Late last year the Animal Health and Welfare and Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2021 (‘the 2021 Bill’) was introduced, effectively banning farming animals for their fur and skin. The 2021 Bill sets out the guidelines for decommissioning and demolishing mink farms, lists the penalties for farming mink, and describes how the mink farmers will be compensated. Although it has not yet come into force, the 2021 Bill has made its way through the Dáil Third Stage and is likely to continue progressing through eight more stages in both the Dáil and the Seanad. When the 2021 Bill is enacted, it will repeal the Milk (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1977 along with certain provisions of the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013.
Charlie McConalogue TD, Minister for Agriculture, Food, and the Marine cited a number of different reports as having motivated the 2021 Bill including a report from the ISPCA and another from the Veterinary Council of Ireland. The ISPCA 2018 report included an opinion poll which showed that 80% of people in Ireland agree that the “farming and killing of animals for their fur in Ireland should be banned”. The broad public support for a ban on fur farming can be found across the EU as, according to the same report, “[o]pinion polls have consistently shown that the majority of citizens in other EU countries also find it unacceptable to breed and kill animals for their fur”.
Veterinary Ireland’s 2018 Policy Document on Fur Farming found that, regardless of the animal welfare program, WelFur, put in place by fur farmers, the program “cannot prevent the welfare problems regularly encountered on fur farms, such as stereotypies and serious injuries” – ‘stereotypies’ being the repetitive movements often seen in caged animals. The report found that “given the nature of the animals concerned and the environment in which they are held…there are simply no welfare standards or inspection regime that would prevent such problems arising on a regular basis”. The report concluded that the way in which mink are farmed is designed chiefly to protect their fur, not to provide them with any standard of care.
The problem with welfare
The fur farming industry in Ireland is a very small one – there are currently three fur farms in the country which employ a total of 13 individuals. Prior to the passage of the 2021 Bill, one fur farmer invited the Irish Times to tour his farm and see for themselves the new welfare measures he had implemented such as providing cages (which are 91cm x 45cm x 33cm which are slightly larger than the EU mandated minimum cage sizes) and a tubing section in some cages for “entertainment”. The article notes that “[t]he mink spend their entire lives in these confined spaces until they are transferred to a euthanasia box which is wheeled into the hut”. It is difficult to imagine how a slightly larger wire cage and small bit of industrial tubing provides any meaningful benefit to a mink which would, in the wild, have a lush territory of several kilometres to live in.
Welfare measures made for farmed animals are increasingly coming under scrutiny as a form of “humanewashing” and hiding the reality of animal exploitation. A brilliant new site, Elwood’s Organic Dog Meat, explores this idea through the lens of parody and irony. The site purports to sell dog meat and displays images of dogs running “free range” and cuddling their human farmers. Elwood’s social media posts regularly received a slew of incensed responses. This would seem to suggest that most people do not recognise agricultural welfare measures as in any way meaningful when it comes to dogs rather than farmed species, as organic and free range farms do not receive the same amount of vitriol online.
A new front in the war against fur
Although fur farming in Ireland has been banned and will be phased out with the passage of the 2021 Bill, a major hurdle for mink animal rights activists persists – the demand for fur. Animal rights and anti-fur activists have worked for years to change public perception of the fur industry and they have been largely successful. Decades of public education, circulating photographs of farmed fur-bearing animals, paint throwing, and other publicity stunts have drawn public attention to the reality of the fur industry and its incredible cruelty. Fur is rapidly being phased out of fashion houses and high street brands and consumers have learnt to avoid mis-labelled faux fur products from certain countries which are likely to be derived from cats, dogs, and other fur-bearing animals.
The fur coat has become something of a psychosocial metaphor for classism, opulence, wealth, and cruelty. The figure which many people under the age of 40 will most closely associate with fur coats is likely to be Cruella de Ville. If a fur is not clearly vintage, there is a real possibility that its wearer will face criticism, negative comments on social media, and second looks.
However, despite the societal move away from fur clothing, fur and fur-based products have once again crept into the marketplace and fur is arguably more popular than ever before. This is largely due to the ubiquity of mink eyelash extensions and the fur trim on jackets such as those sold by Canada Goose.
Mink lashes in particular are extremely popular, as a cursory search through any cosmetic eCommerce platform will illustrate. Unlike a fur coat, mink lashes are reasonably affordable and have largely been normalised thanks to their prevalence on social media. Individuals who likely would never seek out fur clothing are willing to pay for mink lashes and are not ashamed to be wearing fur, yet the fur used in lashes is derived from the same source as the fur used in clothing is – it is shaved or plucked off the dead body of a mink. Salons in Ireland and abroad claim that mink lashes are more “natural” than synthetic lashes and therefore provide a better, more luxurious experience. Now, through the ubiquity of cheap mink lashes, nearly everyone can afford to own and wear fur without facing any public criticism.
Although without reports on consumer trends and behaviour it is difficult to pinpoint consumer motivations, it can be assumed that one reason why lashes are viewed as a socially acceptable product while fur jackets are condemned is because the lashes are conceptually further removed from the living, breathing (and bleeding) reality of the animal itself. The more abstracted an animal-based product is from the tangible reality of its origins, the more comfortable consumers will generally be with it. It is arguably the same emotional impulse that drives the use of language which obscures the reality of animal exploitation and theriocide (ie. the human-caused death of animals) – such as the use of the words “meat”, “pork”, and “beef” as stand-ins for “the butchered corpse of an animal”.
Why is this worth mentioning? Because the battle against the fur industry has not ended, it has merely changed. In order to effectively turn consumer tastes against fur for good, animal activists will need to change tack, and quickly. Mink lashes are swiftly becoming a mainstream, normalised, and socially acceptable beauty product around the world. We already know that public education works, that the public is, broadly speaking, uncomfortable with the realities of the fur industry, and that many are willing to make changes to their buying habits once informed. A new generation of consumers needs to be educated about the unspeakable cruelty of the industry they are directly supporting every time they get their lashes filled – and quickly.