Distinctions must be made between ideology and animal welfare

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Numerous studies have shown that farmed-mink do exercise behaviour akin to their wild relatives. [Akulatraxas/Flickr]

Animal welfare is not the true motive behind activist crusades against the fur industry ? it is ideology wrapped in sheep’s clothing, write Kenneth Ingman and Mette Lykke Nielsen.

Kenneth Ingman and Mette Lykke Nielsen are chairman and head of public affairs respectively at Fur Europe. They wrote in reply to an opinion article by animal rights groups Animalia and NOAH, published previously by EURACTIV.

The two animal rights groups, Animalia and Norwegian NOAH, are the authors behind the report ‘Nordic Fur Trade – marketed as responsible business’ that was presented by Eurogroup4Animals in the European Parliament on 15 October.

The report brings nothing new to the already highly polarised debate over fur. The premise for claiming poor welfare in the European fur sector remains that fur-farmed species are deprived the opportunity to exercise natural behaviour and suffer as a consequence. This either expresses a political motivation to ban fur farming by imposing economically unsustainable conditions on fur farmers (large territories and swimming water would be required), or it expresses the ideological idea that animal farms must 100% mirror nature to morally justify the keeping of animals.

The latter is a legitimate philosophical view, but in terms of animal welfare – a concept that can be measured, weighed and proved – the claim that the domesticated fur-farmed species suffer in the existing housing systems falls short. There is plenty of internationally published research confirming that fur farmed species do exercise natural behaviour. The farmed mink, for example, spends 70-80% of its time in its nest box, mates naturally and raises its own cubs, which precisely reflects the behaviour of its wild counterpart.

Unfortunately, Eurogroup4Animals and its members take a one-sided focus on natural behaviour as the only relevant welfare parameter. This is rather disrespectful to the animal-science community, where the existing consensus holds that the best way to assess animal welfare is through a multifactorial approach.

Species-specific behaviour is a part of a multifactorial approach, but cannot constitute animal welfare alone, unless one holds the philosophical view that ‘good’ equals nature. From a scientific point of view, the weight given to species-specific behaviour in agricultural housing systems must however be established with scientific facts, and not romantic assumptions about how life in the wild might be.

As Eurogroup4Animals has done before, Animalia and NOAH also refer to a report stemming from the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare (SCAHAW) for scientific guidance.

The publishing of the report caused a furore in Brussels in 2001, as six of the eight scientists who formed the working group issued a protest letter stating, “The report is politically slanted against fur farming. Large numbers of references have been removed and it contains several errors of fact or interpretation, some of which are so ridiculous that they compromise the report’s credibility.”

The Commission acknowledged the obvious professional problems of the report by adding a 14 page erratum, with more than 300 missing references to the European Commission’s website.

Science is indeed important and acknowledging the existence of societal concerns over animal welfare in the fur sector, Fur Europe has voluntarily initiated the WelFur programme for fur farmed species. Based on the principles of the European Commission’s Welfare Quality project, WelFur is a farm-level certification programme designed to assess animal welfare on a scientific basis, offer tools to improve animal welfare and provide consumer transparency.

WelFur is not a marketing tactic either. The programme is developed by independent scientists from seven European universities, and it is based on the so-called animal indicators wherever possible; the closest we get to asking the animals themselves how they feel. It is somewhat of a weird feeling to voluntarily introduce a world-leading animal-welfare programme, based on all existing scientific research available, yet still be accused of white-washing animal welfare standards.

The explanation may well lie in the ideological views of Animalia and NOAH, as both organisations openly pursue a society free of animal use. It is much more of a mystery why Eurogroup4Animals, an otherwise respected animal lobby organisation working to improve animal welfare in the EU, is willing to let the rather radical philosophy of animal liberation hi-jack their agenda.

Fur farming was on the programme when Eurogroup4Animals hosted an event in the European Parliament in October 2014, but Fur Europe was not invited. Likewise, we were not invited when the report ‘Nordic Fur Trade’ was presented on 15 October this year. In addition, Eurogroup4Animals refused to publicly debate with the fur sector, when we invited them to discuss issues over animal welfare and ethics during the European fur sector’s ‘This is Fur’ event in the European Parliament less than four weeks ago.

Rumours are that the European fur production will be discussed at the next meeting of the Intergroup on the Welfare and Conservation of Animals in Strasbourg in November. With Eurogroup4Animals working as the secretariat for the Intergroup, Fur Europe looks forward to receiving an invitation.

It is a precondition for the democratic conversation that all parties are being invited to the table, and Fur Europe is willing to discuss any issue related to animal welfare or ethics with any stakeholder around. However, it certainly appears as though the only interest Eurogroup4Animals and other animal lobby groups have is to keep the fur debate polarised. The purpose of this strategy seems to be to avoid dealing with actual facts and stigmatise fur. Animal welfare is not the issue; apparently it is the sheer existence of fur.

The real marketing trick in the debate over fur is to take an ideology and disguise it as animal welfare before presenting it to the public.

The authors of the original opinion piece have since replied to Fur Europe, which can be read here. 

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