Huge victory for animals in Poland
September 18, 2020
At Anima International we have been revealing the living conditions of animals on Polish fur farms for years. Some of the published materials came from our investigations, others from interventions carried out on these farms. Many of these resulted in rescuing the worst suffering animals.
Representatives of the Polish fur industry have invariably questioned the objectivity of these materials. The main argument of the fur industry was the statement that the pathologies we revealed are marginal. That only small, old 'family' farms, which have nothing to do with professional, industrial breeding, look like this. They call them “rotten apples” that are totally unrepresentative.In response to these allegations, we have decided to show the reality of industrial fur farming in Poland. We now present the results of the investigation on a farm in Góreczki ( Wielkopolskie province in Poland), owned by Wojciech Wójcik, brother of Szczepan Wójcik, the main lobbyist of the fur industry, who has been acting against the ban on fur farming in Poland for years.
According to the register of the Main Veterinary Inspection (hereinafter referred to as GIW), the Wójcik family owns 56 out of 476 farms active today, throughout Poland. The number of farms in Poland and those belonging to the Wójciks themselves is in fact much lower. The huge farm in Góreczki, documented during our investigation, is listed in the GIW register as 33 farms. This is, of course, an artificial division because in reality it is one facility located in the same area, surrounded by a common fence.
According to the information obtained from our contact who gained employment on Wojciech Wójcik's farm in Góreczki and documented his daily work for us, there are about half a million animals there. It is therefore not only the largest mink farm in Poland but most likely the largest fur farm in the world. It is also located less than 300 metres from the homes of Góreczki residents.
Whilst looking for job advertisements on Polish mink farms, we quickly realised that there are very few of them on Polish portals. Whereas more job offers were posted on the websites of Ukrainian employment agencies. Thanks to activists from the Ukrainian branch of Open Cages, we managed to contact Yevhen, a young activist associated with the animal rights movement, who agreed to take up a job on a mink farm.
Yevhen came to Poland at the beginning of June this year and after passing a two-week quarantine because of the Covid-19 pandemic, he started working on a farm in Góreczki. Workers from Ukraine lived in a building on the farm and the farmer deducted the costs of accommodation from their small payments. From their salary the farmer also deducted costs of "damages" that occurred due to daily tasks, including damage to cages, even though there was a production plant for Wójciks' cages on the farm. Despite a lack of experience with animals, Yevhen did not receive any training. He was given a pair of gloves and some basic information about his daily work. He did not learn anything from his superiors about animal welfare, how to care for sick and seriously injured animals, fire safety regulations or other regulations related to safe and hygienic work.
A large proportion of the workers, like Yevhen, came to work on the farm from Ukraine. They worked seven days a week, over 300 hours per month. According to Yevhen's accounts, no more than 50 people work on the farm in Góreczki, which means that with a density of about 500,000 animals, one worker takes care of 10,000 minks. With the number of duties on the farm, there is absolutely no concern about welfare, proper handling of sick and injured animals or quick removal of dead animals from cages. This is confirmed by the drastic footage collected during two months of Yevhen's work.
The lives of the workers on the farm had many inconveniences. Many people living in one room, the omnipresent smell of hundreds of thousands of animals crowded in a small area, the plagues of flies, which the workers would sweep from under the apartment building and were invading the social rooms and constant noise - especially at night. Minks are predators that are very active at night and their squeaks made it impossible for the workers to sleep peacefully after a hard, usually twelve-hour shift. More than once Yevhen complained about nausea and headaches caused by the stench coming from the hundreds of pavilions.
Among the most common welfare problems documented at Wojciech Wójcik's farm were deep wounds from bites that the animals inflicted on each other while under constant stress. A mink is a wild animal, not very well domesticated, that leads a solitary lifestyle in nature. Forced to share small cages with other animals, they quickly begin to fight among themselves. The feed that was applied to the upper part of the cages often fell on their fur, encouraging others to bite the leftovers directly from the animals' bodies. In Yevhen's footage, we see many animals with deep, open wounds in the head and neck area. Often, however, the animals attacked each other for no apparent reason and the arrangement of adjacent cages even made it possible for animals that were separated to attack each other, which was usually the case when the limb or tail of a mink was hanging from a wire grid within reach of another mink.
Many cases of mutual mink aggression have ended with cases of cannibalism. Yevhen has documented numerous cases in which we see minks eaten almost entirely by their companions. Cannibalism and aggression are so common on farms that the farmers themselves often refer to the summer period as the 'cannibalistic phase', which ends in early autumn when the animals are already fattened up and become lazier, and thus less likely to attack. There is no way to eradicate this behaviour, which is directly related to a breeding system that contradicts the natural behaviour of minks.
In addition to biting wounds and self-inflicted injuries, the employee also documented numerous eye infections, as well as poisoned, convulsive, paralysed and apathetic animals. None of the workers Yevhen worked with committed acts of aggression against animals in his presence. The occasional throwing of animals into cages, for example, during vaccinations, and the separation of the young from their mothers was the result of the high speed of work enforced by the industrial breeding system. The minks pulled out of their cages would defend themselves by biting the workers, and the special gloves used by the workers quickly became worn out and stopped protecting against bites after just a few days. Often the only way to avoid them was to throw the animal vigorously into the cage.
The most injured and sickly animals were sent to a so-called 'hospital'. This pavilion was no different from the rest of the farm. The weakest animals that could not cope with the stronger ones simply ended up there. Unfortunately, they could still not count on professional care. Workers sent on rotation to work in the 'hospital' simply sprinkled the deep wounds with fodder chalk, which in practice only prolonged the animals' agony. There was nobody with veterinary experience seen by Yevhen. When the animal no longer had the strength to take in food on its own, it was gassed. And so were mothers, who produced a small litter (less than 5 puppies).
The obligations of the workers of the Góreczki farm also included catching the minks that escaped from the cages. Every now and then, often with the help of dogs trained for this purpose, they would chase the minks hiding on the farm premises - in burrows, under pallets and in the grass between pavilions. The minks escaped but often returned for food, responding to the sound of the feeder - a vehicle that distributed the food twice a day into the pavilions. In many countries, mink is listed as an invasive alien species. The escape of these animals is responsible for enormous losses in local ecosystems, so since July 2018, mink farms in Poland have had to be surrounded by a double fence. To this day, these requirements have been ignored by many breeders.
The problem of animal escapes is particularly important today because, in the era of the coronavirus pandemic, it has been confirmed that the mink is the only farm animal that can be infected with the virus, transfer it to other animals and, finally, transfer it to humans. Such cases have been documented, for example, in the Netherlands, where Covid-19 was confirmed in 42 of the 128 farms in operation. In light of the public health risk, the Dutch authorities have decided to shorten the period of withdrawal of mink farms and the last will be closed next March.
In our opinion, the lack of professional care for the animals who needed it the most, the lack of training for staff caring for the injured and sick, not to mention the implementation of treatment procedures that go beyond pouring open wounds with disinfectant powder, shows a complete disregard for the welfare of the animals. The farmer is directly responsible for systemic cruelty on the Góreczki farm.
During two months he stayed on the farm, Yevhen saw Wojciech Wójcik only once - passing the farm in his car. They did not meet personally. Wójcik did not enter into relations with employees. Like his brothers, he is a businessman, a producer, and not a breeder, let alone a farmer. He also rarely speaks in the media. He gives way here to his brother, Szczepan, who has been lobbying for years against a fur ban in Poland. So far, Wójcik's marketing and lobbying activities have been so effective that he managed to influence the withdrawal from the amendment to the Animal Protection Act, the ban on breeding animals for fur. The draft ban on fur farming was discussed in 2017 and after the attacks from fur farmers, the ruling party (PiS) withdrew from it. There is a new term in the Polish Parliament and unofficially there is talk of returning to the discussion about the ban.
The fur industry does not provide the possibility of tracing the fur from farm to store shelf. The sale of mink or fox skins is done through auction houses, mainly in Copenhagen, Toronto, China and Helsinki. However, given that Poland is the third largest fur producer in the world, we can assume that many of the fur clothes present in the stores around the world come from Polish farms, including the farm in Góreczki.
After the investigation, Open Cages Poland immediately prepared a notice of possible animal abuse and it has already been sent to the public prosecution authority.