Many of my fondest childhood memories are of time spent with my grandfather, a mink farmer in the tiny town of Franklin, Idaho, located just a few miles north of the Utah border. A soft-spoken, kind and generous man, my grandfather doted on his children, including my mother, and on me and his other grandkids.
It is no exaggeration to say Grandpa talked about his mink constantly. I remember him holding his mink firmly but gently and speaking to them softly as he stroked and examined their fur. I remember him harshly reprimanding his foreman for treating them too roughly. He always had a mink that he and his crew hand-raised into a pet, usually a large black male, and it would rest placidly in his lap while he drove his feed cart down the aisle in the long sheds. Grandpa treated that one pet mink at least as well as Duffy, my grandmother’s little pet Yorkie.
Even with his gentle touch and his expressions of affection for the animals, though, there were some unavoidable truths. Commercial mink farms are factory farms in every sense: The animals are kept in cramped, crowded conditions that deprive them of their most basic needs. It is evident from their behaviors, including extreme aggression, that they are still very much wild animals. They neurotically bob and weave in their tiny cages and their frustration and misery are evident in even more graphic behaviors, including cannibalism, self-mutilation, and infanticide. I recall that picking up and removing dead mink who succumbed to terrible injuries from their littermates was a daily part of the operation.
And the killing of the animals during pelting season could never be called humane. I spent every Thanksgiving as a child and youth on Grandpa’s farm for pelting season, and watched as thousands of animals were killed and skinned. The females were killed by having their necks broken by what looked like an oversized bottle opener. The males, twice the size of the females, faced an even grimmer fate. They were shoved into tiny chutes with a wire floor and a pan of cyanide powder underneath. A timer would be set for seven minutes, and I would wait until their screams and struggles stopped. When the timer sounded, I would open the chute and drag their limp bodies out, often having to unlock their jaws from the wire floor, as many died trying to tear their way out.
After my grandfather’s death in 1990, my grandmother “pelted out” the farm, meaning every last mink was killed and skinned. Within just a few years thereafter, the fur industry began a precipitous decline as consumer demand waned, mainly in response to growing concern over animal welfare.
There are no more than 200 mink farms in operation in the United States today, and those that have managed to stay in the business will face the same pressures that drove my grandparents out of the industry.
What’s more, the producers are not supporting a domestic market. It’s entirely an export business, with most pelts produced for China. The most recent fur auction in Canada saw large volumes of pelts from a variety of species warehoused and unsold.
The situation for American fur producers has taken an even more serious turn for the worse with recent outbreaks of Covid-19 among mink on farms in Wisconsin and Utah. Tens of thousands of mink have been killed in an attempt to contain the virus, and there are new outbreaks in Taylor County, Wisconsin, in just the past few days. This week Denmark has embarked on a mass cull of 17 million mink as Danish scientists say the virus in mink may be mutating in ways that imperil efforts to develop a human vaccine. In other mink-producing countries in Europe, the governments have announced programs to buy out the last remaining operations.
Given the dwindling fortunes of mink farming in the marketplace and the threats to human health posed by minks' susceptibility to the virus, the U.S. Department of Agriculture should consider taking similar steps. We at Animal Wellness Action have proposed to the governors of the top mink-producing states that they coordinate with the USDA to phase out the mink farms in a way that fairly compensates the producers but brings this industry to end.
I like to think that my grandfather, with his common sense and strong feelings of responsibility for his community (he was the mayor of Franklin for many years), would agree that while this may seem a drastic solution to some, it is the right thing to do.
For the sake of human health and the animals languishing on industrial mink farms, but with compassion for the family farmers in the business, our leaders should move forward with due haste to end the era of American mink farming.
Scott Beckstead is director of campaigns for Animal Wellness Action and Center for A Humane Economy, Sutherlin, Ore.