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FASHIONS ‘TO DIE FOR’: The fur trade’s role in spreading zoonotic disease

Farming wild animals is inherently and unavoidably cruel. There is no place for farming any species of wild animals, not for fur or any other purpose, whether there is a threat of future pandemics or not.

JENNY GONZALES: In the complex universe of COVID-19 and other zoonotic diseases (those that can jump from animals to humans and back), key questions remain largely unaddressed, including what role fur farming for the fashion industry plays in the spread of highly transmissible zoonotic diseases, and how the industry should be managed to minimize risk.

Zoonoses are defined as any diseases or infections naturally transmissible from vertebrate animals to humans. Zoonotic diseases have become an urgent contemporary concern due to vast and rapid global deforestation, especially in the tropics, which increases the risk of human contact with animals that host unknown viruses. Also an important factor in their spread is the legal and illegal wildlife trade, as well as farmed animal systems developed by the livestock, fur and food industries that gather many thousands of animals together — including wildlife species such as mink — in confined environments until slaughter.

Up to 75% of all new or emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic in origin, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 (caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus) and two other coronavirus diseases, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), are just a few of the many zoonotic diseases to emerge in the last 20 years…

According to the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), mink farms in 10 more countries have since been hit by COVID-19 outbreaks: Canada, France, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Spain, Sweden and the United States. Together, the Netherlands and Spain sacrificed more than a million minks. The biggest U.S. outbreak occurred in Wisconsin, where farmworkers seem to have spread the disease to the animals. Wisconsin’s 19 mink farms, neither regulated nor licensed by the state, are the largest U.S. source of mink pelts used by the fashion industry…

In the United States alone, farmed mink, cats, cougars, dogs, gorillas, lions, otters, snow leopards and tigers were diagnosed with the disease as of September 13, 2021, according to the USDA. Of particular concern, in mid-December 2020, a wild mink trapped near a Utah mink farm was confirmed to have the COVID-19 virus, posing serious but unanswered questions to officials regarding threats to public health, wildlife and ecosystems…

The way many wild animals live on farms, including fur mammals — often kept in close proximity in small cages — easily facilitates the rapid transmission of microorganisms, said biologist Wladimir J. Alonso, co-author of the 2020 book Pandemics, global health and consumer choices. “The chronic stress resulting from the confinement of the animals in tiny spaces is in itself immunosuppressive, facilitating the transmission of infectious diseases,” Alonso told Mongabay. “Those facilities have high levels of ammonia and fecal dust, resulting from the volume of animal excrement, which compromises their respiratory function.”

Public awareness is growing about potential disease spread from such industrial farming operations. One example: the European Citizens’ Initiative, which enables EU citizens to propose new laws, and which recently gathered 1.4 million signatures supporting a ban on cages for mother pigs, quails and ducks, among other animals. The proposed legislation included rabbits but didn’t extend to other fur animals. However, it is seen by some experts as an important step toward preventing zoonotic disease spread. In late June, the European Commission, responding to the citizen-initiated call for action, proposed legislation to “phase out and prohibit the use of cages”…

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, Europe was an international leader in the fur production industry, with around 5,000 farms in 23 countries, according to the WHO/OIE/FAO assessment. It notes that the biggest EU fur producers in 2018 were Denmark (with 17.6 million animals), Poland (5 million), the Netherlands (4.5 million), Finland (1.8 million), Greece and Lithuania (both 1.2 million). Together, they accounted for 50% of all global production. This vast number of captive animals, while a source of significant profit, also has potential as a reservoir for disease if not properly managed…

Animal welfare and public health concerns have caused Europe to enter into a transition period on fur production. Several countries, including the U.K., Germany, Belgium, Austria, Serbia, Luxembourg and the Czech Republic, have banned fur farming in the last two decades. Following COVID-19 farm infections, the Netherlands permanently closed its mink farms in March 2021, while France announced the same prohibition for 2025.

After culling its mink population last year, Denmark suspended mink production and export for 2021. “It is not decided yet if Denmark will lift the ban in 2022. There will be further political negotiations on the subject [this] fall, based on the latest risk assessments,” said Mie Rasmussen, press officer at Denmark’s Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Fisheries.

North America also continues to be a major source of fur for the fashion industry. In 2018, the United States produced 3.1 million minks, while Canada sold 1.8 million pelts from various species. An estimated 5 million animals are trapped in the wild globally for pelts, mostly in the U.S., Canada and Russia…

China leads the world in producing the most fur for fashion, harvesting 50.5 million skins annually, with mink, fox and raccoon dog the main harvested species. China is also the biggest fur-for-fashion consumer, sustaining fur-farming companies around the world. Until early 2020, Denmark’s mink farms regularly sold pelts to China, garnering large profits…

In recent years, the global fur trade has adjusted its business strategies to supply evolving fashion trends. Full fur coats are increasingly regarded as anachronistic… “The price of fur is dropping, expanding affordability. Fur trim is keeping supply and demand buoyant in China,” Pei Su, CEO and co-founder of ACTAsia, an animal welfare NGO, said… “

There is no place for farming any species of wild animals, not for fur or any other purpose, whether there is a threat of future pandemics or not,” Su concluded. “Farming wild animals is inherently and unavoidably cruel.” Methods of killing minks, foxes and other animals on fur farms include gassing and electrocution, causing animal rights activists to conclude that “For animals on fur ranches… there is no such thing as ‘humane use.’” SOURCE…

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