Fur industry faces scrutiny over fears mink could spread COVID-19

Concerns about mink spreading a mutated strain of COVID-19 to humans may hasten the end of fur farming in many countries, say animal rights activists.

Animal rights activists are using COVID-19 concerns to draw attention to the conditions at mink farms around the world [File: Bloomberg]

While people around the world cheer late-stage trial results from a potential game-changing COVID-19 vaccine by Pfizer and BioNTech, a troubling development has surfaced on the pandemic front – a mutated strain of coronavirus found on mink farms in Denmark.

Mink are raised and killed for their fur around the world, including in the United States, Denmark, Argentina, China, Spain and Poland.

Denmark has already slaughtered 10 million mink over fears they could trigger new COVID-19 outbreaks, and the United Kingdom’s health minister urged countries to rethink mink farming in the face of the threat (the UK has already banned the practice).

Now, calls to cull healthy minks are drawing criticism from farmers – and renewing animal rights groups’ demands that the global fur industry be shut down once and for all.

Here’s what you need to know.

Pause for a sec. Animals can get COVID-19?

Yes. So far, COVID-19, the disease associated with the coronavirus, has been discovered in small numbers of household pets like cats and dogs as well as lions and tigers at New York City’s Bronx Zoo. It has also been discovered in mink, which seem to be particularly vulnerable to catching the virus.

Mink are farmed for their fur around the world [File: Ritzau Scanpix/Mads Claus Rasmussen via Reuters]

Mink are super cute, but what are they exactly?

Mink are solitary mammals about the size of a house cat. If you want to get super sciency- they are carnivorous mustelids – meat-eating members of the weasel family, which also includes ferrets, skunks, otters, fishers, martens and wolverines.

Where are they found in the wild?

Mink live in North America and Europe. Wild European mink are considered critically endangered on the Red List of Endangered Species maintained by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

In the wild, mink swim and can travel long distances, and male mink can carve out territories over thousands of acres of wetlands. Female mink give birth to litters of between one and eight babies called kits.

What are their lives like on farms?

When mink are farmed for their fur, they’re kept in close quarters, making them vulnerable to the spread of disease.

“COVID-19 first infected humans through close contact with captive animals at live-animal markets, which are similar to the unhygienic conditions at fur farms where mink are confined inside wire cages and often stacked on top of each other, which allows diseases to easily spread through their urine, excrement, pus and blood,” Emily Raap, a campaign generalist with the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), told Al Jazeera.

Are there no ‘free-range’ mink?

According to PETA, mink are solitary, territorial animals that would become aggressive if kept in a group in an enclosed space where they were allowed “free-range” movement.

So how long do farmed mink live until they meet their end?

Some female mink are kept for years as breeding stock, but most mink are killed when they’re six to eight months old.

How are they killed?

You might find the answer disturbing, but since you asked…

Poisoning, electrocution, bludgeoning and neck-breaking are all ways fur farmers kill mink without damaging their pelts, investigations by PETA have found.

Fake fur has increasingly replaced animal fur on runways and in stores over concerns about cruelty to animals [File: Bloomberg]

I’m sorry I asked. How big of an industry is this?

Global production of mink pelts stands at about 45 million pelts per year. The US produced 2.7 million pelts in 2019 valued at $59.2m, down 30 percent from $84.3m the previous year.

Mink fur is used in clothing, accessories and some false eyelashes, and mink oil is used in cosmetic and medical products and as a treatment on leather goods.

How did mink develop COVID-19?

The US Department of Agriculture believes that mink on farms in Utah and Wisconsin caught the coronavirus from human farm workers who had been exposed. In Michigan, it’s still not known how mink got sick.

Once infected, mink have similar symptoms to those of humans when it comes to their respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts. Among mink, the coronavirus is also just as contagious. While Denmark had only three infected mink farms in June, by November, the virus had spread to more than 200, prompting calls for all farmed mink to be killed.

Some 15,000 mink have died from COVID-19 in the US so far.

Can mink pass the coronavirus back to humans?

That’s what researchers are working to find out. Denmark reported 214 cases of mink-related COVID-19 earlier this month, including 12 people on five mink farms who had been infected with a mutated strain of the virus.

But on the nine farms with infected minks in Utah, “everything is still suggesting a one-way travel from people to the minks,” Dean Taylor, Utah’s state veterinarian, told Reuters

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that while “currently, there is no evidence that animals play a significant role in the spread of SARS-CoV-2 [the coronavirus] to people,” reports from mink farms in the Netherlands suggest “there is the possibility for spread of SARS-CoV-2 from mink to humans.”

Mink on some Danish farms have been slaughtered over COVID-19 concerns [File: Ritzau Scanpix/Mads Claus Rasmussen via Reuters].

So what will happen to the mink?

So far, the US is making farms with infected animals quarantine, while other countries are requiring that mink be culled.

What about the mink industry?

The COVID-19 crisis could be hastening the end of mink farming in some countries.

In Denmark, farmers have said the cull amounts to the end of the mink industry.

In the Netherlands, the industry is scheduled to be phased out by 2024, but that timeline was accelerated for some producers this year after more than 100 of them were ordered to close their mink farms by March 2021.

France has moved to outlaw mink farming beginning in 2025.  And in the US, the state of California has banned the sale of fur starting in 2023.

Wasn’t fur already falling out of fashion anyway?

Yes. Major fashion brands like Prada, Coach, Michael Kors, Calvin Klein and Macy’s – among others – have pledged not to use fur in their products.

Will COVID make fur even more unfashionable?

Animal rights activists like Raap hope concerns over COVID-19 help hasten the end of fur farming.

“PETA will keep pushing everyone forever until fur is banned,” Raap said. “The goal is always that we don’t need to be raising and killing animals. There’s just absolutely no reason for it. And again, everyone can make a difference today by not supporting these cruel industries that exploit animals.”

Nice article, but I think it’s minks, not mink.

According to Collins Dictionary, the plural can be mink or minks, smartypants.

Source: Al Jazeera