Fur farmers failures to meet minimum EU animal welfare standards must be investigated

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

Foxes seen in their cages at a fur farm in Gjovik, Norway, on 28 November 2010. Animal protection organizations recently revealed the very bad living conditions of wild animals (foxes and minks) kept in cages in several fur farms in Norway. [EPA/HEIKO JUNGE]

Exposés of animal suffering on EU fur farms repeatedly reveal failures to comply with even the basic animal welfare requirements of Directive 98/58/EC concerning the protection of animals kept for farming purposes, writes Sylwia Spurek.

Dr Sylwia Spurek is a Polish MEP in the Socialists and Democrats group (S&D), lawyer, former deputy ombudsperson of the Republic of Poland, feminist and vegan.

If there is one thing that the fur industry and animal protectionists can agree on, it is that many consumers are interested in where animal products come from and how they are produced.

Over the past few years, the fur industry has done its utmost to reassure consumers that the animals kept on fur farms in Europe enjoy a good life, loudly trumpeting their animal welfare certification, “WelFur”, programme to assure consumers that everything on these farms is hunky-dory.

Alas, this is not the case. Time and again, the images recorded by investigators on European fur farms tell a very different story. This is certainly the case in Poland where investigations by NGOs, such as Otwarte Klatki and Viva!, have exposed numerous irregularities on fur farms, such as neglected and sick animals, failure to comply with sanitary and environmental and so forth.

The most recent exposés of animal suffering on fur farms in Finland by Humane Society International and Oikeutta Eläimille, and in France by One Voice, are therefore sadly no exception.

The recent film footage taken by their investigators shows mink and foxes suffering in small and filthy battery cages. One sees fox cubs struggling to walk across the wire floors of their cages, mink displaying stereotypical behaviour and hideously obese foxes.

Animals with eye infections and gaping wounds are filmed, including a mink with a large, bloody hole in the head; these are severe injuries that are associated with extreme suffering. Some animals simply lie dead in the cages and others eat them or walk over them.

These shocking images illustrate that even the most minimum EU standards for the protection of animals bred or kept for farming purposes – as set down in Directive 98/58/EC – are not being met on EU fur farms.

Article 4 of this Directive states: ‘Members States shall ensure that the conditions under which animals (other than fish, reptiles or amphibians) are bred or kept, having regard to their species and to their degree of development, adaptation and domestication, and to their physiological and ethological needs in accordance with established experience and scientific knowledge, comply with the provisions set out in the Annex.’

If one considers the physiological and behavioural needs of mink and foxes, it is evident that even the basic housing systems to which they are confined fail to meet the aforementioned requirements since the animals are unable to express their natural behaviours.

In short, the size of the cages are inadequate, there is no available substrate to allow for key natural behaviours, such as digging for foxes, and – in the case of naturally solitary and semi-aquatic mink – there is no swimming water available, or opportunities for animals to withdraw meaningfully from the presence of their conspecifics.

Leaving aside the issue of inadequate housing systems, the footage reveals other critical failures to properly comply with Directive 98/58. The legislation also, for example, requires that animals that are ill or injured must be cared for appropriately without delay, and isolated from other animals.

Yet it is highly likely that the hideous oozing wounds that were documented by the investigators were not freshly inflicted. The lesions were also clearly contaminated with bedding materials, which increases the risk of infection and further suffering.

There was no evidence of the wounds ever having been cleaned, dressed or protected, nor were the animals isolated to prevent further injury or contamination.

No amount of ‘animal welfare-washing’ can conceal the fact that there are serious welfare and animal rights problems associated with fur farming, and that many of these welfare problems are insurmountable in the status quo of the fur industry’s battery cage systems.

The industry’s Welfur programme, which has been recognised by the European Commission as a sectoral self-regulation initiative (although not endorsed as regards content), has been designed around these existing, flawed housing systems and production practices, and consequently does not deliver meaningfully higher levels, or indeed acceptable levels, of welfare for animals on fur farms.

So grave are the concerns about the welfare and rights of animals on fur farms that various EU member states have already taken legislative action to ban and phase-out fur farming.

Indeed, in October 2019, Slovakia joined Austria, the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Croatia and the Czech Republic in doing so. Ireland is also in the process of passing a ban on fur production, and a legislative proposal has recently been introduced in Bulgaria.

Even in Denmark – the bastion of the European fur industry – fox farming has been banned and is being phased-out on animal welfare grounds.

For me as a human rights defender, it is very important to underline fur farm business violates both animal rights and human rights.  It is also not just animal welfare, health and rights that are negatively impacted by fur farms, but also human well-being.

In the Wielkopolska region, for example, people’s homes in Kawęczyn, Marzenin and Gulczewo have been surrounded by three massive fur farms. Between March and October, the residents cannot even open their windows due to the stench emanating from the fur farms.

For as long as it remains legal in some Member States to keep and kill animals for the purposes of fur production, the Commission must at the very least independently investigate the extent to which fur farms are operating in compliance with the basic requirements of Directive 98/58/EC.

We, therefore, urge them to conduct a comprehensive investigation – in conjunction with the member state competent authorities – on the basis of the documentary evidence presented by NGOs that fur farms in Finland, France and undoubtedly elsewhere in the Union are routinely failing to comply with the legislation.

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