A total of 3.1 million mink were raised in the United States in 2018, according to the animal welfare charity Humane Society International (HSI). Current advice from the US Department of Agriculture does not recommend the culling of mink herds.
In July, Spanish authorities ordered the slaughter of almost 100,000 animals for the same reason, and in May the Netherlands made testing for coronaviruses in mink farms mandatory after suspecting one of the animals had transmitted the virus to a human.
The tests led to the slaughter of around 2.6 million mink in the Netherlands, according to HSI. While some minks have died from the coronavirus, most of the animals have been slaughtered because they feared transmitting the virus to humans.
Studies have shown that ferrets are susceptible to the coronavirus, so researchers in the Netherlands decided to look at the taxonomically similar mink during a routine animal testing program, Koopmans said.
“Researchers have found that mink transmit Covid-19 more easily than other animals,” said Koopmans. “It is amazing how easily this virus spreads in mink,” she said.
Long-term animal welfare issues give way to human concerns
Mink, which is closely related to weasels, otters and ferrets, appear to suffer from symptoms similar to Covid-19 in humans.
Breathing difficulties and scabs around the eyes are usually seen, but the virus progresses rapidly and most infected minks have died the day after symptoms appear, according to Dean Taylor, a veterinarian for the U.S. state of Utah.
Conditions on the farms mean the virus is able to tear captive populations apart, said Jo Swabe, senior director of public affairs at HSI Europe. “The animals are kept in little wire cages, there are only rows and rows and rows,” she says. “Animals cannot escape. ”
Mink are naturally solitary and semi-aquatic, and it is impossible to provide for their welfare needs on farms, according to HSI, which advocates for the closure of fur farms on ethical grounds.
In the Netherlands, there is now ongoing transmission between mink farms, as well as evidence that the virus has been circulating for some time in some facilities, Koopmans said.
There are a number of hypotheses as to how transmission occurs, including from workers, semi-wild cats or other wild animals. “We don’t really know what’s going on,” Koopmans said. “A link is missing. “
Koopmans recommended culling mink populations to reduce the risk of farms becoming a permanently infected viral reservoir. She stressed that she is not normally an advocate for mass slaughter of animals, but that it is the best approach to prevent sustained transmission in mink.
“It’s a risk I think we shouldn’t take,” she said.
If allowed and human-to-human transmission were suppressed, the virus could be reseeded from mink farms, said Koopman, who added that it was not clear whether the virus would change, with consequences unknown, if he was allowed to travel in another. species.
What future for the industry?
The European Commission has ruled out an EU-wide ban on fur farming in connection with Covid-19. But various national authorities have intervened to force the culling of mink populations to prevent farms from becoming a source of infection.
In Denmark, herds of mink with confirmed or suspected infections will be culled, as will any farms within five miles of these facilities. The slaughter process will be managed by the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration and the Danish Emergency Management Agency, and mink farmers will receive compensation for the loss of their herd as well as compensation for their operating losses. .
“It is a difficult decision that the government has made, but we fully support it,” said Tage Pedersen, president of the Danish Mink Breeders Association. “Over the past few weeks we have all seen that more and more farms in North Jutland have been infected, and no one has been able to explain the increase. Human health must come first.
The Netherlands also pays compensation for infected mink skins that can no longer be sold. In addition, the country has accelerated an existing plan to phase out fur farming. Each mink farm was supposed to close by 2024, but the deadline has been moved forward to March 2021, according to Dutch public broadcaster NOS.
Mink farmers will receive considerable compensation, which has fueled public opposition at a time of economic hardship for many, but the move hastened the end of mink farming in the country and saved millions of animal lives. , Swabe said.
Fur farming has been banned for years in countries such as the UK, Austria and Croatia, followed by other European countries.
France announced last month that it would ban the breeding of mink for fur by 2025. Poland is set to ban the breeding of animals for fur after a bill introduced by the ruling party Law and Justice passed through the lower house of Parliament in mid-September.
The pandemic has struck at an already difficult time for the fur industry as fashion designers use less material. Calvin Klein was one of the first major designers to ban the use of fur in the 1990s, and it has since been joined by a host of top brands such as Prada, Chanel, Burberry and Versace, according to a study conducted by HSI, as more and more consumers shy away from the product for animal welfare reasons. Prices for hides have also fallen in recent years, and many are unsold, Swabe said.
As the fur industry faces tough times, in general, Swabe predicts that Denmark will be the last to resist. The country is the world’s largest producer of mink skins, at nearly 19 million a year, according to the Danish Agriculture and Food Council. It is home to Kopenhagen Fur, the world’s largest fur auction house.
However, in other fur-producing countries, the proposed compensation deals may prove to be a good way out for those involved in the industry, while the effects of the coronavirus pandemic may lead farms to bankruptcy even before the entry into force of the recent wave of legislation. Obligate.
“I really hope this puts the final nail in the coffin,” Swabe said.