IN THE WILD, MINK HAVE A NATURAL TERRITORY of up to 2,500 hectares, where they swim, run, hunt and socialize. In BC’s mink farms, they live their whole lives in small cages which many British Columbians view as inhumane. In the past year, health experts have raised alarms about the spread of viruses, including COVID-19. For all such reasons, many organizations, as well as some NDP MLAs are urging the government to ban the farms.
Scattered around the Fraser Valley are nine active mink farms, which, last year, contained 57,130 adult animals, bred to be killed and skinned. One chinchilla farm also continues to operate, while several mink farms are currently inactive.
The mink are usually bred in March, with kits arriving in June—about five per female. Most are killed—or, in fur farm language, pelted—before their first birthday. In 2018, according to the BC SPCA, over 260,000 mink were killed for their fur in the province.
Most of the fur is sold overseas, largely to countries such as Russia and China, where it is made into coats or trim for clothes. Some also goes into products such as eyelash extensions, cell phone cases or makeup brushes.
American mink at Clover Point, Victoria (photo by Daniel Lacy)
For years, troubling photos of animals, contained in wire cages for their entire life and often self-mutilating, have drawn criticism, and while animal welfare questions remain top of mind for many critics, COVID has given new resonance to pleas to shut down the farms.
In January 2021, the same month 1,000 mink were culled on a BC farm following a COVID outbreak that killed more than 200 animals, the World Health Organization warned about the link between mink farms and COVID.
Since then, COVID has been found in two more mink farms. At the most recent one, a total of five mink tested positive, with whole genome sequencing indicating that the B.1.618 variant (named the “triple mutant”) was detected in the animals.
“The presence of this virus in the mink farms may have an important impact on livelihoods, public health and wildlife, contributing to widespread socioeconomic disruption,” says the WHO bulletin. As well as concerns about animal welfare and the danger of spreading COVID, fur farms pose a risk of spillover to native wildlife which may affect biodiversity, the WHO warns.
“Why are we taking this risk when it is so unnecessary?” asks Lesley Fox, executive director of The Fur-Bearers.
“These animals are not raised for food, there is no social or economic benefit of having fur farms. If anything, they have been a real drain because we now have three cases of COVID being found on BC fur farms and, every time that happens it’s more time and money spent and it pulls away resources that are needed elsewhere,” said Fox.
Wire cages used for mink farming. The Fur-Bearers website has video footage here (warning: disturbing for animals lovers). The Canada Mink Breeders Association websites features videos of model mink farms, but they all use small wire cages.
Fox also noted ongoing concerns about effluent from farms affecting food crops or entering local waterways. “There’s a lot of runoff. You have tens and thousands of individuals pooping and peeing all day long, living in wire cages little bigger than a sheet of paper,” she said.
“With COVID, not only is there no social or economic benefit, it’s a flaming liability. This should raise the eyebrows of every politician in the province. This could have a catastrophic impact on our communities and our wildlife,” she said.
A statement from the Agriculture Ministry said that the Province, with the help of WorkSafe BC, has ensured all mink farms have robust COVID safety plans in place, with surveillance for infection in mink and farm workers. “We have had a national risk assessment that shows, with these safety measures in place, risk is manageable,” it says.
Ministry staff inspected the farms in summer and fall last year and will inspect them again this year, in addition to being in regular contact “to ensure that all necessary precautions are being taken to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 through human to animal or animal to human transmission.”
Fox scoffs at the idea that all the animals are checked daily for their health and welfare as the organization estimates there is a ratio of one full-time employee for every 1,000 animals.
Lesley Fox of The Fur-Bearers Association: “fur farming…has lost its social licence,”
“It seems improbable that the requirements in both the National Farm Animal Care Council Codes of Practice and BC’s Fur Farm Regulations are being met with such a disproportionate staffing to animal ratio,” Fox said in a letter to the ministry.
Other troubling questions about ministry oversight have been uncovered by The Fur-Bearers persistent freedom of information requests. One farm could not locate a COVID safety plan and there is no documentation of an animal health management plan for the chinchilla farm where the animals are killed by electrocution, Fox said.
“How does this fur farm have a permit without having met the requirements?” she asked.
“That is straight up non-compliance with their own legislation. It’s akin to giving someone a driver’s licence and then teaching them to drive.”
Farm cash receipts for BC mink in 2018 totalled more than $12.8 million and the industry employs about 150 people, according to background information from the agriculture ministry.
However, since 2014, the industry has received $6.5-million in taxpayer dollars from the AgriStability program adding to growing incredulity that the industry continues to have government backing.
Claims that the $6.5 million amounts to a subsidy are denied by the ministry, which said the AgriStability program helps protect farmers from financial problems such as drops in market prices and increases in expenses.
The fund pays out when there is a minimum 30 percent drop in profits compared to the previous five years.
“The purpose of the program is to help farmers manage severe losses which may jeopardize the viability of their farm businesses,” says a ministry statement.
Fox wonders why the government would help fund an industry which she believes is in its twilight years.
“We don’t subsidize industries such as rotary phones and cassette tapes anymore and I would argue fur is in the same category,” she said.
With few jobs at stake, many of which are seasonal and low-paying, fur farming is not an economic driver and it should be simple to transition the farms and workers to other agricultural jobs, Fox argued. “It’s low-hanging fruit,” she said.
Sara Dubois, chief scientific officer for the BC Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) said fur farming should not be treated in the same way as other farm operations as it does not put food on the table and requires keeping a wild animal species in inhumane conditions.
Sara Dubois of BC SPCA of mink farm conditions: “It’s the worst thing I have seen in my 20-year career.”
COVID outbreaks, added to other problems, should have ended the conversation around government support for fur farming, she said.
“I wonder why the Province is protecting them to this degree…I think we need to be very clear that this is not the sort of farming that British Columbians want to support with their tax dollars,” Dubois said.
Among concerns is the ability for COVID to spread to wild mink or feral cats and, as there have been outbreaks on the farms, it is difficult to have faith in the bio-security measures, according to Dubois.
Then there are the conditions under which the animals live.
“It’s the worst thing I have seen in my 20-year career,” said Dubois, who takes particular issue with the cage space and methods used to kill the animals.
Federal Codes of Practice allow mink to be gassed with carbon monoxide, while foxes on fur farms, which are more common in other provinces, are killed by anal electrocution to avoid marking the skins.
Wire metal cages are often stacked on top of each other, with waste dropping from one level to the next, and, in hot weather, mink can die from heat stress, Dubois said. “These are semi-aquatic animals that love to swim and they are denied that natural instinct,” Dubois said.
LAST YEAR, MORE THAN 19,000 British Columbians signed a petition calling for a moratorium on mink farming. A September 2020 poll, conducted in the US and Canada by Research Co, found that support for killing animals for fur stood at 12 percent in BC—the lowest number registered in both countries.
“The public does not support fur farming and [the industry] has lost its social licence,” said Fox.
Agriculture, Food and Fisheries Minister Lana Popham has deflected questions in the Legislature, pushing responsibility for the ongoing operation of the farms on to health officials.
Agriculture, Food and Fisheries Minister Lana Popham
“Currently we are focused on mink in relation to COVID. We will continue to take direction from the public health officer, but there are no other discussions at this time,” Popham said when asked earlier this month about the future of mink farming in BC.
But as opposition to fur farming grows, even some New Democrat MLAs are distancing themselves from government support for the industry.
New Democrat MLA Aman Singh, MLA for Richmond-Queensborough, questioned Popham in the Legislature about the future of mink farming and Tweeted: “We need to stop exploiting these animals in fur farms. The exploitation of animals for our vanity or as trophies is just inhumane.”
Bowinn Ma, North Vancouver-Lonsdale MLA, Tweeted that she abhors fur farming of animals for cosmetics or fashion and said she has talked to Popham about the issue.
BC’s fur farms have drawn criticism and pleas for government to shut down the industry from remarkably diverse groups beyond The Fur-Bearers, BC Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals—including the Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC), celebrity Pamela Anderson, infectious disease physicians, and scientists such as David Suzuki.
UBCIC leaders questioned why, when other countries shut down mink farms, BC allowed the resumption of breeding at mink farms in March, including at quarantined farms.
UBCIC vice-president Don Tom said BC should be following the lead of countries such as the Netherlands and France.
“The time is now for the Province to follow suit and issue a moratorium on mink farming, including immediately suspending breeding programs,” he said in a prepared statement.
About 20 countries have either banned or are phasing out fur farming. In Denmark, one of the world’s leading fur producers, 17-million mink were culled to curb a COVID mutation.
Grand Chief Stewart Philip, UBCIC president, said fur harvesting should align with Indigenous ethics, conservation and stewardship and BC’s fur farming industry does not come close to those goals.
“UBCIC does not condone the industrial breeding, confinement and slaughtering of minks for international luxury markets especially as, notwithstanding the current public health risks, mink farms have long been implicated in cruel and inhumane fur farming practices that have led to unacceptable animal welfare outcomes,” Philip said.
ALAN HERSCOVICI, FOUNDER of TruthAboutFur.com usually speaks on behalf of fur farmers, but did not return phone calls and an email from Focus.
However, in an opinion piece, published in May in The Province newspaper, Herscovici wrote that BC mink farmers follow codes of practice developed with veterinarians, animal scientists and animal welfare authorities, under the auspices of the National Farm Animal Care Council.
“Claims that these hardworking BC farm families would mistreat animals or keep mink in unsafe or miserable conditions are unjustified and insulting,” wrote Herscovici.
The Canada Mink Breeders Association also argues that mink farming is safe and humane, and that fur is a “green" product.
Herscovici wrote that mink farming is part of BC’s agricultural heritage. But for Fox and other critics, it is not part of the province’s heritage that should be preserved—especially in light of the serious consequences to human health, animal welfare and the environment.
“When animals are sick, we are sick. When we treat animals poorly, there is a real impact on humans and our environment,” she said.
Critics of fur farming are puzzled that, even if government is not willing to shut down fur farms on animal welfare grounds, they are ignoring the concerns of infectious disease experts.
A letter signed by 14 BC infectious disease specialists, sent in late March to Popham and Health Minister Adrian Dix, documents the risks of respiratory viruses being transmitted between humans and animals, especially in intensive breeding facilities where thousands of animals are confined.
“We request that you urgently review the licensing and permits for the breeding and confinement of mink on fur farms in British Columbia, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the letter says.
Mink in cage (photo by Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals)
Dr Jan Hajek, an infectious diseases specialist at Vancouver General Hospital and clinical assistant professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia, said in an open letter that “the rapid accumulation of novel mutations as the virus has adapted to this new animal host, have raised local and international concern.” He cites the “large dense populations of animals on mink farms” as providing “favorable conditions for viruses to evolve toward more virulent forms and present an unnecessary risk.”
Calling for a legislative ban on fur farming both in BC and the rest of Canada, Hajek said that, as mink are also susceptible to influenza, they could act as a “mixing vessel” for future pandemics.
Still, the bottom line for many, including Hajek, is a matter of ethics.
“In a society that values compassion and recognizes the need to avoid unnecessary suffering, keeping intelligent and sensitive animals in small wire-bottom cages to be used to make luxury coats has long been an ugly spot—and morally unjustifiable,” Hajek wrote in the BC Medical Journal.
Judith Lavoie is an award-winniing journalist specializing in the environment, Forst Nations, and social issues. Twitter @LavoieJudith