Mink Farming Ban Introduced in Congress, Led by House Appropriations Chair Rosa DeLauro
Today, a remarkable set of U.S. Representatives, led by House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Nancy Mace, R-S.C., introduced legislation to ban mink farming in the United States – the first-ever legislation to address confinement and killing of wildlife for their fur. It comes at a time when consumers and clothing sellers throughout the world – including Canada Goose and Neiman Marcus just this week – have signaled that fur is not part of their future wardrobes or retail offering.
The appalling, inhumane, and dangerous living conditions on mink factory farms – where the territorial, solitary, carnivorous animals routinely attack their cage mates within inescapable quarters – warrant public policies to forbid this systemic mistreatment of wildlife. But this national legislation has emerged only because of uncontested evidence that mink farms pose unique and tangible risks of spreading SARS-CoV-2 to people and to wild mink and other free-roaming wildlife. More ominously, mink farms in Denmark, France, and the United States have incubated variants of SARS-CoV-2. Continuing to keep these wild animals in stressful, unsafe, overcrowded conditions, according to a comprehensive report issued today by the Center for a Humane Economy and Animal Wellness Action and authored by infectious disease expert Jim Keen, D.V.M., Ph.D., creates ripe conditions for that dangerous public health phenomenon to recur.
“If SARS-CoV-2 could design its perfect habitat, it might closely resemble a mink ranch: a highly stressed, immuno-suppressed inbred host with thousands of other mink kept in very small cages,” said Dr. Keen, director of veterinary science for the Center for a Humane Economy and a former top U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist. “This environment maximizes chances for infections and mutations.”
The legislation, known as the “Minks in Narrowly Kept Spaces Are Superspreaders Act (MINKS Act),” is led by Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and U.S. Rep. Nancy Mace, R-S.C. They are joined by Reps. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, Michael McCaul, R-Texas, Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., Claudia Tenney, R-N.Y., Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., Lance Gooden, R-Texas, Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, and David Valadao, R-Calif. This is a bipartisan effort of unusual depth and ideological range, with some of the most powerful lawmakers in Congress calling for reform.
It comes after the pandemic accelerated after it ran through mink farms in Europe and the United States (China and Russia have not been forthcoming about the virus’s effect on mink farms in those countries.) The world’s largest mink-producing nation, Denmark recently killed 17 million mink after farms there spawned a Cluster-5 variant that infected thousands of Danes. The Netherlands, the fourth-largest producer, killed millions of its mink after farms there were identified as super-spreaders of the virus.
Public health authorities and politicians in these countries acted because a global pandemic that was likely triggered by the mistreatment of wildlife at a live-wildlife market in Wuhan got new life and form at mink farms and threatened to extend the pandemic, potentially delivering calamitous effects on human health and the global economy.
The U.S. legislation amends the Lacey Act to forbid possession, sale, and trade in captive American mink (Neovison vison) or their parts. Mink farmers would be allowed to pelt out their remaining animals but not to resume additional breeding and production of the animals for fur. Zoos and research facilities are exempt, and there would be no restrictions on the trade in native wild mink, who are much smaller than the captive-bred mink.
As reported in our new report, “Mink Farming & SARS-CoV-2” by Dr. Keen, mink pose unique public health risks from SARS-CoV-2:
1) Mink are the only animals beside people that transmit, become sick, and die in large numbers from COVID-19;
2) Mink are the only animals besides people that transmit the COVID-19 virus back to people often in mutated form. Mink farmers, their families and their communities are at greatest risk;
3) Mink are the only animal with a large potential wild animal reservoir for COVID-19
(i.e. the millions of wild or feral mink in the Northern hemisphere, some of which have already been infected;
4) Mink are a top candidate as the “missing link” between bats (which most scientists believe to be the original source of COVID), and people according to the World Health Organization;
5) Mink are a proven source of multiple novel virus variants that may compromise human vaccine effectiveness or increase human virus virulence or transmissibility;
6) U.S. mink veterinary vaccines against COVID-19, which are still in development, are no panacea and may even be detrimental to control of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Escaped captive mink can outcompete native wild mink given that they are twice their size and act as a sort of invasive species. They can also infect wild populations, creating an ineradicable source of SARS-CoV-2 in North America, just as rabies, plague, and brucellosis have taken permanent hold in wildlife populations in the U.S. The presence of SARS-CoV-2 in wild mink means that there is an indefinite threat of mutation and viral spillover back to humans.
With gross revenues dropping from $291 million in 2012 to $59 million in 2019 (before the virus) — and total annual production at 2.7 million animals — the U.S. mink industry does not bring substantial economic benefits that warrant these risks to human health concerns. Because Americans and Europeans buy virtually no mink these days, U.S. producers sell their pelts to China, meaning that U.S. communities face the threat of viral transmission to produce a luxury product for a thin sliver of the Chinese population.
The mink farms in the United States might be best described as viral time bombs planted in dozens of locations in our country, with negligible upside commerce but potentially momentous downside economic reverberations.
Kept in extreme confinement, bred for various color phases of their fur, these solitary semi-aquatic wild animals live in small wire cages and are highly stressed, making them even more vulnerable to the onset of disease. The footage from an investigation in Poland by the animal welfare group Open Cages is horrifying, providing vivid evidence of aggression and cannibalism and showing why these animals cannot be safely kept in extreme confinement. It’s not a matter of improving animal husbandry – these wild animals simply cannot be safely and humanely housed in cages on any meaningful commercial scale.
SARS-CoV-2 likely got its launch at a live-wildlife market in China even after warning from animal welfare advocates and infectious disease specialists that these commercial trading posts could spawn the next epidemic or pandemic. We know that mink are the only non-human animals who are bilateral transmitters of COVID-19, and yet we continue to house them on factory farms to generate a luxury product that few people want or need.