A Magic Valley mink farmer is convinced a federal bill that would ban his industry nationwide has more to do with placating animal rights activists than accomplishing its stated goal of avoiding potential COVID-19 mutations.
A bipartisan proposal in the U.S. House would ban the farming of mink fur in the United States in an effort to stem possible mutations of the coronavirus, something researchers have said can be accelerated when the virus spreads among animals.
The bill introduced early this month is an effort from Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Nancy Mace, R-S.C. It would prohibit the import, export, transport, sale or purchase of mink in the United States.
Ryan Moyle, whose family had the largest mink operation in Idaho — at least prior to the arrival of COVID-19 — noted a COVID-19 vaccine has already been developed for animals including mink. Moyle anticipates he’ll have access to the animal vaccine soon.
“Basically, that resolves the issue,” Moyle said.
As a precaution against COVID-19, Moyle has already closed three of the family’s five mink farms and reduced his mink numbers by 90%.
“We downsized our operation and we moved all of our breeding stock to one farm that’s only operated by family members, and there are no employees on the farm,” Moyle said. “That decision was made before the vaccine became available.”
Fortunately, Moyle operates a second business and managed to place his mink farm employees in alternate jobs.
Moyle, a third-generation mink farmer, said Idaho ranks among the top three mink producing states in the U.S., and the first mink farm in the world opened in Franklin, Idaho. Idaho is also unique in that the Idaho State Department of Agriculture has its own certification program for mink farms, Moyle said.
In Moyle’s opinion, mink farming is more than just a job; it’s deeply engrained in the culture of the farmers who practice it.
“When they want to come out and ban and wipe out an entire culture, that’s not what America is all about,” Moyle said, noting the American West was settled because of the fur trade.
His family got its start in the industry back in the 1930s, when Moyle’s great-grandmother gave her son, Rodney Moyle, money she had in a coffee can — intended to cover her eventual funeral expenses — so he could buy his first five mink for breeding. That endeavor lifted the family out of poverty, Moyle explained.
If the House bill passes, Moyle predicts mink farmers will lose everything, and he fears many will die by suicide.
Researchers have said that spread of COVID-19 among animals could speed up the number of mutations in the virus before it potentially jumps back to people.
Last year, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control issued new guidance to curb the spread of the coronavirus between minks and humans. The agency warned that when COVID-19 starts spreading on a mink farm, the large numbers of animal infections means “the virus can accumulate mutations more quickly in minks and spread back into the human population.”
Denmark reported last year that 12 people had been sickened by a variant of the coronavirus that had distinct genetic changes also seen in mink.
“What we want to do is ban the inhumane practice of farming mink for fur,” Mace said Friday during an interview with The Associated Press. “At the same time, it’s also a public health crisis, so it helps fix both of those situations.”
“Knowing that there are variants, and being someone who cares about the humane treatment of animals, this is sort of a win-win for folks,” she added. “And I believe that you’ll see Republicans and Democrats on both sides of the aisle work on this together.”
According to Fur Commission USA, a nonprofit representing U.S. mink farmers, there are approximately 275 mink farms in 23 states across the United States, producing about 3 million pelts per year. That amounts to an annual value of more than $300 million, according to the commission.
There have been several mink-related coronavirus cases in the U.S. In December, a mink caught outside an Oregon farm tested positive for low-levels of the coronavirus. State officials said they believed the animal had escaped from a small farm already under quarantine because of a coronavirus outbreak among mink and humans.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a mink on a Michigan farm “and a small number of people” were infected with a coronavirus “that contained mink-related mutations,” something officials said suggested that mink-to-human spread may have occurred.
While mink-to-human spread is possible, CDC officials said “there is no evidence that mink are playing a significant role in the spread of SARS-CoV-2 to people.”
The House bill would amend the Lacey Act of Amendments to include mink. Moyle argued the Lacey Act was intended solely to regulate wild animals, and his mink are domesticated.