Ever wonder where the fur in that celebrity’s designer parka came from? Chances are, it came from a terrified mink in a tiny cage. About 85 percent of the fur used in coats, scarves, wraps, and other fashion items is derived from animals in fur farms, primarily mink. Like other industrial animal operations, mink farms typically involve thousands of animals intensively confined in long rows of adjacent barren pens barely large enough for the animals to move around. The conditions are not only inhumane, they also create a human health risk by facilitating the spread of disease. Yet, no federal regulations (and few state regulations) governing mink or other fur farms exist.
In the United States, many types of furbearing species are raised for their pelts, including foxes, rabbits, and chinchillas. Mink, however, is the most commonly raised furbearer and the only species for which any information about production is publicly available. According to the US Department of Agriculture, in 2017 there were 236 mink operations in the country that produced about 3.3 million pelts, generating about $120 million. The industry has declined significantly since then, generating only $59.2 million in 2019 as a result of shrinking consumer demand for real fur and a commitment by major fashion brands such as Gucci, Versace, and Giorgio Armani to go fur-free. But mink farms continue to operate in a number of states, including (as of 2017) Wisconsin (with 67 such farms), Utah (55), Idaho (23), Oregon (17), and Minnesota (13).
Mink in the wild are remarkable creatures. They are mostly solitary, semiaquatic carnivores, with long tails, elongated bodies, and short legs. With partially webbed feet, dense, insulating underfur, and a taste for fish and crayfish, they are as at home in water as they are on land. They remain active year round and can occupy a variety of habitats—from dense forests to open grasslands and even semideserts—as long as water is available. Mink have been bred in captivity for only a century or so—compared to thousands of years for truly domesticated animals. Thus, in instinct and temperament, farmed mink are still essentially wild animals kept in cages.
Pens on mink farms are usually made of mesh wire, so that most of the animals’ excrement will fall through and not collect in the cage. If the pens are stacked on top of each other, which they often are, animals below can be doused with the feces and urine from those above. All of the animals live in the stench of the waste that piles up on the ground below. The strain and discomfort of standing on wire day after day can lead to leg deformities and other injuries. The close quarters and stressful conditions can also have a severe psychological impact, leading to destructive behaviors such as bar-biting, self-mutilation, aggression, cannibalism, and infanticide. It is difficult to imagine a more inappropriate, disturbing environment for a naturally solitary, water-dependent animal than a caged, crowded, waterless existence.
Mink are typically bred in late winter; kits are born in the spring. The kits’ winter fur begins developing in the late summer and, by early winter when the fur is fully developed, operators kill them—most commonly by breaking their necks, anal electrocution, or poison gas. Because they are a wild species raised for their fur, mink are not afforded the protections of the Animal Welfare Act, the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, or the Dog and Cat Fur Protection Act.
Like humans, mink are extremely vulnerable to the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. This year, mink on several US farms contracted COVID-19 from humans, and many thousands died of the disease. In addition, an infected wild mink was found in the immediate vicinity of a mink farm in Utah, raising concerns that escaped farmed mink could transmit the disease to wild animals. COVID-19 outbreaks have also occurred in mink farms across Europe, where most of the world’s fur is produced. In Denmark, 17 million mink were culled in November after outbreaks at Danish fur farms. Alarmingly, researchers in both Denmark and the Netherlands have reported evidence of transmission of the virus from infected mink back to humans.
A number of actions are needed to address the most problematic aspects of fur farming. First, mink farming operations should be phased out and the operators fairly compensated for the closure of their businesses. There is precedent for such action: In 2003, England and Wales prohibited fur farming and paid the farmers for their losses. More recently, fur farming has been banned or is being phased out in several other European countries, including the Netherlands, Ireland, and Norway, due to concerns about animal welfare, the spread of COVID-19, or both. Closer to home, California prohibited all fur sales in 2019, and legislators in Hawaii, Rhode Island, Oregon, Connecticut, New York, and Washington have introduced legislation that would ban fur sales or production.
Second, the USDA should require all fur farms (mink or otherwise) to provide annual reports that include information about the number and types of animals raised, the measures taken to adhere to American Veterinary Medical Association guidelines for humane euthanasia, and the steps taken to prevent transmission of COVID-19 among workers, the captive animals, and wildlife.
Third, the USDA should regularly inspect these facilities to ensure they are taking necessary health and safety precautions and adhering to euthanasia guidelines, and publish both the inspection results and the operators’ annual reports. Such steps are necessary to bring transparency and accountability to an industry for which there is currently no federal oversight, little state oversight, and remarkably little information publicly available.
Animals should not be mistreated simply because they evolved a hide that is coveted by some humans for fashion. Mink are wild creatures meant to run, swim, hunt, construct dens, raise their young, and interact naturally with other members of their species—not spend their lives suffering in a cramped cell. What is more, mink farms risk serving as reservoirs for diseases like COVID-19 that pose a serious threat to public health. At a minimum, we must phase out mink farms while holding all fur farms accountable for the safety of the public and the welfare of the animals they hold captive.