A Sars-CoV-2 mutant, with reduced responsiveness to antibodies, recently appeared in Denmark, global heavyweight in mink fur production. One of five mink-related variants, this ‘Cluster 5’ (C5) strain sickened 12 people. With 214 mink variant-linked human Covid-19 cases overall, and mink testing positive in over 200 farms, Denmark ordered a mass cull. Mink infections have also hit the US, Spain, Sweden, Italy, the Netherlands, Greece, Poland and France. Reportedly, mink-linked mutations in humans have now emerged in several countries besides Denmark.
Let’s rewind a bit. The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the link between zoonotic disease and indiscriminate commercial exploitation of animals, particularly wildlife. Once scientists concurred that Sars-CoV-2 had an animal source, China faced flak for allowing wildlife sale in wet markets. Cut to the present and it appears that, far from inviting similar opprobrium, the world’s furriers have many glib talking apologists.
Some seem to suggest that farms got a bad name only because humans infected mink. Others say fur farming is legal, hence better regulated than other businesses of butchery. Still others view mink as farm, not wild, animals and, addressing the anti-cruelty lobby, deny that farm animals are mistreated.
This apologia is disingenuous. Countless rules-flouting fur farms operate worldwide. Quality supervision isn’t guaranteed in certified or non-certified farms, where human-animal proximity makes interspecies viral spillovers an everpresent hazard. Nor is fur farming pain-free. Animals spend lifetimes caged. Many are gruesomely fattened, like the ‘monster foxes’ Finnish activists exposed a few years ago. Many go mad. Many self-mutilate.
All die painfully, by gassing, electrocution, neck-wringing and, in some barbaric places, being skinned half-alive. Fur’s ‘raw materials’ like raccoon dogs, foxes or mink are really wild animals whose forced domestication in cramped spaces deforms their nature. Wild mink are reclusive, semi-aquatic animals that thrive along water sources. Even if such animals are farm-bred, their prolonged captivity in battery cages is nothing but torture.
About 100 million animals die annually in factory-style farms — just so that people can flaunt mink coats and fur-trim. To quote one animal welfare group, one fur coat requires killing ‘150-300 chinchillas, 200-250 squirrels, 50-60 mink, or 15-40 foxes’, an appalling statistic that exposes mankind’s profligate disregard for living beings. When sick, these very animals are slaughtered en masse. Neither killing for fashion nor culling from fear troubles the friends of fur.
Encouragingly, several top brands, including Burberry, Gucci, Armani, Calvin Klein, Versace and Prada, have junked fur as cruel and outmoded. Alongside dipping global fur sales, public anti-fur sentiments have been rising. Fur-producing nations should, therefore, emulate countries that have outlawed fur farming, like Britain, Austria, Belgium, Serbia, Luxembourg, Norway and the Czech Republic. Fur trade supporters say it’s a livelihoods-generating multi-billion dollar industry. There are also suggestions that bans will cede the business to China. Both contentions miss the mark.
Consider, first, the pathogenic effects of animal suffering. Scientists say mink are prone to respiratory disease, and can be infected by and re-infect humans. The C5 variant indicates that Sars-CoV-2’s spread in captive mink spawned changes in its ‘spike protein’ gene, which helps the virus breach host cells. That’s precisely the area most Covid-19 vaccines are tackling.
While some researchers downplay the risks, others say the chances of an emerging non-human Sars-CoV-2 reservoir and mutant strains endangering public health and vaccine programmes mandate urgent countermeasures. Should fur farms breed-and-kill unabated, facilitating mink-to-human viral transmissions, a fresh health crisis without an antidote might erupt in the midst of an ongoing pandemic still to get one.
Second, consider the current pandemic’s worldwide recessionary impact: lockdowns, flailing trade, lost jobs, impoverished families, all in the backdrop of overstrained health services. The lesson: no industry should thrive unsustainably, risking disease outbreaks that put all other businesses out of business.
Third, as for fur proceeds going to China, the world has faced the juggernaut of Chinese manufacturing and survived. Handing over fashion-oriented fur won’t kill it, surely. More so since industry experts say that Chinese fur pelts don’t match European products. Moreover, China is a huge fur importer and exporter. If most countries go fur-free, hold-out China will get slammed for its laxly monitored farms even as its supplier and customer base shrinks.
Finally, should countries compete in the unsustainable use and unethical abuse of animals — or unite to prevent public health disasters that can cripple the global economy? The answer, I’d say, is obvious.