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What Denmark’s mink cull reveals about the dangers of fur farming

Consumer demand is unlikely to die along with the 17 million mink culled in Denmark over coronavirus fears. Can anything stop the iniquitous fur trade?   

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Since the Danish government announced its intention to cull the country’s 17 million mink, the fur industry has been in crisis. An air of melancholy pervades the websites of its leading organisations. The last photo posted on the Kopenhagen Fur Twitter account is more than a year old and shows Melania Trump wearing a “pink Fendi hounds-tooth” coat with mink fur cuffs; “Love seeing Flotus in mink fur…” the post says. On the website of the International Fur Federation (aka “We Are Fur”), a statement by the CEO Mark Oaten sits uneasily next to a post about the need for us to “reconnect with nature” and be kinder to the environment.

“Even though the full science is not clear on the potential new virus in the mink and its link to humans,” Oaten writes, “the Danish government have acted on the side of caution. The temporary measure to cull the mink is not an anti-fur position.” This was written before the announcement on 12 November that Kopenhagen Fur – the global auction hub that sells 19 million Danish mink skins and seven million from other countries annually – is to run down operations and close within two to three years.

The caution shown by the Danish government in ordering the deaths of all Denmark’s mink – a cull that has brought about ministerial resignations over questions of its legality and caused a decline in popularity for the prime minister Mette Frederiksen – was understandable. The realisation that mink infected with a new strain of Sars-CoV2 were transmitting it to humans could not be ignored. Oaten’s assertion may well be correct, but the announcement of the closure of Kopenhagen Fur is a huge threat to fur production and distribution. It doesn’t, however, signal an end to the fur trade.

It is not easy to kill and dispose of 17 million animals. Some ten million have already died. Macabre reports about resurfacing rotting mink corpses with the potential to pollute waterways have further disturbed Danish society. Possibly the only positive aspect of this mass slaughter is the light that has been cast on a cruel and dangerous industry. The images emerging have been shocking, of hazmat suits and “gas boxes”, of formerly bright, inquisitive creatures transformed into heaps of flaccid corpses. It’s the pelting season now: the only difference between 2019 and 2020 is that before the pandemic the mink’s pelts would have been removed after they were gassed.

The mink’s physiology as a semi-aquatic animal means that gassing with carbon monoxide or dioxide is particularly cruel, leading to prolonged and painful deaths. Solitary and crepuscular, in the wild mink roam watercourses and riverbanks over wide territory, each making several leaf-lined dens. In fur farms, their lives from birth until death are spent in cages hardly big enough for them to move, in which they suffer injuries both self-inflicted and inflicted by their handlers. Foxes, also bred for their fur, are wide-roaming in the wild, digging large and complex dens that may be used for generations. These “ecosystems engineers” are often kept in cages around 70 centimetres square. “Euthanasia” for them usually takes the form of anal electrocution.

[see also: Why infected mink are raising fears about a vaccine-resistant strain of Covid-19]

Recently, too little attention has been paid to this iniquitous trade. After the 1950s and 1960s, when Marilyn Monroe was photographed in her white fox furs, the popularity of fur began to wane. Campaigns during the 1980s and 1990s such as “I’d rather go naked than wear fur” appeared to be succeeding. But political and economic changes in Russia and China at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st opened new markets. Fur farms were established across the world, particularly in Europe.

Bans on fur in some countries and decisions by leading designers to stop using it encouraged the erroneous belief that the industry was, if not over, then in decline. But this was far from the case. Fur farming was expanding in Poland, France, Finland, the Netherlands and elsewhere; Denmark was the largest producer of mink, and China – itself a major fur producer – the country’s most important market. Sales boomed in China, Russia and South Korea.

The fur industry was quick to assume the language of environmentalism but its claims to be “sustainable” and “natural” are without foundation. Fur farming has contributed to eutrophication, the clogging of waterways with algae, and to high Co2 emissions and pollution. Fur garments are intensely processed and some have been shown by studies to contain allergens, potentially harmful endocrine disrupters and carcinogens.

Though the industry claims to be strictly controlled, regulations are patchy or ignored. Whitewashing “welfare” schemes such as the Danish “WelFur” are fur trade initiatives. Many diseases, such as Aleutian disease, are thought to have spread between fur farms and wild animal populations – and to humans in the form of Sars-CoV2.

What happens now? The fur industry’s wooing of the young and wealthy of Europe and Asia through its use of influencers and glamorous advertising has created a market that won’t disappear quickly. The demand for fur is unlikely to die along with 17 million mink. And the trade is not confined to foxes and mink: it includes Karakul sheep, raccoon, sable, chinchilla and the billion rabbits killed annually (including French Orylag rabbits, destined for the high-end market).

The dangers are clear. Fur farming may continue or be established in countries with even laxer regulations. How will inevitable demand be satisfied? The closure of Kopenhagen Fur will certainly disrupt the industry, but how resilient will the trade prove to be? Without global action, the deplorable abuse of animals that caused one pandemic could easily cause another.

The fur trade websites’ messages seem hollower than ever. We Are Fur: “Let us choose natural, slow and sustainable fashion.” Kopenhagen Fur: “Fur is the exact opposite of fast fashion.” Fur Europe: “The young and the super-rich are mainstreaming slow fashion.” They reveal the worst contradictions of the fur industry; of luxury juxtaposed with death, exemplified by the (soon-to-be-ex) Flotus’s pink mink cuffs. 

“Between Light and Storm: How We Live with Other Species” by Esther Woolfson is published by Granta

This article appears in the 04 December 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed