The Oregon legislature is mulling a potential ban on mink farming, which if passed would make the state the first in America to outlaw the practice.
Senate Bill 832, sponsored by Senator Floyd Prozanski, a Democrat, follows similar actions by Denmark, Ireland and the Netherlands, which culled their mink stocks and instituted temporary or permanent bans on mink breeding after a spate of coronavirus infections among the animals appeared to jeopardize the ongoing public health battle against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.
In late November, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Veterinary Service Laboratory confirmed that 10 mink samples submitted by Oregon agricultural officials tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, though no mutations, such as those discovered in Denmark, were detected. The Oregon Department of Agriculture declined to identify the affected farm, which was immediately placed under quarantine, citing medical privacy laws. No Covid-19-linked deaths were reported and all the infected mink have since recovered, authorities said.
Should lawmakers adopt the bill, Oregon’s 11 mink farms would have to shutter by the end of the year, spelling a grim fate for their 12,000 animals. Environmental-rights groups, however, are pushing for its passage.
“Here in Oregon, we know the threat of diseased farmed mink escaping and putting wild animals at risk is very real, because it happened just last month,” Lori Ann Burd, environmental health director at the Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy group that focuses on habitat protection, said in a statement. “The truth is, this industry poses a grave threat to wild animals and public health and should no longer be allowed to operate in Oregon.”
Mink, which are related to ferrets, are particularly susceptible to the coronavirus, though it’s not entirely clear why they’re such potent reservoirs for SARS-CoV-2. What is known is that captive animals can catch it from humans and then pass it to one another. Scientists also suspect that their densely packed living conditions are to blame, since the disease can rapidly spread through infectious droplets on feed, bedding or dust.
In February, the World Health Organization warned that the risk of Covid-19 spreading from fur farms to people and wildlife remains high, and European Union experts have called for the weekly testing of animals at all mink farm, along with everyone in regular contact with them, to speed up the detection of any infection and curb its spread.
Back in the United States, officials in Wisconsin, the country’s No. 1 producer of mink fur, said last month that they’re giving mink handlers priority for the vaccine because an outbreak on a mink farm could lead to more human infections. Though no mink-to-human transmission has occurred to date, an outbreak at two farms in northern Wisconsin last October led to the deaths of 5,500 animals.
Mink production rakes in $22 million a year for the Badger State, which generates 38 percent of the nation’s total yield.
Last week, the Italian government extended its suspension on mink farming through the end of the year, after the SARS-CoV-2 virus was discovered on two farms in the nation, which is home to six farms hosting 60,000 animals—26,000 of which were culled after a November ordinance.
Meanwhile, the Finnish Fur Breeders’ Association and researchers at the University of Helsinki are currently developing a coronavirus vaccine for mink and Finn raccoon, with the goal of widespread distribution and use “as soon as possible.”
The question of whether to farm mink amid a pandemic arrives at an inflection point in broader discussions about the ethics of breeding animals for fashion. Just last week, 50 British celebrities, including actress Judi Dench and comedian Ricky Gervais, joined animal-rights groups in signing a letter urging Prime Minister Boris Johnson to ban the sale of all fur.
At least 72 percent of U.K. consumers support a ban on the sale of fur, while 93 percent of them reject wearing fur altogether, the letter said. Though fur farming was declared verboten in Britain in 2003, the nation has since imported more than 800 million pounds ($1.1 billion) worth of fur from countries such as China, Finland, France and Poland, it noted.
“As long as Britain allows the sale of cruel fur from overseas, we remain complicit in an industry that causes immense animal suffering, environmental harm, and also presents risks to human health through the spread of deadly viruses,” the letter read. “It is not enough to say that we have banned fur cruelty from our own back yard, we must stop outsourcing that same cruelty from overseas.”
Additional reporting by Jessica Binns.