Minks are semiaquatic and need to live near water, even if they’re just diving into a plastic tub of clean tap water. They have webbed paws that help them explore streams and ponds, something they love to do. Minks also enjoy running and jumping in expansive dry spaces. These are some of the tenets of a mink sanctuary started by activists who rescued Pearl and Nora—two residents with cute faces, furry, long torsos, and small legs—from difficult lives in battery cages. Their new homes are still enclosed, but are many times larger and equipped with multistory shelves to explore, making them more dignified than the small, wire mesh cages found in mink farms. One sanctuary mink hides in a long yellow tube. Another pokes his head from behind a log on a floor covered with wood chips, and nearby there’s a thick branch to climb.
Pearl and Nora are rare exceptions among tens of millions of their peers who die each year in the fur industry. Mink are not domesticated animals and should be living freely in nature, but instead, they are too often held captive in the brutal conditions of factory farms.
Advocates in the anti-fur movement have worked for decades to educate the public about animal welfare abuses in mink farms. But it was the public health tragedy of the global pandemic that pushed national governments around the world to shut down mink farm operations—or at least put them under quarantine.
Factory farms, including mink farms, are places where it’s easy to spread infectious diseases such as COVID-19. Mink farms have been compared to superspreader events involving stadiums full of infected people. What’s unique about mink is that they have not only caught the pandemic-causing coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) from humans, but they have also returned a mutated form of it to humans. Mink have also spread coronavirus to each other and to other animals like deer.
What Is a Mink Farm?
A mink farm is a place where minks are intensively farmed for their fur. It looks like long rows of individual cages lined up next to each other underneath an open-air pavilion. The minks live in wire cages, allowing their waste to drop beneath them. Mink farms are also known for their smell, as mink discharge an unpleasant odor, more pungent than that of a skunk, to protect themselves from intruders to their territory. This smell indicates that the mink do not feel safe, or that they are excited. In farms, mink are fed a paste of fish, chicken, cow, pig, and other leftover meats from the animal agriculture industry. It is placed on top of their wire-topped cages daily for them to feed on. When their pelts are at their thickest, minks who have survived the living conditions in the farm are gassed to death, and their fur is removed.
Mink are solitary predators, but in factory farms, they must live side by side with hundreds or thousands of other mink. As a result of these unnatural conditions, mink farms are places where animals suffer physically and mentally. When Sonia Shah visited a Utah mink farm in July 2021, most of the caged minks “were silently prostrate on their backs, their paws limp in the air, passed out in the nearly 100-degree heat.” Meanwhile, in a Humane Society International report from 2021, investigators found “mink in rows of tiny, barren wire cages with wire flooring spinning and pacing constantly—a certain sign of mental decline and lack of enrichment.”
What Are Mink Farmed for?
Mink are farmed for their soft, short and dense fur. People like to wear furs to keep warm and to add a fashionable trim or accessory to their wardrobes. However, about 28 percent of consumers in a recent ACTAsia survey in China, the world’s largest market for fur, didn’t notice that what they were purchasing was real fur, whether through ignorance or just not giving the matter any thought. Advocates hope to convince those types of consumers to substitute real fur with faux fur.
Mink and other fur trims are used to decorate hoods, pom-poms, collars, scarves, purses, shoes, boots, and key chains. Furs can also be used to make a whole coat, hat, bag, vest, shawl, or outfit.
Mink farmers remove the furs from minks’ bodies and supply them as raw material to clothing and fashion companies. These farmers make the United States one of the leading mink producers in the world, behind Denmark, Poland, China, and the Netherlands. In 2014, the annual production of mink pelts seems to have peaked at 112 million, according to ACTAsia. While that recent bubble seems to have burst, the fur industry is still doing plenty of business.
How Mink Are Killed
Officially, mink are killed by asphyxiation in a small box using carbon dioxide gas. However, just as a portion of each industrially raised chicken flock is expected to die before slaughter, so many mink die due to the cramped, unhygienic, and frightening conditions in which they are raised.
Before being taken to the gas box, each mink is lifted from their cage by hand. Their cages are about two feet by three feet large, barely bigger than their own two-foot-long bodies. Inside the cages, the minks must also endure life without access to water even though they are semiaquatic animals, meaning that bodies of water form an essential part of their natural habitat.
A PETA report from 2016 revealed mink farm cages being cleaned with a high-pressure water sprayer while minks were still inside the cages, causing the animals to jump and move nervously in quick circles. They were in a lot of distress. One Miss Mary was bloodied from having chewed through the metal bars of her cage but left without care. Minks were often found dead in their cages.
Minks who are still alive when it is time to kill them are gassed to death to preserve their fur. An Open Cages investigation reported by Taylor Meek for Sentient Media in 2021 found that the gas box was not enough to kill the minks:
They throw the minks into the box violently, and the animals who survived the gassing are hit with a metal rod [ … ]. Another mink is killed by being kicked. In the cart, into which dead animals are thrown, minks which are still breathing are crushed by the bodies of their companions.
The Open Cages activists said that this type of animal cruelty is normal in the fur industry. They showed video of minks who were still “running around the box, struggling to get fresh air each time the lid is opened.”
Another way mink die is by being hunted by farmworkers and dogs. An Open Cages activist describes how escaped mink were living in a farm in Poland. It was the farmworker’s job to catch the mink by hand or with a net, and sometimes the dogs would chase the mink and even rip them apart. The Open Cages YouTube channel also has videos that show mink eating each other resulting from the stress of living in the unhealthy conditions of mink farms.
What Happens to Mink Meat
According to industry-friendly reports, mink bodies are turned into oils, fertilizers, and cosmetic products such as faux eyelashes. Humane Society International has even reported mink meat being sold to unsuspecting diners at restaurants in China.
Are Mink Farms Responsible for the COVID-19 Pandemic?
No, the responsibility for the COVID-19 pandemic does not lie on mink farmers alone. What has happened in mink farms in the past two years of the pandemic is an example of what happens when we think of minks’ health as separate from our own and from that of other animals in nature. Sonia Shah of the New York Times reports that one culprit for the pandemic is our disjointed way of monitoring the spread of disease between captive animals, free-living animals, and humans.
As a result, people running mink farms unwittingly spread the coronavirus to themselves and to other humans, to minks, and to other nonhuman animals (including deer). Mink is “the only nonhuman species known” to have passed the coronavirus to humans. The lung cells of minks “have ACE-2 receptors to which SARS coronaviruses can bind,” Shah explains in her article, which is something that scientists knew about 16 years ago when describing mink as an ideal species for animal testing to study coronaviruses.
One vital way to reduce the spread of COVID-19 is to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. The coronavirus vaccine for minks is similar to the one for humans in that it reduces the severity of COVID-19, but does not prevent infection or transmission.
Another important way to reduce COVID-19’s spread is to reduce the flow of contaminated air by wearing high-quality masks, ventilating rooms with air filters and open windows and reducing the number of people in any given space. The close quarters of factory farms are ripe for passing viruses from animal to animal. Wire cages press animals together with no escape.
Each time the coronavirus passes to another living being, it has a chance to change into a new, unknown form. Shah reports that some scientists suspect the high number of mutations on the highly contagious Omicron variant means that it was formed in the body of a nonhuman animal after contracting the virus from humans. It is unclear whether minks were directly involved in the development of the Omicron variant.
Mink Farming Facts and Statistics
- In January 2022, Dolce & Gabbana joined several other luxury fashion brands in a worldwide effort led by the Fur Free Alliance to end the use of fur in fashion, out of concern for animal welfare and the environment.
- In 2020, there were about 120 mink farms in the U.S., with 90 percent of the country’s mink pelts produced in the states of Wisconsin, Utah, Idaho, Oregon, Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Washington.
- In 2020, the average price of a mink pelt in the U.S. was $34. The total value of about 1.4 million pelts produced that year was $47.4 million.
As public health guidelines merge with animal welfare concerns, we can see how intensive factory farming practices—themselves linked to the colonization and industrialization of the U.S. where mink originated as a species—threaten the lives of animals both human and nonhuman. We can also see that decades of fur-free activism are paying off. More and more consumers, governments, and fashion houses are joining the movement to reduce suffering among minks and other creatures bred for their pelts.
Hemi is a writer and educator.