Obese, infection-ridden foxes trapped in small cages; cubs feeding on their dead siblings: footage filmed by an animal rights group paints a shocking picture of fur farming in Finland.
With nearly a million pelts produced annually, Finland is Europe's leading producer of certified fox fur, second in the world after China.
But the new footage highlights the controversy over the Nordic country's fur industry, which is fighting calls to have it outlawed.
"Fur farming should have been banned in Finland by now and I think it is shameful that this has not yet been done", Left Alliance MP Mai Kivela told AFP.
In December, a European Citizens Initiative calling for an EU-wide ban on the fur industry reached one million signatures, the number required to trigger a response from the Commission.
The initiative urges the EU to follow a growing number of member states in outlawing the practice, which it considers "inherently cruel".
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin's Social Democratic Party decided in 2020 to support a ban, following in the footsteps of the Left Alliance and Greens.
But those favouring an outright ban are still in the minority in Finland's parliament, as the 360-million-euro export industry is considered vital to some rural areas.
- 'Downright appalling' -
Finnish animal rights group Oikeutta Elaimille (Justice for Animals) shared unpublished footage with AFP it said was filmed undercover inside six different Finnish fur farms in 2022.
The Finnish Fur Breeders' Association FIFUR, which certifies farms to ensure animal health, confirmed to AFP that they had approved four of the farms identified by the activists.
AFP has published videos and pictures from these four certified farms.
The footage reveals the conditions in which the foxes live, trapped inside small, wire mesh cages.
In the video, they can be seen suffering from eye disease and infections in ears and tails.
"The conditions of the animals in these farms are downright appalling," activist Kristo Muurimaa told AFP.
The foxes are unable to fulfil their natural behavioural needs in the cramped cages, exposing them "to various behavioural disorders" such as compulsive pacing back and forth, Muurimaa said.
Oikeutta Elaimille also said the foxes were "over-bred to huge sizes", leading to health issues such as warped skin and painful eye infections.
Some of the foxes in the footage are so fat they do not even resemble foxes.
The footage also shows young cubs eating their dead siblings.
Finland's animal protection law "is lagging far behind European standards", Muurimaa argued, and the problems are widespread.
"All Finnish fur farms are more or less the same from an animal point of view," Muurimaa said.
- 'False picture' -
FIFUR condemned unauthorised filming at the farms as "illegal trespassing" and told AFP the footage did not represent reality.
"They give a completely false picture of fur farming, a one-sided sample," said Olli-Pekka Nissinen, a spokesman for the association that represents most fur producers in Finland.
FIFUR said they showed the footage to the producers but "they cannot recognize their animals from it except maybe one silver fox".
However, to investigate the claims, FIFUR veterinarians "will still be visiting farms in the coming days".
"These four farms are well-managed, certified fur farms where the producers take care of their animals," Nissinen insisted.
The FIFUR certification process includes regular audit visits every year.
"Animals are generally in good condition," Nissinen said.
"In general, if a farm has five or ten thousand animals" there may "always be animals who have sudden eye infections or ear infections" that the producers treat, said Nissinen.
But certification statistics show that "injuries and mortality are quite low".
- Calls to ban -
Several European countries, including Austria and the UK, have already banned fur farming, and the Covid-19 pandemic has spurred more countries to follow suit.
During the pandemic, France, the Netherlands and Estonia introduced new bans, while Denmark ordered a cull of the country's entire farmed mink population after Covid outbreaks.
In 2021, Austria and the Netherlands urged the EU to end fur farming, a call supported by Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg and Slovakia.
But the breeders' association in Finland says any EU ban would be against the bloc's rules.
"The ban on fur farming and fur trading is contrary to the EU treaties and the four freedoms," Nissinen said -- a reference to the free movement of goods, people, services and capital that form the bedrock of the EU's founding treaty.
The fur farming industry was very important for rural Finland, employing around 3,000 people, he noted.
"We are just like any other countryside livestock sector that deals with farm animals."