Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark
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Since April, the coronavirus has been detected in American minks, like the one pictured, at 17 fur farms in the Netherlands, leading to the culling of more than 500,000.

Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark

Coronavirus is killing the Dutch mink industry

The Netherlands, a top exporter of mink, has killed more than 500,000 of the animals this month to stop the spread of disease.

One of the world’s top mink-producing countries is shutting down the industry as a result of COVID-19. Two findings—rising rates of infection among mink at Dutch fur farms and the discovery that the animals may have transmitted the virus to two farm employees—have forced the Netherlands to speed up existing plans for ending its mink industry in 2024. On Tuesday, parliament voted to cease mink breeding imminently and provide compensation to fur farmers.

The timeline for the updated closure has not been determined, nor has the rate of compensation due to producers, but animal welfare groups expect the shutdown will occur by the end of the year. Culling has already begun. Since June 5, nearly 600,000 of the 800,000 mink in the Netherlands have been killed—suffocated by carbon monoxide gas—to help control the spread of the virus, according to Fur Europe, a Brussels-based industry group that represents fur farmers and manufacturers.

The Netherlands is the fourth largest producer of mink pelts after China, Denmark, and Poland, according to Humane Society International. In 2013, in response to animal welfare concerns, the government voted to shut down more than a hundred farms that support the country’s $100 million mink fur industry but farmers were given until January 1, 2024 to cease operations.

Fur farm animals are typically raised in small wire cages, often with thousands of animals stacked together. Environmental and animal welfare groups have long decried what they see as an inhumane industry. Many others object to fur on moral and ethical grounds, arguing that it’s a luxury, not a necessity, for most people.

Since 2000, at least eight European countries have banned fur farming. Now, worries about public health have given critics a new reason to oppose the industry.

“It is a huge breakthrough. The killing of animals for their fur in the Netherlands is finally coming to an end,” Dutch lawmaker Esther Ouwehand said in a statement about parliament’s vote. “Besides being morally reprehensible, mink farming is now simply untenable because it poses a threat to public health.”

Coronavirus on fur farms

The coronavirus was first detected on two mink farms in the Netherlands in April; government testing later revealed that the virus was present at no fewer than 15 other Dutch fur farms. Additional government-led research suggested mink farms were the first known site of likely animal-to-human coronavirus transmission. (Learn more: A mink is believed to have given the coronavirus to a human.)

Last week, Denmark—where coronavirus infections were detected at two mink farms—announced plans to cull 11,000 animals at one affected farm and to conduct sampling at more than a hundred others. The country has roughly 19 million mink at 1,500 fur farms. Unlike the Netherlands, Denmark has not passed legislation aimed at closing its massive mink sector, but it did begin to phase out its fox fur market in 2009 (with plans to phase it out completely by 2023).

No other mink-producing nations have announced plans to cull mink or wind down mink farming. Mick Madsen, the head of communications for Fur Europe, says he isn't worried about the future of the mink industry and downplays the role of mink in coronavirus transmission. “You can see the biosecurity measures [in other countries] working,” he says. “Mink farms are not responsible for spreading the coronavirus. People are spreading the virus.”

Phasing out fur

Under the Dutch constitution, in order to become law, a bill passed by parliament must be signed by the king and the relevant minister or state secretary. If the parliamentary decision is approved, which Humane Society International says is likely, officials will then work out specifics, such as the timeline for closures and compensation to mink farmer owners.

“We don't think this can become law without getting agreement from the fur farmers,” and that will depend on the amount of compensation they’re offered, Madsen says.

Providing compensation to fur farmers affected by the pandemic has become a politically contentious issue because the Netherlands was already planning to phase out the industry by 2024—without compensation. Giving taxpayers' money to an industry that some lawmakers say is unethical has fueled heated debate in parliament.

Many European countries have ended their fur farm industries in recent years, often in response to animal welfare concerns. Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and the United Kingdom have banned fur farming, and Ireland is in the process of passing a ban on fur production. Legislative proposals to end fur farming have recently been introduced in Bulgaria and Lithuania.

Germany, though it has not enacted a fur farming ban, introduced stringent welfare conditions that effectively rendered the industry economically unviable, says PJ Smith, director of fashion policy at Humane Society International. All remaining fur farms in the country were effectively forced to close last year.

Opposition to fur farming is not limited to the EU, Smith says. “Just beyond our EU borders, Norway, Serbia, the Republic of Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina have also banned fur production.” And with the closure of the Dutch mink sector, four million fewer pelts will be on the market.

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org.