Could fashion's use of exotic skins and fur fuel the next pandemic?

Photo credit: Daniel Zuchnik - Getty ImagesPhoto credit: Daniel Zuchnik - Getty Images
Photo credit: Daniel Zuchnik – Getty Images

From Harper’s BAZAAR

The coronavirus crisis has turned a spotlight on squalid live-animal meat markets, where sick and stressed animals of all types are crowded together in public areas – creating the perfect breeding ground for dangerous zoonotic diseases that can jump the species barrier and infect humans. Just recently, a number of health agencies including the United Nations and the World Health Organisation joined forces to highlight humanity’s “broken relationship with nature” and analyse the reasons behind all the diseases being transmitted from animals to humans.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Approximately 75 percent of recently emerging infectious diseases affecting people began as diseases in animals.” Confining and killing animals for exotic skins and furs used in luxury fashion also brings humans into contact with animals in conditions conducive to disease transmission. Indulging in pieces that fuel the fur and exotic-skins trade could very well cause the next pandemic.

Conservation experts have issued a warning that the global trade in the skins of exotic animals killed to make bags, belts, and boots can contribute to the spread of diseases to humans. The industry is directly linked to meat markets like the one in Wuhan, China, where coronavirus is believed to have originated. When alligators, crocodiles, snakes, and stingrays are killed for their skin, their flesh is often sold as “exotic meat” at markets in Africa and Southeast Asia, helping these businesses stay profitable. Exposés by PETA and its international affiliates have revealed that alligators raised for their skin are packed together in pools of fetid water with highly unhygienic conditions. Crocodiles are confined by the thousands to concrete pits from birth until slaughter. Workers who handle these animals – sometimes without proper protective gear – are playing Russian roulette with their health. We already know that interacting with reptiles puts humans at risk of various bacterial infections, and filthy conditions create potentially dangerous breeding grounds for many zoonotic pathogens, such as the West Nile virus, salmonella, vibrio, E coli, and trichinella.

When farmed alligators and crocodiles reach the end of their typically miserable lives, it’s standard practice to club them repeatedly over the head, stab them in the back of the neck or jam a metal rod down their spine and then skin them – often while they’re still alive – for the production of purses and shoes. Snakes are commonly nailed to trees, and their bodies are slit open from one end to the other. These grossly unsanitary practices pose a serious threat to public health.

Photo credit: AFP - Getty ImagesPhoto credit: AFP - Getty Images
Photo credit: AFP – Getty Images

On fur farms, minks, foxes, raccoon dogs, and other animals are confined to cramped wire cages, either stacked or adjacent to one another, that allow for cross-contamination through urine, excrement, pus, and blood, making it easy for contagious diseases to spread – not unlike conditions at live-animal markets. As the novel coronavirus tore through fur farms in the Netherlands, the government there ordered hundreds of thousands of minks to be gassed to death to stop the spread. Some 11,000 minks infected with the novel coronavirus on a fur farm in Denmark were also killed. Minks were among the animals infected during the SARS outbreak in 2003, and they are known to carry pathogens and diseases that can be passed on to humans, including hepatitis E, influenza, and salmonella.

Since the outbreak in the Netherlands, the Dutch Parliament has voted to close all 128 mink farms in the country. This measure was originally scheduled to take effect in 2024, but PETA Netherlands and other animal rights groups pointed out that keeping these facilities open for another four years would be a serious threat to public health. Some fashion brands have already banned exotic skins and furs from its collections, including Vivienne Westwood, Chanel, Mulberry and Victoria Beckham, and California is the first state to ban the sale and manufacture of new fur products, but still more needs to be done.

The world is a very different place from what it was even a few months ago, and it would be foolhardy to continue doing business as usual while we struggle to cope with a global crisis caused by our exploitation of animals. This pandemic represents an opportunity for the fashion industry to rethink its values – and that must involve removing animal skins from the racks and making the transition to cutting-edge, sustainable vegan materials.

Yvonne Taylor is the director of corporate projects at People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

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