one thousand farms housing approximately 17 million mink, began a mass cull of all mink, in an effort to stop the spread of a new mutated virus strain, "Cluster-5,” that poses a “risk to the effectiveness” of a future COVID-19 vaccine. Mink, especially susceptible to respiratory viruses, are infected by catching the virus from humans. Recent genetic work has shown that the disease has spread from mink to humans in Denmark and the Netherlands. Although mutations are common, the “Cluster-5” mutation is of particular concern because it occurs in the spike protein, which is the protein targeted by vaccines that are now in development.
In early November, Denmark deployed police and armed forces to farms to cull both healthy and unhealthy mink, killing some 2.85 million within a week. Many of the mink were culled inhumanely, “crowded into killing boxes and gassed insufficiently.” “Trucks filled with dead mink dropped carcasses on the road, while some live animals were stuffed in containers with dead mink,” as “mass graves appeared in Danish countryside filled with slaughtered animals.” Soon thereafter, dead mink began emerging from their graves due to gases formed during decomposition, and authorities had to cover them with more soil. Concerns have been raised that some of the graves are too close to lakes and underground water reserves, and thus may contaminate drinking water.
Opponents of the mink cull had argued that “the eradication of all healthy mink was a breach of the Danish Constitution.” By mid-November, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen admitted that the government lacked the legal authority to cull all mink and instead “only had jurisdiction to cull the infected mink or herds within a safety radius.” Soon thereafter, a political majority reached an agreement that purported to “legalize” the cull while forbidding the keeping of mink in Denmark and banning the transport of live mink to or from Denmark until December 31, 2021. The agreement included payment of 30 kroner per mink to all farmers affected by culls carried out by November 19, with a 10 kroner bonus to all farmers with mink killed before November 12.
The Danish mink cull created a firestorm of public outrage. Mogens Jensen, Minister of Food and Agriculture, resigned after a report emerged showing that he knew in September that a change to legislation would be required to give the government authority to order the cull. Investigations are underway to determine “who knew what and when did they know it?” Although the WHO announced that the “Cluster-5” strain was no longer circulating in humans as of November 20, it advises a variety of measures to prevent the risk of disease transmission.
The Danish cull, #minkgate, has had a devastating effect on all involved—the mink, the mink farmers, Danish authorities, and arguably the entire industry. The Danish began raising mink in the 1920s and are considered the world’s premiere breeders. While some believe this may be the end of mink fur farming in Denmark, the Prime Minister indicated she hopes the industry may be reestablished once the ban is lifted in 2022. Others estimate that it will take at least seven years for the industry to revive.
There are more than 50 million mink bred for their fur throughout the world. The other leading national markets for mink production are China, the Netherlands, and Poland, but Spain, Sweden and the United States also have significant numbers of farms. Each of those countries have reported outbreaks of the virus in minks. In the U.S., in August, Utah confirmed deaths of minks on mink farms from COVID-19, and in October, the disease spread to Wisconsin mink farms. Fur from the dead infected mink in Utah were nevertheless used for coats and other garments after processing to remove traces of the virus. With thousands of mink dead from the virus, the US Department of Agriculture ordered quarantines of infected farms but no mass cull.
However, China, the second largest producer before the pandemic, is capitalizing on the mink culls. Taking advantage of the recent surge in global mink fur prices following the Danish cull, farmers in China have resumed breeding mink on their 8,000 farms housing some 5 million animals. Fur farming is a cheap means for local governments to try to address poverty in rural communities and rustbelt regions where industrial workers have lost their jobs. As an example, one Chinese breeder’s earnings increased 30-50% after the announcement of the cull in Denmark. Although China had banned all wildlife trading in response to the pandemic, the government classified mink, arctic fox, and raccoon as “special livestock” exempt from the ban. In China, many large breeders claim to have rigorous vaccination and hygiene regimes, and the government has administered free COVID-19 tests for captive mink since the Denmark cull was announcement. Nevertheless, the health risks posed by the farms are closely linked to the conditions in which the animals are housed: large numbers of mink, densely populated in cages, one on top of the other, characterized by some as “filthy fur farms . . . packed with sick, stressed, and injured animals and breeding grounds for disease.”
Fur farming has been under attack for years as an inherently cruel industry designed to cater to mere human vanity and prestige. While some mink that enter farms are trapped, many more are bred in captivity and live their entire lives in tiny, unenriched, cages. Millions of mink are farmed, often in unregulated inhumane conditions, and inhumanely killed. Unlike domesticated farmed animals who have been in captivity for over 5,000 years, mink have been held in captivity a mere 90 years, and thus retain many of their wild instincts. Mink are “highly active and inquisitive animals,” instinctively nomadic with home ranges in the U.S. of three to six miles. Nevertheless, the average cage in which a mink spends their entire life is one foot high, one foot wide, and three feet deep. Also, as semi-aquatic animals, “they are physiologically hardwired to seek large bodies of water for diving, hygiene, and food.” The intensive confinement and lack of bodies of water and other accommodations to satisfy their needs leads to physical and emotional suffering. The killing of mink also entails pain and suffering, when the animals are gassed, poisoned or electrocuted. The most common method in the United States is “asphyxiation, which occurs when the mink are placed into an air-tight container and administered poisonous carbon monoxide gas.” Because mink are semi-aquatic animals and are highly tolerant to hypoxia, they are able to hold their breath for extended periods of time, which in turn prolongs their death and suffering.
Although the fur industry claims that real fur is better for the environment than faux fur, studies suggest this is not true; in fact, the fur industry is devastating to the environment. It is estimated that “each mink produces 44 pounds of feces in its lifetime,” creating waste that “can produce hazardous byproducts including often uncontrollable amounts of phosphorous and nitrates” that pollute the air. The disposal of carcasses through incineration also contributes to air pollution. The “feces and waste contain nitrates, phosphates and other chemicals, which are as toxic to water systems as they are to the air.” In addition to polluting the air and water, the pollutants may also contribute to ecosystem damage and the loss of biodiversity. And, the fur industry is energy inefficient—consuming approximately fifteen times more energy than the faux fur industry.
With increasing concern for the welfare of the animals and the environment, consumers have begun to shun fur. Many top designers, including Versace, Ralph Lauren, and Chanel, have dropped it from their collections; many retailers, including, Macy’s, Bloomindale’s and Nordstrom’s, have discontinued sales of fur products. Moreover, Kopenhagen Fur, the world’s largest fur auction house, will cease operations after 90 years. And with the change in public demand and the high risk to public health, lawmakers are following suit. Fur farms are already banned in the U.K., Austria and Germany. The Netherlands, in the wake of the pandemic, “fast-tracked its existing plan to phase out fur farming” from 2023 to 2021. France announced in October that it will ban mink fur farming by 2025 and Poland may do so as well. In the U.S., the mink industry recorded its worst year of profits in 2019, when the value of produced mink pelts fell to $59.2 million. Four cities in California have banned the sale of fur and, in July, a federal district court judge upheld the constitutionality of San Francisco’s fur ban. In October, Wellesley, Massachusetts became the first city outside of California to ban fur, and Israel became the first nation to announce its intention to ban the fur trade. The Israeli environmental protection minister explained it well: “The fur industry causes the killing of hundreds of millions of animals around the world, and involves indescribable cruelty and suffering. . . . Utilizing the skin and fur of wildlife for the fashion industry is immoral.” Looking back, one silver lining that is recognized amongst the tragic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic may be that it accelerated the end to an unjustified, cruel, and environmentally devastating industry.