Vaccinating Mink from COVID-19 Is Exactly the Wrong Response to the Animal Welfare and SARS-CoV-2 Crisis on these Farms

There are no spectators. There’s no gambling. There is no referee. And there are no knives or blades attached to the legs of the mink.

But on the mink farms, there is animal fighting.

It’s mink on mink.

It’s a cage fight.

Just as bloody and grisly as dogfighting or cockfights.

At the mink farms, the aggression sometimes bleeds into cannibalism.

Mink mothers, in some cases, even attack their own kits.

“I regularly observed acts of extreme aggression among captive mink when I was a child,” said Scott Beckstead, the Center for a Humane Economy’s director of campaigns who grew up pelting mink on his grandfather’s farm in southwestern Idaho. “We were kept from the mink barns during birthing season, because even the slightest disturbance would cause the mother to kill her babies.”

There are other important differences between intentional staged fights and regular outbreaks of fights at mink farms. The mink farmers, including Scott’s granddad, certainly don’t enjoy the fights in their operations. Dead mink cut into their profits and damaged pelts probably can’t ever be readied for sale.

But this kind of aggression, resulting in mutilation or death, is an inevitable feature of the business according to people I’ve spoken to about mink farming. Scott Beckstead told me that one of his jobs as an adolescent was to walk the cage line and pull out the dead mink. Since they are pelted at eight months of age, they weren’t dying of old age. They died from stress and wounds from being attacked.

And this regular outcome makes sense in thinking about animal behavior. Mink are wild carnivores. Solitary and territorial. When they are jammed in a cage, they cannot establish territories and are frustrated by the constant, unrelenting close proximity of other mink in their immediate living space. The whole set up – wild, semiaquatic animals never getting to swim or hunt or roam and kept in a tiny and barren wire cage– causes extreme stress and frustration. The absence of adequate space and the natural instinctive aggression of these carnivores is a prescription for this kind of fighting.

The undercover footage I saw, in preparing for the release of our new comprehensive report, Mink Farming & SARS-CoV-2, from the Polish animal welfare group Otwarte Klatki (Open Cages) cannot be easily deleted from my memory banks. In the worst instance, one adult mink was eating away the mid-section of an animal who had plainly given up and wasn’t resisting this act of cannibalism.

Careful husbandry practices cannot change the fundamentals of these inhumane operations, which in the current marketplace are organized to produce a luxury product for Chinese and South Korean elites. In other words, we put animals through this misery for a garment consumed by people on the other side of the planet who probably have no idea what they are supporting with their purchasing actions.

Vaccinations amount to a whitewash of the range of problems on mink farms

The horrendous and inhumane conditions under which mink are raised are compounded by the fact that these operations have also become a reservoir for the deadly COVID-19 crisis that is circulating around the world. That’s why this latest maneuver by the mink industry to conduct vaccination programs against COVID-19 is a wholly insufficient response.

Let’s remember that European nations are not looking to mink vaccines to resolve the mink-COVID-19 crisis. On July 1, 2021, leading European Union member states called for a permanent ban on fur farming, and the effort at ending industrial mink production is now being led by two countries that have been among the top fur-producing countries in the world – the Netherlands and Poland.

According to Jim Keen, D.V.M., Ph.D, and the author of our new report, “the propensity of SARS-CoV-2 to mutate in mink and people means continued vaccination against new virus variants in both species will be needed, likely on an annual or routine basis.”

“Rural populations where mink ranches are located have even lower than average human vaccination rates,” he adds. “Therefore, farmed mink will very likely be continually exposed to SARS-CoV-2 infected farm workers and farmed mink will expose vulnerable farm communities to mink variants.”

U.S. mink vaccines use a completely different technology (basically, recombinant protein baculovirus expression of SARS-CoV-2 spike protein in insect cells) from the human vaccines. These experimental vaccines are being used now in Oregon and Wisconsin, but nobody even knows if they work.

“Farmed mink susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2 is inextricably linked to their inbred genetic background, crowding, and intense factory-farm management,” notes Dr. Keen. “In other words, abominable welfare is a root cause of SARS-CoV-2 in farmed mink. As the European Union has recognized, there is no vaccine for mink fur farm cruelty.”

Mink farms and live wildlife markets

We know that live wildlife markets created the conditions for the SARS-CoV-2 virus to move from animals to people; in fact, the World Health Organization says that captive mink in China are as likely to have been the intermediate host as any other species.

After the SARS crisis of 2002-2003, which left more than 700 people dead, animal advocates and some scientists called for the shutdown of these live wildlife markets. China did so for a short time, but then allowed them to reopen, and then actually subsidized their expansion as a small business opportunity. That government decision to tip the scales and build this industry led directly to the pandemic of 2020 and 2021. We cannot and must not ignore the parallels with mink farming in the United States.

To be sure, we wouldn’t think that vaccinating the wildlife at live-wildlife markets would be a proper response. The whole set-up is both inhumane and, when it comes to zoonotic transmission, high risk.

Are we in the United States going to make the same mistake as China’s leaders? Are we going to miss this opportunity to stop cruelty to wild animals and to prevent the emergence of the next variant?

Mink farms overcrowd wild, semi-aquatic carnivorous animals in cages and cause them immense stress. These animals are uniquely susceptible to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, capable of being infected by human carriers of the virus and then spilling it back to humans, often in mutated form that may be resistant to vaccines and antibodies. And there are millions of wild mink in North America who can catch the virus from the captive mink, potentially creating a permanent, ineradicable reservoir for the virus. This has happened with rabies, plague, and a range of other wildlife diseases that can jump to humans.

The solution to the moral and zoonotic mess created by mink farms is not to impose an additional expense and need for more labor inputs for American mink farmers who are already barely scraping by economically. The solution is to shut down these mink farms before they hatch yet one more variant and throw us back into full-pandemic mode.

Dear reader: If you support substantive policy work to protect animals, please consider donating to the Center for a Humane Economy today. You can give any amount one time, or make it a monthly gift, as many of our supporters do. Thank you for helping us fight for all animals. Please go here to make your contribution.