In November, Denmark announced the culling of 17 million animals to prevent the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and its possible transmission to humans. Mass sacrifices were also organized in Spain and the Netherlands.
However, in northern Greece, another key player in the European fur industry, things are different. The region is one of the poorest in the country and its economy is heavily dependent on this controversial activity. The Euronews team visits one of the 80 mink farms in the region, where around one and a half million animals are kept. The breeders allowed him to shoot on the farm under strict sanitary conditions, including negative PCR tests for all members of the film crew.
“We were very surprised that these animals were so susceptible to the Covid virus. Our employees immediately started wearing masks, washing their hands. We established working hours so that there were not two people “, at the same time, under the same roof. We tried to keep the virus away from our farm as long as we could. All mink farmers are currently vaccinated in Greece,” says Nicole Bauduin, mink farmer.
In addition to regular animal testing, all these measures are strongly recommended by the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), in order to prevent contagion in so-called “high risk” enclaves. So far, the farm visited by the Euronews team has not been infected. But at least 15% of Greek farms have been. Less than in the Netherlands, but with similar data to other major European fur producers, such as Denmark or Sweden.
Unlike other countries, in Greece infected animals are not slaughtered. They remain isolated under strict veterinary supervision.
“If we identify positive animals, the whole farm goes into a quarantine protocol. But we don’t kill the animals. We treat them as much as we can, we support them in any way we can. We know they can eventually developing immunity. The body gets rid of the virus. But of course, more research is needed to be sure about all of this,” says veterinarian Zoi M. Thomou.
The economy and employment help to explain this different strategy. The fur industry is the region’s second largest source of employment, after the energy sector. In the city of Kastoria alone, it offers work to 60% of its 35,000 inhabitants.
This tannery processes approximately one million mink skins per year. Fur craftsmanship is an old tradition in this region dating back to Byzantine times. The owner of the tannery is the current president of the Kastoria Fur Association. Without the fur industry, the region would collapse economically, he says.
“The sector employs thousands of workers. We have the livestock activities, and also the fur processing sector; and the manufacture of clothing and coats. There are almost 2,000 companies in the region. are small family businesses. Others are big businesses,” says Akis Tsoukas, Kastoria Fur Association.
This large retailer, for example, employs about 500 people. Fur coats are designed and made here by experienced craftsmen. Around 18,000 coats are waiting to be exported to Russia, Ukraine, Monaco or Switzerland, among other markets. Greece exports fur products worth around 200 million euros per year.
“There is a lot of demand. In some countries, due to low temperatures, furs are really necessary. They cannot be replaced by another garment or another material,” says fur trader Dimitrios Kostopoulos.
The pandemic has forced local authorities to strike a very delicate balance between health security needs and protecting the only source of income for many residents. Georgios Vavliaras is the region’s Deputy Governor for Business Development.
“Industry is the main source of income here. You could almost say that it is the only agro-livestock activity in the region, because the other sectors depend on it and develop around it. That is why it would be disastrous for us to lose It would create serious economic problems for us. But, at the same time, we encourage local people to diversify, to seek other types of work in other sectors. We want young people to stay here and work, and we want those who have emigrated to be able to return,” says Georgios Vavliaras, vice-governor of the Western Macedonia region for business development.
However, this approach has its detractors. Traditionally opposed to fur farming, environmental groups argue the pandemic is increasing animal suffering. In a shelter for injured wild animals near Thessaloniki, the Euronews team meets Stavros Karageorgakis. He is an expert in animal ethics and a combative opponent of fur farming.
“The living conditions of these animals have deteriorated during the lockdowns imposed by the pandemic. They live trapped in small cages; they literally cannot escape the virus. With other living conditions, perhaps at the in the wild, they could have developed immunity in other ways, but inside these cages, unfortunately, they cannot,” says Stavros Karageorgakis, visiting professor at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.
Environmentalists do not accept that economic growth justifies the special status of the sector in Greece. Fur farming has been banned or is being reduced in several EU states, regardless of its economic potential. Other countries are currently debating legislative proposals to ban it. Greece is not one of them. And yet, tourism or agriculture could fill the void left by the eventual closure of mink farms in Greece, argues Stavros Karageorgakis.
“I believe that the European Union can play a decisive role in curbing this disgusting reality that we continue to face. Europe can simply and simply ban the fur industry in all countries. Of course, it will take give something back to the people, because they will be drained financially. But they can be supported, and motivated with tailored and specific programs. But these cruel practices must stop,” Karageorgakis said.
“Some people will always use anything, any opportunity to be against the fur industry. Not only Covid…but cages…the way we treat animals…they will use everything in their power to offer a negative perspective to our activities,” concludes Nicole Bauduin, mink breeder.
Retailers and breeders want to keep their income. Artisans seek to pass on their “know-how”. The authorities want to protect both jobs and public health. And conservationists continue to fight for animal welfare. In Greece, as in other European countries, the pandemic has exacerbated an already complex debate.