There are a million species under threat of extinction throughout the world, with as many as two hundred disappearing every day. But amongst these there is one species whose passing we need not mourn: the Danish mink farmer.
Even before Covid jumped the species barrier from humans to mink and back again, mutating into a version of the virus that could well be vaccine-resistant, the Danish mink farmer’s once lucrative ecosystem was in crisis. Designers, fashion houses and retailers have been backing off using mink for years, either for ethical reasons or – more pragmatically – because their customer base has been shrinking. Outside of China, where there is still a big demand for mink, wealthy fashion-lovers are quite simply turning their backs on mink instead of wearing it.
Meanwhile fifteen other European nations have banned mink breeding: the Netherlands and Poland, other big exporters of mink fur, are expected to shut down all operations over the next year, and France will stop by 2025. Meanwhile the British government has promised to ban fur imports and sales after the Brexit transition period in December.
But when a creature is threatened, it fights for its life. So when earlier this month the Danish government ordered all 17 million minks to be culled, it was met with fierce opposition from mink farmers, opposition parties and agri-business. The row continues. What about jobs, and what about growth, the traditional Holy Grail of economic sages?
What do the mink say? No one asks them, and for obvious reasons they can’t answer anyway. But Sanne Neergaard has an idea of the kind of statement they might make. Neergaard grew up on a mink farm, where thousands of these beautiful creatures, originally imported to Denmark from Canada, spend their entire lives in barbarically cramped and un-enriched cages. She describes how, as a child, she would see the mink choke on the fish bones in the paste they were fed. And how when the animals were large enough to kill, some survived the mass slaughter only to find themselves struggling desperately to escape the vast tumbler where the corpses were processed before skinning.
On hot summer days the temperature in the mink halls was unbearable, so Neergaard was allowed to go around with a garden hose, cooling the animals off. “Seeing them stand on their hind legs in the cages in bliss at feeling the cool spray was a reminder that these animals are aquatic creatures,” she says. She says she respected her hard-working father and the other fur breeders, who worked a tough seven day week. But she never respected the industry. Nor can she understand “why some people need to show that they have money and wealth by wearing 30 – 40 dead animals.” She concludes: “Let this profession be a closed chapter in Denmark’s history.”
But animal welfare is not the only reason this should be a time of reckoning for mink.
“If the state ends up buying hundreds of mink farms, this can become part of our green transition,” says Rasmus Willig. “We must remember that in the end it is the Danish taxpayers who pay the compensation money.”
Willig, who founded the innovative co-op farming project Andelsgaard, which urges ordinary citizens to buy up land and manage it co-operatively, says that most of Denmark’s 1000-plus mink farms are small, but numerous. “The many thousands of hectares they cover could bind C02 rather than emitting it, if the sites are converted to woodland.”
If the government had the nerve and the vision to close down the death factories of Danish mink breeders and replace them with woodland, he says, it would be a small but meaningful step on the path to meeting the nation’s commitment to achieving a 70% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2030. Now is the perfect opportunity for Denmark to put an end a brutal and unnecessary industry.
That said, Willig is radically pessimistic about the Danish political system’s commitment to its own environmental pledges, mandated by voters.
“We can choose to become more angry and disappointed, or we can take responsibility ourselves and buy up the land and revive biodiversity ourselves. Which is why we began Andelsgaard.”
Many of the diseases and pandemics that have plagued humans throughout history come from species we have attempted to tame, eat, exploit, or simply eradicate. Epidemics are the revenge of nature. The more wild territory we colonise, the more natural ecosystems shrink and destabilise, forcing us to live in ever closer proximity to other species. If we don’t wake up to this, say scientists, zoonotic pandemics will become more frequent.
Yet in the midst of the climate and ecological emergency, Big Agriculture, and its powerful lobbyists continue to have the ear of government, which colludes in the undermining of our children’s future, and the health of our countryside, for the sake of profit.
Is that the kind of world we want?
Carsten Jensen is a Danish cultural commentator and the acclaimed author of The First Stone, I Have Seen the World Begin, Earth in the Mouth, the international best-seller We, The Drowned, and over 20 other titles in Danish. He has won many awards including the Golden Laurels and the Olof Palme prize.
Act now: Carsten Jensen urges readers concerned by the mink industry to support or make a donation to Compassion in World Farming – https://www.ciwf.org.uk/