A new strain of coronavirus has appeared in Danish mink farms and has quickly spread from minks to people. The response has been to plan a cull of all seventeen million of Denmark’s minks. Perhaps there is no alternative at this late stage, although the choice should have been made long ago to desist from farming these creatures. Intensive animal farming is a rank hotbed for disease. Swine flu and bird flu were thankfully mild in their impact, but both came hurtling out of crowded pig and poultry pens. Animal agriculture is humans’ most risky behaviour with regards to pandemics, and a betting man would choose factory farming as the source of the next one. Overuse of antibiotics in the animal industry is the leading cause of growing antibiotic resistance amongst bacteria, which could result in the next pandemic being untreatable, and medieval in its deadliness.
This has all been well-known for decades, and yet nothing has been done. As a result of our inaction, who is it that suffers? We do in part, by unleashing these diseases upon ourselves. Yet universally, and without fail, the animals suffer. They are purged without hesitation, because they are seen as nothing but commodities. Business owners mop their brows and lament their losses as mountains of bloody mink form behind them.
It seems to me that animals are always losers. They cannot talk for themselves, and so can be blamed for anything, with minimal trouble. There is no court for them, no judge or jury – although they have executioners aplenty. In fact, if they were to find themselves in a just court, they would always be found innocent. Possessing no concept of right or wrong, animals cannot be held responsible for their actions. Their ability to feel pain and pleasure and their desire to pursue their preferences should dissuade us from punishing them severely. In their lack of culpability animals are best compared to children: they are innocent members of our moral community. There is a reason why we laugh at the absurd premodern trials of animals, like that of a rooster in Basel in 1474, who laid an egg thought to contain a satanic cockatrice. Its pure hokum and superstition: we know animals can’t be held responsible for evil.
Despite this, they are always punished and scapegoated, sometimes in obviously unjust ways. During the Great Plague of London in 1665-6, Daniel Defoe estimated that as many as 40,000 dogs and 200,000 cats were killed, spuriously punished for the crimes of rodents. In a tragic turn of instant karma, freed from the predation of cats and dogs the rats proceeded to multiply, making the epidemic even deadlier. Indeed, the word ‘scapegoat’ is proof-perfect of our constant desire to blame our innocent animal cousins. The Book of Leviticus describes the practice of ancient Jews placing the sins of the community onto a goat, who was then cast out into the wilderness. The goat was probably quite pleased that he did not meet the fate of many of his animal brethren, who endured millennia of dismemberings, beheadings and bleedings to appease angry gods. This is despite the fact that it was the human community who made the deities angry in the first place.
The Danish minks fall into this long-pattern of scapegoating. Even if we do not explicitly blame the mink, it is the mink that get punished. Well, destined to become gloves and coats anyway, I don’t suppose it makes much of a difference. However, I believe in karma. Karma is a synonym of Newton’s Second Law, the principle of cause and effect. That is to say, if we keep billions of animals in dark and filthy cages, festering in blood and slurry, diseases will spring forth. If we pump them full of antibiotics, the diseases will become resistant. Death breeds death. A pork chop or a mink coat now could mean a dead family member later, even entire nations destroyed by plague. These points should not be lost on us now, considering the current coronavirus situation.
The single saving grace in slaughtering these minks is that apparently the Danish fur industry will close. I hope its employees are supported in finding better jobs, and that the minks are left well alone in future. But for now its RIP, Danish minks. The golden choirs of Valhalla await you. As for us, our burden is to continue endlessly labouring through cruelty and disease until we can finally say ‘I may like hamburgers and fur coats, but I like ending pollution, disease and animal torture better!’
By Matthew Chalmers