Think about the horrors animals endure from human conduct at its worst. Then cherry-pick the worst features of the most severe forms of animal exploitation in America. You might, then, come up with the compound cruelties of mink farming. Add in the human and wildlife health risks associated with it and you have a crisis in our midst.
It’s timely to do an assessment of the costs and benefits of mink farming, given that the U.S. House has passed a provision to the America COMPETES Act to ban mink farming in the United States. The House and Senate are discussing whether to hold onto the mink farming ban in a House-Senate conference committee. The outcome of those discussions could not be more critical for the animal welfare and public health.
Live Wildlife Markets. Like live wildlife markets, mink farms are a human and animal health biohazard where wild animals are closely confined in large numbers and where workers interact with the animals, with potential bilateral transmission of a dangerous virus. Among non-human animals, mink are uniquely susceptible to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and the only ones who contract the disease from people and transmit it back to them. In Europe and the U.S., there have been 450 mink farms with outbreaks of this virus, spawning three variants. The pandemic that has affected mink has closely tracked the human pandemic, lagging by three or four months since its inception.
There have been approximately 7,000,000 million mink infected with SARS-CoV-2, with approximately 675,000 mink dying from the virus. This contrasts with perhaps just 100 to 150 COVID-19 infections among all other captive non-human animals, including big cats, domesticated dogs and cats, gorillas, and ferrets, which generally appear to be dead-end hosts.
For practical purposes, Covid-19 s largely a two-species virus, with concerns that white-tailed deer might be the third species to contract the disease in large numbers.
Factory farming. Like some of the most extreme forms of cage confinement in factory farming, mink farms keep animals are kept in small, barren cages that frustrate natural behaviors. It’s worse than factory farming in some ways because mink are carnivorous, solitary, semi-aquatic wild animals, compared with the domesticated laying hens and breeding sows who are herd and flock animals. Mink are housed with the intent that they never leave their cages and never swim, forage, or hunt. It is a life of extreme deprivation and immobilization.
Animal fighting. Like fighting roosters or pit-bull-type dogs placed in a pit, highly aggressive mink are placed in a closed space with others of their kind. No amount of good animal husbandry can prevent caged animal fights. My colleague Scott Beckstead grew up on a mink farm in southwestern Idaho, and here’s what he had to say about his chores there:
“What I remember above all else was the extreme aggression exhibited by the mink My routine included collecting mink killed and cannibalized by pen mates and tending to the ones with bloody, open wounds caused by fights. We were forbidden to go into the mink yard when the mothers were giving birth, because the slightest disturbance would cause them to kill and cannibalize their young. You just don’t see that kind of bloody horror in other forms of animal agriculture. It violates everything we say in agriculture about proper husbandry.”
Horse slaughter. Like the American horse slaughter industry, there is no domestic market for mink pelts. All the pelts go to high-end elites in Asia, mainly China, just like horse meat is exported to a handful of nations, mainly Italy and Japan. Americans don’t eat horses and they don’t buy mink. Almost every major designer and clothing seller has announced policies that they no longer sell fur. The animals pay a high price in cruelty for a sliver of luxury consumers in a small number of outposts far from our homeland.
Commercial deer farms. Like commercial deer farms that are spreading Chronic Wasting Disease to wild deer and elk and jeopardizing the hunting industry, mink farms threaten to deliver the SARS-CoV-2 virus to millions of wild mink in North America. Captive mink, who are escape artists, can infect wild populations, creating an ineradicable source of SARS-CoV-2, as happened with plague, rabies, and brucellosis. This has already been documented in Utah, the number two mink-producer in the U.S.
In other words, combine the most odious features of each industry named above and you’d get something that looks like mink farming.
When it comes to the disease, there is no surveillance at the farms by state or federal authorities. The United States touts its “One Health” program – a program that rightly recognizes that many diseases know no hard-and-fast species boundary – but the United States’ government has actively resisted putting controls in place at mink farms, even though the American mink is the one species other than humans that contracts the virus in large numbers and then can spill it back to humans.
These problems and others were addressed this month in a long-form piece in The New York Times, echoing many conclusions in a conclusive 102-page report entitled “Mink Farming & SARS-CoV-2” by the Center for a Humane Economy. The writer also noted these problems:
- Deliberate non-compliance of mink farmers with CDC, USDA, and state public health and agriculture COVID-19 recommendations and policies including on-farm biosecurity.
- Inadequate, essentially non-existent “self-reported” SARS-CoV-2 outbreak surveillance of mink farms by the CDC, USDA, and state agencies.
- Industry secrecy, including the routine escape of animals risking COVID-19 spread to wildlife.
Remember that we are tolerating this industry and its attendant animal and human health risks even though it is barely afloat. We estimate just 60 mink farms operate in the entire U.S..
The largest producing state, Wisconsin, has more commerce in Ginseng than it does in mink pelts. USDA reported 1.4 million mink pelts sold in 2020, with a farm-gate value of $47 million. Again, it an export-only commodity, servicing China almost exclusively.
Here we are, a nation that forced millions of businesses to close down to try to slow the progress of the pandemic but has been reluctant to shut down an industry with just 60 outlets and that poses a unique and proven SARS-CoV-2 threat.
If we are serious about competing with China, it’s a very easy step to address this risk at home. American business will still sell coats to China, but they need not come from producers who deliver this blend of cruelty and contagion in our backyards.