LONDON — This week the world’s largest mink producer, Denmark, captured worldwide attention for its decision to cull 15 million animals across the country’s fur farms due to fears of a COVID-19 mutation spreading to humans and jeopardizing the development of future vaccines.
When the mutated virus, SARS-CoV-2, was first detected on mink farms in northern Denmark, the government called for the culling of all minks in infected farms, as well as farms within a 7.8-kilometer, or 4.8-mile, radius.
With fears of the mutation spreading further in the human population — more than 780 Danes are said to be infected already — Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has announced that all remaining minks will be culled by Nov. 16.
According to the Danish veterinary and food association, “all farmers will be compensated,” while the government stopped short of imposing a ban on future mink farming in the country. But mink farming and trading will cease next year, as “no minks will be allowed in cages in 2021.”
That’s a major blow to the international fur trade, which has already been experiencing decreased demand since the COVID-19 outbreak, with auctions forced to go online for the first time in history. It could also be the final blow for this highly divisive business, which has long been a target of animal rights and environmental activists. Many leading fashion brands have dropped the use of fur, while more and consumers are switching to fake fur — which also has its share of issues since it is plastic and does not biodegrade in landfills.
According to the Humane Society, an international organization that works to promote animal welfare, the infections spreading across Danish mink farms are an indication the industry needs “to shut down for good.”
“Denmark is one of the largest fur producers on the planet, so a total shut down of all Danish mink fur farms amidst spiraling COVID-19 infections is a significant development. Although not a ban on fur farming, this move signals the end of suffering for millions of animals confined to small wire cages on Danish fur farms solely for the purposes of a trivial fur fashion that no-one needs,” said Dr. Joanna Swabe, the organization’s senior director of public affairs.
“Although the death of millions of mink — whether culled for COVID-19 or killed for fur — is an animal welfare tragedy, fur farmers will now have a clear opportunity to pivot away from this cruel and dying industry. We urge the Danish government to assist fur farmers to transition to other activities,” she added.
But the fur industry is not willing to give up just yet.
The British Fur Trade and International Fur Federation were quick to note the Danish government’s decision to cull the country’s mink was temporary, and cautionary, and “not an anti-fur position.”
“It is clear that the events in Denmark have moved fast and everything must be done to preserve public health first. Even though the full science is not clear on the potential new virus in the mink and its link to humans, the Danish government have acted on the side of caution,” said the IFF’s chief executive officer Mark Oaten.
The British Fur Trade added the Danes have had a history of world-class fur farming and are willing to preserve the trade. “The Danish government fully supports farming and will be compensating the farmers who have seen their livelihoods wiped out overnight. Animal welfare and assurance schemes in Denmark are the gold standard for animal husbandry,” the organization said in a statement.
It also pointed to fur’s enduring popularity in the U.K. (despite a vocal animal rights lobby), where a third of British households own fur items, and where sales “have increased by nearly 200 percent” in the last few years.
“It is disappointing that there are some who oppose the fur sector in the U.K. who are now seeking to capitalize on this regrettable episode for their own purposes,” the statement added.
Earlier this week, the U.K. blocked Danes and non-British citizens from traveling to the U.K. from Denmark, and said people with British passports arriving from the country will have to quarantine for 14 days. Airline cabin crew, truck drivers and freight handlers returning to the U.K. from Denmark will also have to self-isolate for two weeks.
Magnus Ljung, ceo of the Finnish auction house Saga Furs, said he doesn’t stand with the decision to cull such big numbers when the majority of minks are healthy, but this could be an opportunity to raise awareness about the livelihoods that the fur trade supports.
“This will strengthen our industry as some of the governmental decisions are questionable and people are seeing the impact it has on the lives of farmers, who don’t have a chance to speak up,” said Ljung, adding that auction houses are already seeing big reductions in pelts for the coming season, but in the longer term the impact could be positive.
“I see a positive impact on price and demand, as well as more sympathy for our fur industry, as current events have shown how a small farmer group can be treated, [and that is] something the majority of the public does not support.”
Yves Salomon, a fur producer and retailer, echoed Ljung’s thoughts, pointing to an opportunity to reimagine the mink fur trade.
“Paradoxically, I feel the impact will be highly positive on the appeal of mink and fur in general,” said Salomon, who is already seeing prices for mink rising and predicts that the trend will strongly accelerate in early 2021.
“As a producer, we will have to be extremely creative and innovative to re-establish mink as a top luxury, rare and exclusive product. Luxury brands will definitely lead this movement and will feel extremely comfortable with a sustainable, traceable and rare product.”
Even though demand for fur has been declining, especially with retail stores forced to close and international travel coming to a halt for much of this year, furriers continue to market their products as the most sustainable option in the market and plan to continue educational initiatives to show consumers how fur is a conscious option.
“As a chemist who had been supplying chemicals for synthetic fabric manufacturing in my earlier career, I know that fur as a material and product is outstanding when it comes to sustainability,” Ljung said.
“We have a big task to educate people about everything from how the animals are taken care of, how manure is used for biofuel production and fat for cosmetics, to mention a few things which are little known.”