Mink farming in the United States is in a “death spiral,” declared Wayne Pacelle, president of the animal welfare groups Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy, on Wednesday.
Pacelle was responding to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s latest run-down of the country’s pelt production, which fell by 15 percent to 1.33 million pieces between 2021 and 2022, amounting to the most significant drop since the agency started tracking the numbers. Wisconsin, the largest mink-producing state, generated 571,750 pelts, a 1.3 percent decrease from the year before. Utah, the second largest-producing state, mustered 266,700 pelts, a 16.6 percent contraction.
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Pelt values during the 2022 crop, too, dwindled, decreasing by 17 percent from $47 million in 2021 to $39.2 million in 2022. The average price per pelt for 2022 was $29.40, down 60 cents from $30 the previous year, suggesting that “even the modest volume of pelts coming out of the United States is not attracting strong demand from foreign buyers,” Pacelle said.
The most “startling” data point, he noted, was the fact that the number of female mink bred to produce kits in 2023 plummeted by 31 percent to 245,160.
“Mink farming is in a death spiral, with no recognizable domestic market for pelts, cratering foreign interest, and a rightly deserved stigma as a grossly inhumane enterprise that poses a severe threat of viral spillover to unsuspecting Americans,” Pacelle said.
The pandemic certainly had a role to play in mink farming’s decline. As Covid-19 marched across the globe in 2020, mink herds in half a dozen countries were found to have been infected with a variant of SARS-CoV-2. These included Denmark, which ordered the destruction of 17 million animals out of concern that they could transmit the virus to humans. By the time the government realized it lacked the legal authority to do so, “Minkgate,” as it is derisively now known, effectively destroyed the country’s industry, putting thousands of farmers out of jobs and leading Kopenhagen Fur, the world’s largest fur auction house, to announce that it would be shuttering in 2023. (It appears to still have auctions scheduled for next year, however.)
Fear of contagion also precipitated bipartisan and bicameral efforts by U.S. lawmakers to outlaw mink farming, namely the Minks in Narrowly Kept Spaces Are Superspreaders Act, or MINKS Act, which was first floated in 2021, and the Mink: Vectors for Infection Risk in the United States Act, or Mink VIRUS Act, which was introduced in June. Both argue that the crowded and unsanitary conditions in which mink are kept promote the spread of zoonotic disease, posing public health hazard.
Because there is virtually no domestic market for mink—California has banned fur sales since 2019, for one, and so have major retailers such as Bloomingdales, Macy’s, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom—most of the pelts are destined for export to countries such as China, which snaps up 80 percent of America’s output.
Fur sales are likewise on the wane in the rest of the developed world, with luxury purveyors from Canada Goose to Gucci nixing the material as activist pressure, shifting regulatory sands and the changing consumer zeitgeist come to a head, though fur’s defenders say that spiraling inflation, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and higher-than-usual temperatures are equally if not more to blame. In any case, they add, reports of fur’s passing are greatly exaggerated.
Even so, mink’s demise could be further hastened not by Covid-19 but by an older disease: bird flu. Both Finland and Spain recently found evidence that H5N1, a highly pathogenic strain of avian influenza, had infiltrated their mink farms, resulting in mass cullings of the animals once more.
H5N1 is far less infectious than SARS-CoV-2—a total of 244 cases of human infection have been reported from four countries within the Western Pacific Region since January 2003, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hasn’t logged any cases of human-to-human transmission. But it’s more deadly: While the global case fatality rate for Covid-19 is less than 2 percent, according to Our World in Data, it’s 56 percent for H5N1, the World Health Organization estimates. The unpredictability of viral mutations makes gauging the risk more difficult.
“America’s few remaining mink farmers are producing mink pelts for elites in China, and in the process, they are putting our homeland at risk because of the unique zoonotic disease threats posed by keeping these wild, solitary, semi-aquatic mammals in extreme confinement on factory farms,” Pacelle said.