Notes from webinar 2: Fur farming and the risks
Professor Lu, Director of One Health China, and Dr Sara Platto, Secretary General of CBCGDF, bring their unique insights to the second in a series of five webinars: A future without pandemics.
You’ll find a synopsis of the webinar on the page below. And if we didn’t have the chance to answer your question at the second webinar, scroll down and find our answer.
Please note interpretation may not be 100% accurate due to simultaneous translation.
What is the scale of fur-farming in China? What zoonotic diseases do fur-bearing animals carry? Do schemes like WelFur and GOOD4FUR ensure good welfare and human safety? Hear our panelists answer these questions and many more at the second webinar.
Professor Lu Jia Hai, Director of One Health China, Professor at Sun Yat-Sen University in epidemiology, vaccinology, pathogenic biology and veterinary medicine. Professor Lu will discuss the prevention of zoonotic diseases through vaccine.
Dr Sara Platto, Secretary General of Biology and Science Ethics of China Biodiversity Conservation Greed Development Foundation (CBCGDF) Beijing, China and Associate Professor in Animal Behaviour and Welfare, College of Life Sciences at Jianghan University, Wuhan, China, will put forward the case for removing fur-bearing animals from the list of livestock in China.
Pei Su, Founder and CEO ACTAsia, sociologist and authority on animal welfare, humane education and environmental issues in China.
Dawn Peacock, Host, Programmes Director for ACTAsia, and professional in animal management, education and animal welfare issues in South East Asia will host the second seminar.
With thanks to the Open Philanthropy Project for funding this second webinar in our series.
Fur farming and the risks
In summary, key messages:
- The link between zoonotic pandemics and wildlife is contact between wildlife and humans
- High welfare conditions are not possible for commercially-farmed wild animals
- Poor welfare among groups of animals increases the risk of disease, and therefore zoonosis which makes up 70-80% of emerging diseases
- Soaring demand for meat in China is fuelling commercial exploitation of animals
- All wild animals should be removed from China’s livestock list as domestication of animals takes thousands of years
Notes from webinar 2
- What is the scale of fur-farming in China?
Pei: Scholars around the world have been reviewing what we have done to animals to cause pandemics, including SARS, MERS, Ebola and now COVID-19.
According to data from the China Academy of Engineering, China’s fur farming industry was worth $55 billion in 2016, which is 75% of the total worth of the wildlife trade. This is far more than China’s wild meat trade, which accounts for only $17.75 billion, or 24% of the wildlife trade.
So it’s essential we look at uses of wildlife for other purposes. Although it has been an important part of China’s economy, the wildlife industry has brought so much more loss to the economy than it has profit, since the outbreak of COVID-19. And not just to China.
At the peak of production in 2014, China was said to be ‘riding the bubble’:
- China produced 13 million fox, while Europe only produced 2 million
- China produced 14 million raccoon dog pelts, while Europe only produced 140,000
- China produced 60 million of 112 million mink pelts globally
In 2018 China produced 50 million fur pelts from fox, raccoon dog and mink (China Leather Industry Association). Although this looks like a decline initially, the numbers are still huge. Buyers in China are still very active, and China remains the biggest producer and consumer of fur in the world. Pelts produced in China satisfy 60% of domestic demand, so 40% of the fur China consumes is actually imported from North America and Europe.
We can see that other countries are phasing out fur farming, and that we need to relocate the importance of the fur industry. Many designers see fur as unacceptable, but in China universities are still collaborating with Kopenhagen Fur and other European and American businesses to promote fur.
Also when it comes to the size of fur farms in China, although there are 12,000 large scale farms, it’s still a small ‘garden’ business where animal welfare and environmental protection may be even lower.
- So which species of fur-bearing animals are farmed, and which methods are used? What are the concerns around disease among the big-three fur species?
Prof Lu: Fur animals are regarded as economic animals in China. There are many fur farms and there are still lots of problems. Bio-safety is a problem. In some provinces in NE China in particular, the scale of farming is huge, and these fur animals have lots of associated problems. These include conditions that are not up to date, and bio-safety wasn’t even considered when creating these farms. As an example, COVID-19 has reminded us about the possible danger that wildlife farming could bring to humans. How should we treat these animals? As economical products? Should we try to domesticate them for human profit, or is the risk too great?
Dr Platto: To consider one problem with fur farms and disease, we have to look back to social ecology. Most of these animals in the wild live as groups and help each other to raise their babies. When they are all living in cages, separately or with their babies, they are very close together and there is a very high risk of transmitting disease to each other. Usually the spread of disease would not be so great because there is a natural barrier in the wild – they don’t come into much contact with other family groups.
Coronavirus is very common – mink, fox, whale, dolphin, raccoon dogs etc. In general for domesticated animals, the disease doesn’t tend to pass from animal to human. But for these animals in very poor conditions you have perfect conditions for an epidemic.
- What zoonotic diseases do wild animals carry? What is the potential for virus spillover?
Dr Platto: Certain animals are reservoirs for viruses. They carry a virus without developing symptoms. Bats have a special metabolic system which is perfect for a virus to take hold: they live in huge communities, moving around across large distances which is ideal for a virus. Bats have a high body temperature which also helps the virus. They drop faeces, which can carry the virus and then spread.
Farm animals are not such easy reservoirs for viruses. A virus has to modify itself genetically. Think of it like a micro-organism, it has to either die or adapt, so it’s constantly changing genetically. Large numbers of animals living in poor conditions, there is your answer!
Prof Lu: Overall from epidemiology 70 to 80% of infectious diseases are found to come from animals. Some are germs, some viruses. COVID-19 is a virus transmitted from an animal in China. Raccoon dogs have also been found to be a possible intermediary host.
Anthrax can be a danger when producing fur. It’s a germ, produces spores, spores will adapt to their surrounding environment, and can cause humans to catch anthrax, or it could be viruses like COVID-19. There are many other viruses, including rabies. Many diseases, as we heard, were transmitted from bats to other mammals and then to people. Only with an intermediate host where pathogens can be transmitted are diseases passed to humans. People pursue economic profit by raising and farming wild animals. We’re exposed to pathogens which belong in the animal world. We must quickly eliminate the domestication of wild animals as it’s a danger to us.
Pei: Recently a report showed two mink farms in the Netherlands showed staff and animals with COVID-19 and also in tigers in a zoo in New York. Viruses can penetrate from one species to another. In Germany yesterday an expert pointed out that when SARS happened, as well as musk civet as intermediate host, raccoon dog also an intermediate. The German researcher pointed it out that it’s very dangerous. Further studies are needed.
Dr Platto: The most common virus is actually rabies, which is endemic in China.
- Do schemes such as WelFur and GOOD4FUR ensure good welfare of animals on fur farms?
Pei: WelFur is a certification scheme given to fur farms in Europe and North America, and GOOD4FUR is the cooperative scheme between China and Europe. It is regulated domestically in China. The total will be 28 farmers will be certified this year. The fur industry is the referee for themselves as the scheme is self-moderated. There has been a lot of research into these ‘high-welfare’ schemes and they all prove that certified fur farms are not high welfare. On high welfare fur farms, animals kills themselves due to psychosis, they kill and mutilate each other and their babies, they suffer from extreme stress, reproduction issues, live in completely wire cages with no natural ground, no swimming water for mink, no digging for foxes, and no opportunity to display natural behaviours.
Dr Platto: These schemes come from the European Commission Welfare Quality programme. They were set up by a group of seven universities, originally created for farm animals like pigs, poultry and cattle, and were adapted for fur animals. It is organised in 4 points:
These are used to evaluate the state of the animal. Focuses on animal welfare may be more than on some other farms, but the point is to assess if space is adequate. The scheme requires 0.8 square metres of space for mink or fox. Actually mink and fox need at least 30 square metres outside and 8 square metres inside, including water for swimming for mink. The animals live in limited space in cages, food is controlled, health more controlled with antibiotics etc, space might be a bit bigger but nothing really has changed – this is an intensive system with many animals in a very small space. They don’t meet minimum welfare requirements. The only way to kill animals humanely is with high dose of drugs to put them to sleep but farms use systems not so welfare oriented.
- Why are there four fur-bearing animals on the livestock list?
Pei: While we are waiting for Prof Lu, four animals – blue fox, silver fox, raccoon dogs, mink are listed in livestock. According to Ministry of Agriculture on 8 April we were worried because did this mean once wild animals are intensively farmed, they are domesticated livestock.
Due to technical problems, we are waiting for Professor Lu’s insight on this question.
- What would good legislation look like?
Dr Platto: So the industry tried to develop the WelFur scheme but it is not good welfare. I refer to Switzerland, where 1. legislation bans the poaching of animals from the wild and 2. there are more specific welfare requirements. Legislation should be around the quality of conditions. There is a common misconception that better welfare means better fur, but this is not true. Welfare doesn’t influence fur greatly, as an animal can be in a terrible condition suffering from stress, and still have good fur. We need to phase out the fur industry. Legislation to phase out would be over 10 or 20 years. It doesn’t matter if you give animals good food, they are still kept in wire cages without water and their behaviour needs are not met. For example, a mink would be very miserable not to swim. They NEED to swim, and if a mink can’t, its health and psychological condition and wellbeing are compromised. Legislation must consider behaviour needs.
- Is there a case for fur farming being banned in China?
Pei: I think before we talk about banning fur farming, we need to look at its current status. There are no fur farms in UK, it has also been banned in Japan, Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia and Luxembourg, and in six countries they fur farming is being phased out. For example, the Netherlands will eliminate mink fur farming by 2024.
Three countries and state of California have banned sale of fur. If you asked me 30 years ago, I would have said this would be a miracle. But now people are starting to realise that fur is unacceptable.
China should be a good example for all other Asian countries by phasing out fur farming guided by policy. Many scientists are recognise not only the risk of COVID-19 for people, but also that animals farmed for fur are suffering.
Dr Platto: Besides wishing for fur business to be phased out, the fur industry is the biggest pollutant in the world. For fur to be kept healthy they use toxic chemicals which are discharged into the natural environment mostly into rivers and water. In the US there were several cases of water pollution near to farms.
In Bangladesh people are dying because of intoxication from fur/leather. In Italy the same, and the increase in cancer rates among people living close to fur farms is around 20-50% more with leukaemia. Chemicals are used in production, animals are treated with antibiotics and all their waste goes into the water. We need to take into consideration the great impact on health and the environment.
- What is One Health and what does it mean for future pandemics?
Prof Lu: One health emphasises interdisciplinary, inter-departmental, and cross-region (country) cooperation to ensure human health, animal health, and environmental health. Since more than 75% of new infectious diseases are derived from animals, also known as zoonotic infectious diseases, the prevention and control of infectious diseases should be solved through the concept of one health. The transaction of wild animals and the excessive development based on economic benefits have led to Ecological destruction should fundamentally eliminate this bad behaviour and truly achieve one world, one health.
In the future, instead of repeating the disasters caused by new infectious diseases, we must love the earth, protect animals, and live in harmony with animals. At the same time, it is necessary to move forward in the prevention and control of infectious diseases, which is based on the protection of the health of animal practitioners to block the threat of cross-species transmission from animal pathogens to humans.
Questions from the audience
If you had a question for our panel which wasn’t answered live, you might find the answer here.
Where can we find these numbers Pei is talking about?
You can find them in our China fur report
How reliable is the industry watch dog’s data when the industry isn’t regulated at all?
Since 2018, data published by China relating to its fur trade has been accepted internationally, both by the fur industry itself and by the Fur-Free movement.
What is an economical animals?
The speaker is referring to farm animals – animals that make money.
Have there been any instances of zoonotic outbreak in the fur industry?
In the Netherlands two mink farms have been put in quarantine because mink were infected with COVID-19 from a worker, so COVID-19 can also affect wild animals and isn’t this a big concern for conservation?
And follow up question – do animals on fur farms in China often end up in wet markets?
It is quite possible that meat from fur bearing animals is sold as wild meat. We don’t have information about live animals.
Is any proof shared about this raccoon dog research by the German scientist?
This is a news source of reported information about the case. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/04/how-pandemic-made-virologist-unlikely-cult-figure
Is TB also spread via wild animal farming?
No, we have not found any evidence that TB is present in animals farmed for fur. However, TB is found in deer, which are farmed, but we don’t have any papers for reference.
Is it permitted to farm Asian leopards for fur?
To breed Asian leopards it’s necessary to have a permit. From initial research, currently they are bred as pets rather than for their fur.
Where can we find Chinese legislation which pertains to the fur industry?
You can find online “Criterion of breeding and utilisation for minks, foxes and raccoons,” which is a guideline only with specific legal restriction currently, and doed not contain any penalty.
What is the most popular method of killing of fur animals in China and which killing methods are the most cost effective?
Many animals are bludgeoned or stunned by being hit against a hard surface. This is the cheapest method. These animals are at risk of being skinned alive due to the physiology of regaining consciousness after stunning, during the skinning process. Some large scale fur farms use carbon dioxide to kill mink.
Hi are there any exemplary or influential NGOs committed to fur animal welfare in Nordic countries? Is it possible to introduce a little bit?
The Saga furs auction went really bad (good for the animals) Did I understand correctly that the fur that has been sold, most of it went to China? Where did you find these numbers?
You will find some statistics in our China fur report. https://www.actasia.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/China-Fur-Report-7.5.pdf
Pei, what about red fox, are they listed too as livestock?
China has categorised fox according to fur, rather than species. Blue fox is actually arctic fox – Alopex lagopus. Silver fox is a melanistic form of red fox, Vulpes vulpes, so we can assume red fox are included. It is difficult to confirm because so far, the list does not use scientific names.
Hullo, I apologise for missing half the webinar & perhaps the answer to my question. I am extremely concerned about small imported (from Asian countries) items such as trinkets being labelled as fake fur which is actually real fur. This is obviously to circumvent purchasers’ repugnance at buying real fur. And this affects me and many, many people personally as anyone could buy something small & cheap with a furry tuft. Is there a way to legislate and police against this practice? Thank you.
We are also extremely concerned about the problem of mislabelling, and you will find some information about this in our Toxic Fur report. You can also find out how to identify if fur is real or faux on Respect for Animals website. There are many news reports on this subject, but we don’t have more information on how this is policed. You may find some helpful information from the Fur Free Alliance (FFA).
Is virus more likely in wet market?
Dr Platto: For a virus to spread, it needs certain things. In a wet market you have animals close together that never come together in the wild. The virus has to change before it can spread to another species. Some viruses are better at mutating. When the reservoir (the first host) encounters another mammal, and then another, that is how it spreads. It takes time. It needs to modify itself to attach to the receptor of this new animal. The new virus is a bit different from the last version. When a virus comes to humans it has to change again to adapt, so when the virus adapts, humans get sick. Then there’s an outbreak. For an epidemic, the virus needs to modify again, in order to adapt to new situation.
What does the law in China say about trapping wild cats for fur?
Pei: Asian leopards and trapping – in wild animal protection law it’s stated leopards if endangered should be protected and not trapped with tools, for eg traps cannot be used or if they are, they are very specific cases.
Although there are guidelines, for example in China in 2016 guidelines were issued for mink, raccoon dog and fox breeding and these specified how it should be done – the housing, the food, the workers etc. But in many cases the industries are encouraged to grow by government and the laws are not enforced. Even if you know the fur farms have been doing wrong, no one is punishing them.