Mink Fur Farming: Adapting an industry on the rise

Figure 1. American Mink as seen in typical single housing cage system (McArthur, 2013).

Figure 1. American Mink as seen in typical single housing cage system (McArthur, 2013).

By Jacqueline Canny (NRC), Elizabeth Galeuci (AniSci)  & Jessica LaBelle (AnSci)

Industry on the Rise

Since the beginning of human existence in the cold regions of the world, fur has been an appealing and practical societal commodity. Fur gathering for many early trappers, especially in the United States, began as a successful and relatively simple business venture aimed at supplying a continuous demand for fur products. Fur has since transcended from being a good necessary for the survival of human societies, to a luxury product in a small niche market where industrial profits are subject to change due to an inconsistent demand. (Fur Commission USA, 2011). 

As fur became less essential to the wellbeing of the human population and attained more of a luxury good status, protests for the rights of fur-bearing animals became increasingly popular. These protests reached their peak of activity in the 1980s and 1990s, and were lead by prominent animal rights activist organizations (Peterson, 2010, II. Animal Rights Organizations and the Future of Fur, para. 1). Intensive campaigns attempted to shut down worldwide fur production by asserting claims of animal cruelty and abuse on fur farms. These campaigns were also aimed at curbing society’s demand for fur by using media scare tactics involving paint-throwing, displays of humans in cages, and graphic images. While the fur industry experienced a substantial decrease in product demand during the 1980s and 1990s as a direct result of these campaigns, once again fur production is beginning to establish itself as a lucrative industry in today’s market (Peterson, 2010, II. Animal Rights Organizations and the Future of Fur, para. 1).

To combat the annual differences in product demand, the US fur industry implemented concentrated fur-bearing animal farming operations in an effort to consolidate resources. The number of functional mink fur farms fell from 1,116 in 1982, to only 268 farms in 2011 (Fur Commission USA, 2011, Production Statistics, fig. 1). According to Simon Ward (2010), the communications director of an organization of fur farmers called Fur Commission USA, the decrease in the number of fur farms has not dramatically slowed pelt production (p. 1). In 2011, 268 mink farms produced 3,091 pelts for consumption comparably to the 4,085 produced in 1982 when over four times as many farms were in operation (Fur Commission USA, 2011, Production Statistics, fig. 1). The monetary value of fur produced in 2011 overshadowed the value of pelts produced in 1982 as well; total industry earnings from 1982 to 2011 skyrocketed from $118.1 million to a reported $291.5 million in the United States alone (Fur Commission USA, 2011, Production Statistics, fig. 1). Noticeable trends in demand and product price illustrate a market growing from just a few years ago. According to Fur Commission USA (2013), the world retail of fur has increased by 44% in the past ten years (para. 1). Just recently in February 2013, headlines in the fur industry community reported the highest record sale prices ever met (Fur Commission USA, 2013).

The once crippled American fur industry has seemingly resurrected and established itself as a growing and potentially viable trade for many fur farmers once again. Trends in fur product demand do not show any sort of decline in the immediate future. Even though plastic and plant fiber faux fur alternatives have been developed for warmth, real fur is still a popular consumer good (Fur Commission USA, 2013, para. 4). Though these trends are seemingly beneficial to fur producers, the techniques some farmers implement to produce their good remains a controversial debate topic. Increased demand coupled with growing interest into this once marked taboo market suggests that current industry practices should be considered for review to enhance the long-term quality of fur produced by farmers, and to ensure the safety and welfare of farms and animals alike.

Mink: The American Fur Industry Staple

American mink (Neovision vision) is one of the most prevalently farmed species in the American fur industry. Mink are non-domestic, active, nocturnal, semiaquatic mammals of the weasel family, typically ranging from 18-30 inches in length (including a long tail), and weigh about 5 pounds (mink. n.d., Encyclopedia Britannica, para. 2). Their coat conformation is dense, thick, and coloration generally consists of shades of black, blue, white, or brown. Their potential for various coat colorations, coupled with litter sizes of 2-8 kits (young mink offspring) capable of reaching maturity at only 6-8 months of age, makes American mink an attractive species for cultivation by fur farmers (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2013, para. 4).

Like many industrial enterprises, mink farming boils down to dollars and cents for the producer.  The current practices implemented on these farms remain in place to minimize the farm’s operating costs in order to maximize producer profits (Born Free USA, 2009, pp. 6-7). Unfortunately these practices often operate under conditions unnatural to mink, and are not always conducive to providing mink with adequate welfare, thus causing unneeded stress on the animals (Mason et al., 2001, p. 35).  Current mink fur farms generally house mink singly in individual wire mesh cages, measuring approximately 1 foot wide, 1 foot high, and 3 feet deep, that contain a water nipple and sometimes a nesting box (Mason et al., 2001, p. 35).  The application of this single-housing lifestyle on fur farms can deny the animal of social interactions necessary for the preservation of the captive animal’s wellbeing, especially during early development (Hovland et al., 2011, pp.110-111).

Captive mink also benefit from stimulation through objects replicating structures they would naturally interact with in the wild, but farm housing generally lacks such novel furnishings. Water baths provide mink with stimulation similar to their instinctual semiaquatic foraging behavior (Mason et al., 2001, p. 35). In a study performed by Vinke, Van Den, and Spruijt (2004), captive mink were found to work hard for access to a swimming pool once it was removed from their enclosure. Removal of the bath by the experimenters caused short-term stress indicated by scratching and scrabbling behaviors (pp. 158-159).

Under-stimulated mink in captivity display higher levels of cortisol, a steroid released naturally in response to stress, and will actively seek out stimulation (Svendsen et al., 2013, p. 172). Due to the lack of interactive furnishings, mink have been documented to perform activities involving self-mutilation such as fur-chewing and tail-biting as a means to relieve stress (Svendsen et al., 2013, p. 173). Not only is this physically harmful to the mink, but also detrimental to the quality of the fur produced, and therefore detrimental to farm profits. Another indication of stress is the performance of stereotypical behaviors that are defined as repetitive and unnatural behaviors commonly exhibited in under-stimulated animals in captivity. Hansen et al. (2009) described these behavioral stereotypies observed in farmed mink as “pacing along the cage sidewall, complex movement, patterns in the cage including somersaults, rolling, jumping up and down or stationary forms where the body is lifted vertically, head-twirling or licking on the wire mesh” (p. 177). Stereotypies, as seen with fur-farmed mink in individual housing, are often potent indicators of poor animal welfare (Born Free USA, 2009, p. 5).

Not only does stress impact the mink psychologically, stress also affects mink physiologically, especially during pregnancy. Prenatal stress can result in a lowered birth weight, a skewed sex-ratio, abnormalities in reproductive and maternal behaviors, and overall decreased reproductive success (Braastad et al., 1998, p. 178). Reproductive ability, or fecundity, of mink is also impacted by the breeding practices taking place on farms. The majority of mink farms operate alone, and thus there is a limited exchange of mink between fur farms. Without mink exchange, farmers opt into rebreeding mink with the best coat characteristics, inevitably leading to inbreeding between genetically related mink (Demontis, et al., 2011, p. 437). In a study performed by Demontis et al. (2011),  breeding two genetically related mink, inbreeding, was found to decrease fecundity in farmed mink (p.439). With reduced fecundity, liter size is small and mink offspring are weak, both of which are characteristics that are not economically efficient for producers. If females do not propagate large, healthy litter sizes, less mink are produced, less mink reach maturity, and therefore the number of pelts and profits generated by the farm is lessened (Ward, 2010, p. 1).

Upon reaching maturity, mink are slaughtered on the farm and pelts are skinned from the carcass. Slaughter techniques generally include cervical dislocation, anal electrocution, and asphyxiation by carbon monoxide. All these slaughter techniques are unregulated by the government, done by the farmers themselves, and allow for preservation of the mink pelt. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) recommends the use of these methods for slaughtering, and insists these techniques are relatively stress-free and painless to the mink when performed properly (Born Free USA, 2009, pp. 8-9). However, producers are not always legally obligated to follow these recommendations set forth by the AVMA. In an effort to save time and money, some producers deviate from these guidelines and implement slaughter techniques that do not strictly adhere to these recommendations. When this occurs, the slaughtering process can become drawn-out, painful, and highly stressful for the mink (Born Free USA, 2009, pp. 19-21).

All of the practices implemented on mink farms are aimed at generating the most revenue for the farmer. These techniques often go against basic biological functions of the animals and thus can have damaging effects on currently farmed pelts and to those farmed in the future (Mason, et al., 2001, p.35). The reason these practices are allowed to continue can be traced back to an overarching issue that is unwittingly permitting the continuation of poor mink welfare.

Policy Pitfalls

The continuous inadmissible practices occurring on negligent mink farms across the country is due largely to the nearly complete lack of federal regulation of the farms themselves. The Dog and Cat Fur Protection Act directly prohibits the production and sale of pelts from Felis catus and Canis familiaris (domestic cats and dogs) in the USA. That same act also explicitly prohibits the import and export of cat and dog pelts and  items containing cat/dog fur in the United States (Federal Trade Commission, 2000, para. 8). This example of governance offers some regulation in terms of the production and sale of fur from two specific species, and it is the only statute of its kind. Other laws in existence regulate the acquisition of certain fur-bearing animals from the wild, however, all of those statutes apply to “wild” fur-bearing animals and none apply to animals already being raised on fur farms (Peterson, 2010, IV. US Federal Regulation of the Fur Industry).

The Animal Welfare Act (1966) explicitly addresses the overall well-being of certain categories of animals. The role of this particular policy is to “govern the humane handling, care, treatment, and transportation of animals by dealers, research facilities, and exhibitors” (p.12). Though at first glance the statute seems all-encompassing, the Animal Welfare Act explicitly excludes food and fiber animals from its parameters (Cohen, 2006, para. 2). Mink and other animals raised on fur farms are outside of the realm of this statute and an analogous policy specifically for fur farms is not in existence.

Another statute addressing the treatment of production animals is the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (1978) which states:

[T]he the following…methods are hereby found humane: in the case of cattle, calves, horses, mules, sheep, swine, and other livestock, all animals are rendered insensible to pain by a single blow or gunshot or an electrical, chemical or other means that is rapid and effective, before being shackled, hoisted, thrown, cast, or cut. (§1902. Humane methods)

The policy clearly addresses the methods farmers must adhere to when humanely euthanizing livestock for slaughter; fur-bearing animals such as the mink do not fall under the USDA’s “livestock” that are sheltered under this policy. No existing policy akin to The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (1978) is currently regulating the slaughtering of animals on fur farms. As stated previously, the methods in which mink are killed on fur farms are based on a set of guidelines given by the AVMA. However, these guidelines are simply recommendations on how best to euthanize mink before skinning, and producers are not legally obligated to strictly adhere to these suggestions. Since producers do not need to always follow these guidelines, those who deviate cannot be lawfully held accountable for their actions (Born Free USA, 2009, 12-13).

All regulations directly involving the governing of the mink fur industry are in place strictly to benefit the consumer of mink fur-containing products. The Fur Labeling Act requires proper labeling of all products containing fur, and the animals from which the fur is derived. Producers of those goods are legally obligated to properly identify the fur contained in their product, but not how the fur was cultivated and obtained (Peterson, 2010, sec. IV. US Federal Regulation of the Fur Industry). In no way does this statute provide management benefits to the mink used to produce these goods, but it is one of the very few federal statutes that addresses the fur industry.

Mending Mink Farm Husbandry

To combat the problems associated with mink farming, certain aspects of the production process as well as the regulation process of these farms must be altered to create a more efficient, humane, and sustainable method of mink fur production. Animal husbandry is the management of production animals in an agricultural setting and encompasses the overall practices associated with managing the animal(s) involved. The reduced animal welfare that is prevalent on fur farms is as a direct result of poor animal husbandry practices meant to maximize producer profit. Inadequate animal husbandry can be harmful to the physiological and/or the psychological well-being of the animal and in certain instances, can create long-term problems for the producer. Current industrial mink farming practices are detrimental to animal welfare and farm economics and must be corrected through tighter governmental regulation and improved husbandry techniques.

According to Hanninen, Ahola, Pyykonen, Korhoen, and Mononen (December 2008) the worldwide production of farmed mink turns out 50 million pelts per year. However, when considering the amount of breeding mink and those individuals that die before they make it to market, the authors assert that the population of farmed mink becomes more likened to a total of 60 million mink per year (p. 1809). The goal of a farmer is to be the most productive for the least amount of input cost in order to generate the greatest possible profit. Productivity of a mink fur farm is measured by the number of kits produced per breeding female and the survival rate of those kits to market (Ward, 2010, pp. 2-3).  Adjustments made to husbandry practices used by farmers can have substantially beneficial returns for mink farms. By embracing a few humane techniques that take into consideration the natural biology of the mink they are raising, farmers can create happier, healthier, therefore, more viable mink.

To improve the welfare of fur-farmed mink, and in turn increase economic gains for the farmer, changes in farm husbandry is critical. Applying family housing systems with stimulating furnishings will provide mink with a less stressful environment and the ability to grow and develop normal, non-stereotypic behaviors. In a study performed by Hanninen et al. (February 2008), juvenile mink were placed in either family or paired housing and their behavioral and physiological responses were observed. The results from their study concluded that juvenile mink housed in familial groups were less stressed based on adrenal cortex function and adrenal size (pp. 392-394). Hansen and Damgaard (2009) also performed an experiment attempting to improve observable mink welfare through stimulation by a running wheel. The experimenters found when mink were given access to a running wheel, all the individuals in the study group actively used it, were willing to exert work in order to use it, and use of the wheel prevented the development of stereotypies (p. 81). A recent study conducted by Svendsen, Palme, and Malmkvist (2013) discovered that individuals found to perform fur-chewing activities actively interacted with a novel object when given to them more so than compared to the non-fur-chewing mink who did not use the object (p.176). All three of these studies support the idea that providing mink with access to social interaction and or stimulating objects will better their welfare.  Allowing mink access to novel objects like a running wheel, or an even simpler water bath structure, will provide mink with a stress-relieving activity capable of decreasing the incidence of destructive stereotypies and self-mutilating activities like fur-biting and tail-chewing.

Stress reduction through improved housing will positively influence mink welfare, fecundity, and the production of normal-sized litters of healthy kits, which can correlate to increased economic gains made by the farm. Though group and paired housing techniques open mink up to possible fur damage through playing or fighting with cagemates, if mink are grouped in systems that house compatible mink together, pelt damage should be minimized (Hanninen et al, December 2008, p. 1809). By placing mink in group systems and reducing stress levels, mink may be less likely to develop stereotypies and fur or tail-chewing that can severely damage pelt quality.

Another method to improve fecundity other than reducing external stressors is the utilization of mink exchange programs between farms. By exchanging mink with favorable coat characteristics between farms, the genetic pool is not limited to only those mink present on the farm and inbreeding can be minimized. This in turn should increase the overall success of reproductive programs on farms and thereby increase farm profits (Demontis et al., 2011, pp.437-439).

Beyond the Farm

The practices taking place on mink farms are continually permitted because of the lack of governmental regulation. To ensure optimal human and animal safety on these farms, statutes must be enacted. By taking policies already in place and expanding them to encompass the fur industry, the producers on the farms can be held lawfully accountable for their actions. As previously discussed, The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (1978) is a federal statute already in place that governs the humane slaughter of livestock animals produced in the food animal production industry (p. 1). The Humane Methods of Slaughter Act (1978) could easily be extended to include other non-livestock animals raised in large-scale production schemes by humans, e.g. mink. This amendment could universalize a mandatory humane methodology of euthanizing the mink for all producers, and a failure to do so by farms can result in lawful retribution. As for the welfare of the mink on the farms before they are slaughtered, regulations must also be enacted. A mandate akin to The Animal Welfare Act (1966) could be imposed to regulate cage size, access to simulative resources found in the mink’s natural habitat (like aquatic structures), and breeding programs. Enforceable infrastructure will establish a mandatory baseline welfare status for the mink and if that status is unmet by the producer, legal action can be lawfully executed.

In recent years, sustainability and the knowledge of where our products come from has gained increasing importance in the decision making of consumers. Today, one can simply see in supermarkets that food products often come with labels describing what the good is made of, where it was made, and sometimes the process of how it was created (as is the case with “organic” food labels). Labels such as these can be adopted by the mink fur industry in an effort to appeal to a product-conscious consumer base. This marketing tactic may then create a larger demand for humanely cultivated fur, increase the consumption of fur-containing goods, and therefore generating greater profits for responsible fur farmers. Already there are several labels in place that have these goals in mind.  The the Origin Assured label (OA), recognizes fur farms working under specific standards of fur production. With the information provided by this label, consumers can learn where their product comes from, and the practices the farmers have implemented into their production of their good (Origin Assured, n.d.).  Currently, the OA label is very limited in the span of its coverage. Expansion and increased awareness of labels like OA can lead to increased support of sustainable practices and remove the blame and guilt from the consumer by allowing them to purchase responsibly.

Consumers of fur products have the potential to express unhappiness when it comes to their purse strings. By setting regulation and applying labels to all fur-containing clothing, consumers can buy fur products in good faith knowing even the fur trim on their favorite jacket came from responsible, hardworking farmers. Under these stipulations, responsible fur production by farmers generates not only a valuable commodity, but a marketable one as well. According the Origin Assured (n.d.) initiative, “[t]he OA™ mark thus enables consumers, designers and retailers to make informed choices with confidence” (How it Works, para. 6). When talking to one long time consumer of fur products, Ellen Rimmer, she found the idea buying from farms practicing good welfare techniques attractive: “I wish I knew about [the OA label] earlier. A lot of the young girls at my office love the furs coming out this season. Beautiful vests, maybe a headband…I’ll make sure we’re all buying humane fur this holiday season.” Consumers, looking to be fashion forward without experiencing the guilt associated with purchasing goods manufactured inhumanely, will find solitude in the idea of their fur being humanely reared by conscientious farmers.

Farming for the Future

Since its inception, the mink farming industry has faced fluctuating demands as a result of fashion trends and consumer knowledge of mink farming practices. Despite periods of low consumer demand, the market for mink fur products has persisted and the industry has continually produced mink pelts for public consumption (Fur Commission USA, 2013). As long as there exists a demand for fur pelts, mink farming is going to continue to thrive and given current trends, elimination of that market is impossible. Through lack of governmental regulation, mink farming has become a system of imputing minimal costs to produce pelts, and sell them for the most profit without strict policies to govern the farming process.  This in turn has resulted in a nearly universal standard of poor mink welfare seen on fur farms as well as unaccountability of farms for their actions (Born Free USA, 2009).

In a growing market, it is essential to operate efficiently and sustainably in order to consistently meet consumer demand. By imposing regulations and improving key farm husbandry practices, overall mink welfare can be improved. Regulating, altering, and improving mink slaughter, breeding, and housing systems has the potential not only to improve the quality of life for the animals on the farm, but also to benefit the farmers economically through a potentially larger profit margin. The fabrication of “humane” mink products will appeal to a wider range of consumers, thus providing mink producers with a greater consumer base to supply to, and the potential to make even greater economic gains. Reconstituting the production system will yield a more sustainable mink farming industry, that is beneficial to producers, consumers, and animals alike, and create a secure future for mink fur farming industry.

References

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Evan

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