Jessica Scott-Reid is a freelance writer, animal advocate and co-host of Canadian animal law podcast Paw and Order.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, all eyes were on China, where the country’s wet markets – which in some cases sold live animals in cramped cages and unhygienic conditions that served as potential breeding grounds for zoonotic diseases – were linked to the early transmission of the novel coronavirus.
Now the world’s gaze has turned to Denmark, where at least 12 people have contracted a particularly worrying mutated version of COVID-19 from mink, prompting the region to lock down and begin the cull of tens of millions of farmed mink and causing the U.K. to ban travel to and from the Scandinavian country. Mink are the only known animals capable of catching the virus from humans and spreading it back, and since the beginning of the pandemic, mink infected with the virus have also been found in the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Italy, Greece, and the United States.
But while our heads may shake at these foreign places, tut-tutting at these “others,” Canadians should be looking at the mink farms in our own backyard and recognize that real risk exists right here – a risk our government helps fund.
According to 2018 data from Statistics Canada, we are home to 98 mink farms. When asked if mink on Canadian farms are currently being tested for COVID-19, representatives from Nova Scotia, B.C. and Ontario replied that the focus is instead on upping biosecurity measures. Similarly, the federal Minister of Agriculture assured me, in an email, that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is “collaborating with the Canada Mink Breeders Association on communicating the importance of biosecurity measures,” relying on the industry’s own, voluntary codes of practice, which are overseen by the non-governmental National Farm Animal Care Council. Newfoundland and Labrador’s Department of Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture, meanwhile, says farmers and farm veterinarians are “monitoring for any respiratory signs compatible with an infectious respiratory disease.”
But looking for respiratory symptoms is just not enough.
A typical mink farm holds as many as 20,000 animals, says Lesley Fox, the executive director of the Fur-Bearers, an animal-advocacy group. “And during pelting season right now, it’s even closer to 60,000 on some of these farms," she said in an interview. "So how in the world would one, two, three people max with a checklist and a clipboard be able to properly evaluate that many individuals?”
She’s not the only one with concerns. Jan Hajek, a clinical infectious disease specialist at Vancouver General Hospital, says he wishes the medical community would better acknowledge the public-health risks associated with farming such large numbers of animals. “Although the extent of the risk is uncertain, it is certain that a risk exists, and this risk includes devastating pandemic disease,” he said in an interview.
Indeed, the public should be asking whether farming mink is worth the potential risk. After all, as a fashion product, mink is increasingly falling out of favour. Prices for fur have plunged around the world. A recent survey by Research Co. found 81 per cent of Canadians are not in favour of killing animals for fur, and global fur sales have plummeted in recent years.
Yet governments continue to fund mink farming in Canada. The CBC has found that, since 2014, as much as $100-million in provincial and federal money has been spent or tied up in loans to keep mink farms alive. “The government knows these farms have the capacity and potential to further spread COVID-19,” said Ms. Fox. “To subsidize the industry is to contribute to this reservoir for disease.”
It is certainly curious that, with so many sectors of the Canadian economy being forced to shut down to try to curb the spread of COVID-19, fur farms are permitted to carry on with business as usual. “Mink farming in Canada has long imposed cruel costs on the animals and now poses real risks to human health,” said Liberal MP Nathanial Erskine-Smith. “It was unacceptable before, and it is even more unacceptable now.” He added that federal compensation to mink farming “should be tied to transitioning farmers into less problematic economic opportunities.”
Animal and environmental advocates have long called for the end to fur farming in Canada. Today, there is even greater reason than before. “If it’s not for animal welfare, if it’s not for the environment, if it’s not because it’s a failing business, surely a pandemic would inspire the political will to finally create space to have conversations about transitioning people out of this industry,” Ms. Fox said.
During this time of pandemic and economic shutdowns, there is no room for Canadian complacency. Let us not be the ones who further fuel this fire by continuing to fund a floundering industry – especially one that poses such a viral risk.
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