Animal welfare groups secure House passage of amendment to ban mink farming

Jan Shepel
A mink at Sandy Bay Mink Ranch

The coronavirus has been tough for many segments of agriculture. That seems to be especially true for the mink industry, the nation's leader in the production of mink pelts.

That distinction is in danger as the U.S. House of Representatives included a provision in the America COMPETES Act to ban mink farming throughout the United States, citing mink farming as a danger to public health after health officials there found a virus mutation that had the ability to spread covid from infected mink to people

This is disheartening news for an industry already struggling with falling production. The latest report from the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service showed that Wisconsin’s production was down 61 percent in 2020, compared to a year earlier – accounting for 29 percent of the nation’s total pelt production.

By the numbers

The NASS report also showed that the number of female mink bred in Wisconsin to produce kits in 2021 was up 4 percent (to 104,000) from last year. Utah, which is the nation’s second-largest mink producing state, bred 83,430 females to produce kits this year. Wisconsin accounted for about one-third of the total number of females bred in the United States.

The value of U.S. pelts produced in 2020 was $47.4 million, the report noted, which was down 19 percent from $58.4 million a year ago. The average price per pelt in 2020 was $33.70 -- up substantially from $21.30 in 2019. Most of the pelts produced (74 percent) were black; the next largest group of pelts by color was white (11 percent.)

The report shows that in 2017 – long before anyone had heard of the coronavirus pandemic – Wisconsin mink farms produced 1.13 million pelts; nationally there were 3.4 million pelts produced.

The A & M Dittrich Mink Farm, in Medford, Wis., is among Wisconsin’s 19 mink farms, which are under new scrutiny during the pandemic. Thousands of mink have died in Wisconsin from the virus that causes COVID-19.

Wisconsin became a fur farming leader by the 1920s because the cold winters here helped produce luxuriant furs and because there are abundant feed sources. By 1940 Wisconsin had twice as many fur farms as any other state.

Fur industry insiders said much of the recent decline in pelt production is unrelated to Covid-19 but is more related to a supply and demand situation. Pelt prices declined for several years, prompting many producers to drop out of mink farming.

Pelt prices dropped below the cost of production in 2017, which prompted many in the industry to sell all their animals and get out of the fur production.

Covid hits mink farms

The coronavirus pandemic had an impact as farms in Europe and the United States – and in Wisconsin – lost mink to illness caused by the virus. In November 2020, the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection said that about 5,500 mink had died from the coronavirus on two mink ranches in Taylor County.

Protocol in animal disease outbreaks dictated that the farm was quarantined as federal and state veterinary officials conducted testing of the animals. When the outbreak at those farms began in October, 2020, samples from a dead mink were sent to the National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa, where the tests were positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.

MORE: After years of tough prices, WI mink production fell 60% in 2020

MORE: Mink producers considered for Wisconsin's next round of COVID-19 vaccines

Though it wasn’t known definitively, DATCP veterinarians suspect that the likely source of the disease in the mink was an infected human. Animal health specialists said there is very little evidence that infected mink could transmit the disease to people. No other farm livestock in Wisconsin have been found to be infected with the virus.

Wisconsin’s State Veterinarian Darlene Konkle said that mink and their animal cousins, ferrets, have lung structures that may make them more susceptible to the virus than other species of animals.

Wisconsin’s State Veterinarian Darlene Konkle said that mink and their animal cousins, ferrets, have lung structures that may make them more susceptible to the virus than other species of animals. She explained that since mink are not considered “livestock” Wisconsin doesn’t have a program to reimburse mink farmers for animals that have to be killed to prevent the spread of disease.

The 19 mink farms in Wisconsin are not licensed by DATCP and the agency has no authority to inspect or register them.

Mink vaccinations

A vaccine to prevent the disease in mink was approved in May 2021 and mass vaccinations have been going on at Wisconsin’s mink farms since that time. Much like the human vaccine, two doses are given to the animals, three weeks apart.

While the immunizations are costly for mink farmers, it is a way to safeguard their industry and protect humans, as well as their animals, fur industry people have said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention there has been spread of the coronavirus from mink to humans in Michigan, Netherlands, Denmark and Poland.

Mass cullings

In August 2020 thousands of mink died from coronavirus on two farms in Utah. They were considered to be the first mink farm coronavirus deaths in the United States.

Millions of mink have died or been culled on 400 mink farms in Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, Lithuania, Italy, France, Spain and Greece. As of late January, the United States has had 16 mink ranch outbreaks of coronavirus since last summer – of those two in Wisconsin, one in Oregon, one in Michigan and 12 in Utah.

In late 2020 veterinary officials in Denmark announced they would cull the entire mink population of their nation after health officials there found a virus mutation that had the ability to spread from infected mink to people.

A mass grave is prepared as Danish health authorities, assisted by members of the Danish Armed Forces, work to dispose of dead mink in a military area near Holstebro, Denmark, Monday, Nov. 9 2020. Denmark will cull about 17 million mink after a mutated form of coronavirus that can spread to humans was found on mink farms.

A year after 17 million Danish mink were slaughtered, it has come to light that the government of Denmark lacked legal authority to order that mass culling. It is now being called “Minkgate” there. Denmark has consistently been the world’s top exporter of high-quality mink pelts.

The culling and at least temporary closure of that industry cost the loss of at least 5,000 jobs in Denmark and has turned out to be an illegal move by the federal government. It turns out they only had authority to cull animals that were infected – not the country’s entire mink herd.

Calls for ban grow louder

A report in the New York Times noted that the mass-culling event is likely to cost the Danish government $3 billion in expenses and compensation to mink farmers and the industry in general. (Many of the mink were hastily buried in mass graves and had to be dug up later to prevent contamination of nearby water bodies from the poorly dug graves.)

In mink farms in southeastern Netherlands, genomic testing showed that infections were prevalent which led to the closure of mink farms there by March 2021. According to a report in “Science,” genomic testing there showed that mink and humans carried the same mutation and indicated that there was mink-to-human transmission.

In the Netherlands, a ban on fur farming had been previously planned and the coronavirus pandemic just hastened the move. France announced it would close the last four remaining mink farms there. China, which is a big market for pelts from Wisconsin and other world mink farms, has stepped up breeding as it sees closure of fur farms elsewhere as an opportunity.

The international and domestic outbreaks of coronavirus in farmed mink populations have intensified the call from certain animal welfare groups to end mink farming.

House passes ban

Prompted by the animal rights group Animal Wellness Action, the House approved the America COMPETES Act, which includes a provision to ban mink farming throughout the United States. In mentioning the passage of the bill, supporters talked about the threat of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.

Rosa De Lauro

The move to add the anti-mink amendment was led by U.S. Rep. Rosa De Lauro (D-Conn,), Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) and Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.)  The amendment to ban mink farming was part of a larger group of amendments, including one to crack down on live wildlife markets because of infectious disease risks they pose globally.

In citing her support for the mink farming ban, De Lauro said that “factory farming of mink threatens public health, especially as we continue fighting against the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The evidence is clear: mink operations can incubate and spread new Covid-19 variants and pose a unique threat of extending the pandemic. At the same time, with virtually no domestic market, the U.S. mink industry has been in a steady state decline for years. Now is the time for this legislation to become law and I am urging all of my colleagues to continue supporting this bipartisan effort,” De Lauro said in a statement.

Supporters of the measure maintain that mink farms have spawned three variants – in Denmark, France and the United States – since the pandemic began.

The USDA reported 2.7 million mink pelts sold in 2019 and 1.4 million pelts sold in 2020. In a press release, backers of the ban noted there are just 60 mink farms operating in the United States and that 80 percent of the pelts produced here are exported to China since there is virtually no domestic market.

The ban on mink farming was supported by a group of animal welfare associations.

'Scare tactic'

Challis Hobbs, executive director of Fur Commission USA, an organization that represents mink farmers, said the animal rights groups are using Covid as a scare tactic to fulfill their agenda of stopping fur farming. He told Wisconsin State Farmer, in a telephone interview that yes there have been virus detections on mink farms but since early spring 2021, mink producers have been vaccinating their animals against the disease.

“Since the Zoetis vaccine was approved we have achieved nearly 100 percent vaccination on mink farms,” he said. “That’s better than the human population. We haven’t seen any clinical outbreaks among farmed mink since that vaccination program started.”

Hobbs sees conditions in the industry right now as presenting good opportunities for mink farmers. “The mink market is one of pure supply and demand. There are no quotas. There’s no regulation of production. So now the industry is going to see a huge deficit with Denmark not producing any pelts and some of the other European countries decreasing their production,” he said. “That’s going to create a huge deficit in supply. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a time in the mink trade where there have been such opportunities for U.S. producers.”

There’s really no comparison between Denmark’s mink industry and the one in the United States, when it comes to potential spread of Covid, he said. Denmark had 1,200 mink farms in a country that is smaller than the state of Maine, while there are about 60 U.S. mink farms, and they are spread out in rural areas across 16 northern states.

When Hobbs and other fur farming advocates talk to other farm groups and legislators, they feel a lot of support he said. “The amendment to the America COMPETES Act is not a good thing but we have a lot of agriculture associations supporting us and countering the animal activist agenda. We are grateful for that overwhelming support.”

Fur farmer 'shocked' by amendment

Fur Commission USA, based in Idaho, has been serving mink farmers since 1994 and is supported by a pelt levy on mink pelts sold at auction.

China – the nation where demand for fur is highest – does produce some mink pelts of its own, however the quality that is produced there isn’t close to the quality of mink pelts coming from U.S. farms. One of the reasons that Wisconsin leads the industry is the quality of its pelts, Hobbs said.

Part of the reason for that is its climate; another reason is the mix of feed byproducts that are available to feed the mink in Wisconsin. “Mink are great recyclers,” Hobbs said. In Wisconsin, available feedstuffs include beef byproducts and cheese that doesn’t make the market for human grade sales. Fish and egg products are also available in Wisconsin to be fed to mink, he said.

Valerie Zimbal shows a grouping of mink pelts to students during an Wisconsin agriculture presentation at SAGES charter school in Fox Lake.

Valerie Zimbal, a fourth generation mink farmer in Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin said she was “shocked” that the House passed the bill with that amendment included.

“It is shocking how this can be done so quickly and without much debate. We in the fur industry are the easiest target,” she said.

Her family’s Zimbal Mink has been in the business since 1954 and produces 160,000 mink per year. When the pandemic struck, they already had a biosecurity plan in place but they added to it. Employees already had to shower in and shower out of the production facilities but they added temperature checks and mask wearing to their protocols.

All of their employees got vaccinated and boosted and once a vaccine was approved for their mink, all of the animals got vaccinated and boosted too. “We did that all at our own cost and because we wanted to – not because we were being forced to. There hasn’t been an outbreak of Covid in mink since that vaccine became available.”

Zimbal said she feels the animal rights groups are using the House bill and Covid to push their pro-vegan agenda. “I have friends who are vegan and that’s fine, we’re still friends. But there are much bigger problems in this country than trying to push a vegan agenda – how about children who are hungry or homelessness. This seems really silly to me to try to put multi-generation family farms out of business.”

Wild deer infected

There are also new reports that wild whitetail deer have caught the disease from people and are spreading it among themselves. That’s a concern because the wild population of deer can serve as a disease reservoir which can potentially spread it back to humans. That deer population could also harbor variants that could become more problematic if they spread it back to people.

There are about 30 million wild deer in the United States, according to 2018 data from the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. The American Rescue Plan provided $6 million for research into while-tailed deer and coronavirus. There are currently research projects underway in 30 states where deer are prevalent.

There are also new reports that wild whitetail deer have caught the disease from people and are spreading it among themselves.

(Scientists are also collecting blood samples from coyotes, skunks and raccoons to test them for antibodies to the virus.)

A study published in December, 2021, in “Nature” reported that when the nostrils of white-tailed deer in Ohio were swabbed, the disease was found. Those Ohio deer had been culled to control the population so it made it convenient to test them. About one-third of the deer sampled had active or recent infections. Ohio researchers found evidence of six human-to-deer “transmission events.” This sampling was done before the more transmissible Delta and Omicron variants began circulating.

Research in Iowa, which was obtained from road-killed deer and deer that were bagged by hunters, found “widespread evidence” of the coronavirus.

Further research in a laboratory introduced the virus to deer, and while the animals didn’t exhibit symptoms of illness, they were able to transmit it to each other through touching of their noses.

Federal animal health specialists took 624 blood samples from wild deer in Illinois, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania and found that around 40 percent had antibodies that indicated past infections. In a peer-reviewed study from Ohio State University, nearly 36 percent of the 360 wild deer sampled tested positive by nasal swabs.

Genetic sampling confirmed deer-to-deer transmission and also found six mutations in deer that are not common in the human population.