Undercover recordings made at Poland’s largest fur farm have revealed alleged cases of severe animal abuse.
Shortly after the material was published, Poland’s ruling party presented new animal protection legislation that, among other things, would ban breeding animals for fur.
Poland is the world’s third-largest fur producer, and there have been longstanding concerns from animal rights groups about abusive practices within the industry. But a previous effort to follow 15 other European Union countries in banning the practice was stymied by lobbying.
The latest graphic footage was recorded earlier this summer by a man who gained employment at a fur farm in Góreczki, in western Poland, but was in fact working on behalf of Open Cages (Otwarte Klatki), a Polish animal rights group.
It has now been published in collaboration with Onet, a news website, as part of a wider investigation into Poland’s fur industry.
The recordings show mink at the facility living in crowded conditions and unsuitable cages. Some of the mink had reportedly had limbs bitten off by neighbouring animals or even been eaten alive due to the way the small cages are arranged.
The animals are also shown being fed inappropriate food, some containing spicy ingredients, which can cause internal injury and death. Sick animals were seen being treated by unqualified staff members, while workers would throw mink back into their cages after they had been removed for vaccinations.
Open Cages say that, when they have published images of abuse at fur farms in the past, they have been accused of focusing only on the worst facilities, which are not representative of the industry as a whole.
So, this time, they spent two years planning a way of filming inside what is Poland’s biggest fur farm, and also one of the largest in the world. It is owned by Wojciech Wójcik, one of the leading figures in the industry. He and his brother, Szczepan, have rejected claims of widespread abuse, saying that their animals are treated “better than humans”, reports Onet.
Open Cages eventually managed to enlist a Ukrainian man, Zhenya, to try to gain employment at the farm. He eventually managed to get an 11 zloty (€2.50) per hour job there through an employment agency, and spent two months secretly filming.
His footage has been incorporated into a new film, The Bloody Fur Business, now being released by Onet.
Bogna Wiltowska from Open Cages told Onet that, though they have “seen a lot” in their work, the footage still came as a “shock”. The organisation has now informed prosecutors of the evidence, arguing it shows the farm is guilty of animal abuse.
In response to the secret filming, Szczepan Wójcik released a statement today saying that the company was itself inviting the Chief Veterinary Inspectorate to conduct a “full audit” of the farm. “We have nothing to hide,” he wrote.
Wójcik also suggested that the evidence presented in the footage could have been “deliberate action by the Ukrainian activist working with Open Cages”. He wrote that his company believed Zhenya obtained employment at the facility in order to “provoke certain actions that…had never taken place before”.
In a later radio interview, Wójcik said that “this whole action was a planned set up unfortunately [involving] certain politicians and German media” (Onet is owned by a Swiss-German firm). “Now a gate will open for these organizations, to destroy other sectors of Polish agriculture.”
The new film by Onet also features footage of Jarosław Kaczyński, the chairman of the ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party and Poland’s de facto leader, attempting in 2017 to gather support for a tougher law against animal abuse – including a ban on fur farming.
The bill was submitted at the time by then PiS MP – and current chairman of Poland’s National Media Council, a state agency – Krzysztof Czabański. It received strong backing from famous cat-lover Kaczyński, who even appeared in a video for animal rights group Viva! to promote the cause.
Yet despite Kaczyński’s dominant position in the ruling camp, he was unable to push through the bill, after facing opposition from within his own ranks. This was a rare example of political defeat for the PiS chairman in recent times.
One of the reasons behind his failure was strong lobbying by fur farmers. In the new documentary, Czabański claims that the industry “used unlawful actions to stop the law banning the breeding of fur animals,” and says he intends to notify the prosecutor’s office.
Poland’s 1,190 fur farms produce 14% of fur sold worldwide, the third highest figure for any country, reported Wysokie Obcasy in 2017. Only Denmark and China produce more mink fur, notes The Economist. In 2015, Poland produced 8.5 million mink pelts with a value of $426 million, according to Mark Oaten, CEO of the International Fur Federation.
Some pro-fur voices argued that a ban on this lucrative industry could impact the livelihoods of PiS’s disproportionately rural support base. The fur industry has also received support from influential priest Tadeusz Rydzyk, an ally of PiS.
In response to today’s news, Rydzyk’s radio station, Radio Maryja, broadcast an interview with Szczepan Wójcik. They called him a victim of an “attack by Onet” and accused PiS of “sticking a knife in the back of Polish farmers”.
Szczepan Wójcik has in turn used his position to promote conservative causes, including through media outlets that he is involved with. One of them, Świat Rolnika (Farmer’s World), recently featured Wójcik asking whether “LGBT ideology is a threat to Polish agriculture”.
"LGBT ideology: is it a threat to Polish agriculture?"
Farmer's World is not afraid to ask the big questions.
And they conclude that, yes, LGBT ideology "poses a great threat to Poland and Polish agriculture" pic.twitter.com/pjFNSFus9K
— Daniel Tilles (@danieltilles1) August 18, 2020
Within hours of the publication of the new undercover footage from the Wójciks’ farm, Kaczyński had announced that he was now once again proposing legislation to toughen animal protection laws, including a ban on fur farming.
The bill also includes restrictions on the ritual slaughter of animals (an issue that has caused tension with Jewish and Muslim communities in the past), banning the use of animals in circuses, tighter restrictions on the tethering of dogs, and more frequent inspections of animal shelters.
According to Wirtualna Polska, the proposals had been in the making for a long time, but it was decided to present them following the investigation into the Góreczki farm.
Announcing the plans, Kaczyński said that he was “counting on cross-party support” for the bill. “This is a humanitarian not a political issue” and the law “will surely be supported by all good people in Poland”, he declared.
Following the failure of the previously proposed bill in 2018, a poll by SW Research for Rzeczpospolita revealed that a majority (56%) of Poles would support a ban on breeding animals for fur, while only 25% said they were opposed to the idea.
— Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (@pisorgpl) September 8, 2020