Máirín-Rua Ní Aodha, Chairperson for IVSA’s Standing Committee for Animal Welfare, spoke with Daniel Lund.
“I first interacted with mink when I was a little boy…I even got to pet one of the tamer ones!”
Daniel Lund is a veterinary student from Denmark and a Trustee for IVSA ( International Veterinary Students’ Association).
He has a long history with mink, which started with a family connection. “I interacted with mink for the first time when I was a little boy. I visited the farm of my father’s first cousin on Zealand ( a Danish island) ”. Daniel fondly remembers it as a simpler time when children could be found running around the farm, “I even got to pet one of the tamer ones!”.
Over time Daniel’s views of the industry evolved from the romantic pictures painted in childhood. He began working in the kitchens at Kopenhagen Fur, the largest and only fur farmer’s cooperative in Denmark. “An older student at my university told me about the job. I was never involved in marketing or sales, but it allowed me to build contacts with people in the company and gain knowledge of the industry”. He soon realised he needed to use those contacts to educate his peers on the industry, “My ideas of mink farming changed when I started vet school. I realised that vet students knew next to nothing about mink farming. I helped to organise multiple events for the students of my university. We visited mink farms. The farms were carefully selected to ensure that the farmer was willing to engage with students. I felt it was important to have a farmer who could explain the scientific reasoning behind their intense production methods.”
“I saw a huge change in how mink farms were run after the outbreak of Mink Plasmacytosis in Denmark”.
Biosecurity is the issue of the hour, with Denmark reporting 214 human COVID-19 cases infected with SARS-CoV-2 related to mink (all carrying the mutation Y453F in the spike protein, referred to as mink-related variants) . These cases are part of an ongoing spread via zoonotic and anthroponotic transmission.
In response to this the Danish government organised a mass cull of the entire mink population (approx 17 million animals).  They also undertook an intensified surveillance programme for the human population in North Jutland, the most heavily affected area. Movement in and out of the area has been restricted, and the full genome sequence of the mink variant SARS-CoV-2 has been shared with the international scientific community.
Daniel reveals that veterinary students were recruited to assist with the cull, “Over the course of two weeks around 25 veterinary students would travel to farms to oversee the culling. They didn’t actively cull mink themselves, their role was to ensure protocols were being followed. There are approx 1000 veterinary students in Denmark, so I feel we were quite an important part of the team”. Given the scale of the cull, there was no way Denmark’s mink farmers could do it alone. “In Denmark we have army reserves, and these people were called to assist with the cull. They received training on how to euthanise mink”. However the mass cull was short lived as it was soon revealed that culling animals beyond the infected areas was unlawful. Unsurprisingly there was an outcry from mink producers and the Danish population generally, with the Minister for Agriculture, Mogens Jensen, resigning as a result.
Daniel, as an employee of Denmark’s largest fur producer, has seen significant change in the industry over the years. “I saw a huge difference in how farms were run after the outbreak of Mink Plasmacytosis. Biosecurity became a priority and disinfection measures were really stepped up. You no longer saw children running around the farms and visitations were restricted”.
The industry has had to adapt to these new measures, previously personnel and equipment was shared between farms, but this is no longer advised. “Mink farm workers no longer worked on a freelance basis to the same degree. The risk of disease carriage between farms was too great”. This presents a challenge for farmers during high-intensity periods such as breeding, kitting and pelting; “During quieter periods, farms are usually managed by a very small team of 1-3 people, traditionally a family. The new biosecurity measures means that farmers have to employ personnel on a longer term basis as they can no longer work on multiple farms during pelting etc.”
Equipment availability is another issue “ It’s not economically feasible for every farm to have their own pelting equipment. Therefore most farmers rent the equipment or have machines available to them through a cooperative. This equipment was thought to be a source of infection between farms during the Mink Plasmacytosis outbreak”.
Veterinarians also play an essential role in improving biosecurity and welfare conditions on mink farms. According to Daniel “ Vets working with mink are received well in Denmark. I think most other vets understand that the work they do is important to protect animal and public health”. Interestingly, Daniel has observed a division in opinion among veterinarians about the industry itself; “I would say that most of the more mature veterinarians, those who graduated in the 80s and 90s, don’t take issue with mink production. However among the younger generation there has been a cultural shift, with the majority of young veterinarians questioning the ethics of the [fur] industry. To put it simply, younger vets wouldn’t buy fur, so they don’t see the purpose of fur farms”.
The feeding of mink is also a possible threat to biosecurity. Mink are obligate carnivores, typically being fed a blended paste of fish and meat offcuts, including offal.
However, Denmark has a proactive approach to antibiotic stewardship and management of animal feed “Feed is delivered several times per week, often daily, by specially designed trucks. These trucks never enter the areas housing mink. The feed is stored on a separate part of the property and pumped to the mink through pipes. This is important as the Danish public is well aware of the dangers of antimicrobial resistance. Our national broadcasting company created some interesting documentaries on this topic, which were widely viewed”.
“ The welfare of fur animals has always been a challenging concept for the public to grasp. Without the context and knowledge of the animal’s specific welfare needs, it’s very difficult to understand what should be considered humane treatment for mink”
Denmark is the world’s largest producer of mink skins.  Danish mink pelts are also the most expensive on the global market, with an annual value of approx 1.1 billion euro.
Daniel reveals that this has not gone unnoticed by the public, who have questioned the ethics and sustainability of the industry. “The welfare of fur animals has always been a challenging concept for the public to grasp. Without the context and knowledge of the animal’s specific welfare needs, it’s very difficult to understand what should be considered humane treatment for mink”. Due to this,many people are unaware that the Danish mink industry has already taken many measures to improve mink welfare.
Daniel outlines what he sees as the two-prong approach to welfare management; “Danish mink farmers have been selectively breeding for docility for many generations. In this way we ensure animals are better adjusted to a life of captivity”.
A welfare assurance programme, WelFur, was launched in 2009 by the EU, which set to standardise and significantly improve welfare conditions for farmed mink. This programme offers certification to farms, provided they are able to meet a minimum standard across a range of criteria. .
The four basic parameters of WelFur are;
a). Good housing
b). Good feeding
c). Good health
d). Appropriate behavior
To achieve certification, these four principles have been broken down into 22 animal and input based criteria. The animal based criteria are as follows; body condition score,
skin lesions or other observed injuries or lesions to the body, mortality, lameness and impaired movement, diarrhea and sticky kits, obviously sick animals, stereotypical behaviors , fur chewing, temperament test (stick test).
Immediately we can see that there are some problems with these criteria. Let’s take the Obviously Sick Animal criteria as an example. According to the Welfur Protocol, this category is intended for mink showing any symptoms of disease which don’t fall under the Diarrhea or Lameness & Imparied Movement category. This method of measuring disease is extremely non-specific and doesn’t offer any insight into the nature of the disease or ill health. The grading of severity for this section is also far too rudimentary and doesn’t give any indication of the significance of symptoms in the affected mink. The protocol calls for a simple 0, 1 grading system; 0 meaning animals without obvious symptoms of poor health or disease and 1 being symptomatic animals.
Upon further examination, we also find issues with the observation of stereotypical behaviours. According to protocol, the observer should allow time for the animals to habituate to their presence before starting the period of observation. However, the same protocol advises a period of several seconds to be sufficient, with one minute being marked as the maximum habituation period which should be implemented. The observation period itself only lasts for two minutes, which means that the maximum time allocated per cage, not even per animal is three minutes.
Furthermore, stereotypical behaviours have been defined in this protocol as any behavioural pattern which is repeated three or more times during the observation period. This is problematic as the observations are conducted by an auditor unfamiliar with the exploratory and anticipatory behaviours of the individual animals, which can be mistaken for stereotypical behaviours.
Challenges remain even with the WelFur programme in place.The subjective nature of behavioural observation means that the scoring of farms and subsequent certification can never be truly objective. Research  has shown that faecal cortisol metabolites offer significant insight into the stress profile and welfare of mink. This may be useful as a more objective measure in combination with behavioural indicators.
Another challenge the programme encounters is the low percentage of animal based criteria (41%),that are used for assessment.  While this is still deemed acceptable under Welfare Quality assessment criteria,it raises questions on the reliability of limited, short behavioural observation periods.
Fur in the Future
“The outlook for [Danish] mink farmers is bleak. Most view it as a dying industry”.
“The outlook for [Danish] mink farmers is bleak. Most view it as a dying industry”.
Fur Europe’s objective is to certify all 3,500 mink and fox farms in Europe under the WelFur scheme. Farmers will have to undergo three visits during the different production periods conducted by the independent third party assessors to obtain the certificate.
As of 2018, 6,680 assessments (64%) had been undertaken. Mandatory assessments once a year are also required in order to keep the certificate valid.
As of December 2018, the two European auction houses, Kopenhagen Fur and SAGA Furs, were able to sell the first WelFur certified mink and fox skins.
Farms that are not WelFur certified by 2020 will be unable to sell their skins through the international fur auction houses until a WelFur certificate has been achieved. This effectively put non-certified fur farms out of business.
As Daniel puts it “Danish farmers wish to distinguish the pelts they produce from lower quality products from other countries. Even with labelling and certification systems in place, the profits of Kopenhagen Fur have dropped in recent years. This is partially due to Chinese companies buying up huge numbers of pelts and storing them in warehouses in China. The enormous demand drove up the price and when the demand disappeared with the same supply the price of mink pelts plummeted and the Danish producers have struggled since the boom.”.
Adding insult to injury, the pelts of mink slaughtered in the cull can’t be sold. As Daniel informs us “The carcasses of mink slaughtered during the cull will not be pelted. Instead of animals being pelted and the carcass being used to generate biodiesel, they were instead buried in accordance with epidemiological specifications. ”.
Daniel shares the now widely held view that the Danish fur industry will fail to survive the cull measures in an already uncertain time. “The global popularity of mink fur has been decreasing for a long time and the outlook for most farmers is bleak. Most used to view it as a dying industry, which has now been dealt the killing blow”.