As suddenly as a November deluge, a dark cloud has descended over Terry and Angela Williams’ mink farm near Aldergrove in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland. It came not from the forces of nature but from the B.C. government, which announced in early November that it was shutting down the province’s entire mink-farming industry. Its stated reason: Covid-19 had been found in mink on three B.C. farms over the summer, and 12 people who worked on mink farms had tested positive. The province declared that this small niche within B.C.’s agricultural sector could serve as a reservoir for disease – and possibly even breed dangerous new viral variants. The risk to public health was just too great, it claimed, citing its own health officials.
The shutdown means financial ruin for the Williams family. Their operation is one of nine mink farms in B.C., all located in the fertile Fraser Valley. Over its 36 years of operation, it had grown to be one of Canada’s biggest mink farms, harvesting some 90,000 pelts per year and providing jobs for 35 people, some of whom have been there more than 20 years. Although B.C.’s mink farmers have until early 2023 to get rid of their animals, the immediate ban on breeding mink means they are effectively out of business.
With millions of dollars in outstanding loans – including one from Farm Credit Canada, a Crown corporation, provided to help them expand in 2008 – the Williams will have no income to service their debt. “We will be bankrupt,” says Angela Williams in an interview. “There will be nothing left after [our debts] are paid off.”
Mink farmers are upset that the destruction of their businesses and livelihood – a form of expropriation without appeal or recourse – came with no promise of compensation. Far worse, they are convinced the measure was more than just an over-reaction, it was entirely unnecessary. No serious consideration appears to have been given to safety measures that could have virtually eliminated the risk. This includes a vaccine for mink already in use in the U.S. and now being tested in Nova Scotia. More galling still is that the research relied upon by the B.C. government to justify the ban is contested not only by the farmers and their industry association, but independent scientists.
Mink farmers see the ban as the B.C. government advancing an animal rights agenda under cover of a public health emergency. They worry that this impulse could spread. “It’s very apparent their motives are political rather than medical,” charges Matt Moses, who owns a mink farm in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley and is a member of the Canada Mink Breeders Association’s (CMBA) board of directors. “There are a number of well-organized and well-funded anti-fur groups that have put pressure on the B.C. government for years…I think they are using Covid as a guise.” The fact that Nova Scotia’s government has taken the opposite approach to B.C., concluding that mink farming can be continued safely, suggests Moses’ suspicion has a foundation.
The industry might well have seen this coming. Lana Popham, B.C.’s Minister of Agriculture, owns an organic grape orchard on Vancouver Island and has long been an outspoken animal welfare advocate. As the NDP’s agriculture critic in 2016, Popham introduced a private member’s bill – the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Mink Farms) Amendment Act – which would have mandated a national code of practice for farmed mink.
Farmers say the law would have simply formalized what many already do, but they still saw it as a signal of the minister’s hostility, not just to mink farming but to the livestock industry in general. “We know her opinions on our industry,” says Kurt Bernemann in an interview. Bernemann owns Dogwood Fur Farms near Aldergrove, which also breeds mink and now faces the same fate as the Williams. “She’s not standing up for any livestock industry.”
Whatever its true origins might be, the NDP government’s campaign was formally unleashed in July when the province announced a moratorium on new mink farms and on increasing the overall number of animals at existing operations, after three B.C. farms had positive tests for SARS-CoV-2. Industry suspicions heightened in September when an unapproved news release found its way to the email inboxes of hundreds of journalists, stating that the government was phasing out fur farms over the next five months. The Ministry of Agriculture quickly declared the release to be false, saying the province “continues to use enhanced surveillance to monitor, inspect and mitigate SARS-CoV-2 infections in mink farms in the province,” but did state that its review of the sector was continuing.
The end came in early November, when Popham and Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry announced the ban, claiming the industry was a hazard to public health. There was too great a risk that the virus could be transmitted back and forth between humans and mink, they said, and then spread into the broader public. There was also a high risk, Henry asserted without providing evidence, of the virus mutating in mink and creating new variants, and of farmed mink escaping and infecting wild mink. (So far, the ban does not apply to B.C.’s only other type of fur farming, a sole chinchilla farm. In addition, trapping of over a dozen fur-bearing species remains legal in B.C. and, according to government figures, the province has some 3,500 licensed trappers, about half of them Indigenous.)
Henry also pointed to Denmark, the world’s largest producer of mink, which late last year forced farmers to destroy the country’s entire herd of 17 million mink over concerns that infected animals would pass a mutated version of the virus back to humans. What she failed to mention, however, is that Denmark subsequently came to rue this decision, concluding that the slaughter was unnecessary and illegal.
Popham declined a C2C Journal request for an interview. Asked about the justification for the ban, her ministry provided a statement saying the decision was “following the recommendations laid out in the B.C. Centre for Disease Control’s (BC CDC) human health risk assessment and from our discussions with public health officials.”
When C2C Journal asked the B.C. CDC to see the related research, the organization responded with a statement saying, in part, “There is concern that if the virus infects farmed mink, a new variant could emerge and spread more easily, causing more severe illness.” The statement went on to say that a study was conducted in June 2021 at the request of the B.C. Agriculture and Health ministries to assess the risk of a SARS-CoV-2 variant emerging from infected mink. The study deemed the risk “to be minor to moderate at the local and regional level,” according to the B.C. CDC statement. “However, there was a high degree of uncertainty around the final risk estimates given the complexity of factors assessed.” It further stated, “There is new evidence of cases of mink to human transmission based on whole genome sequencing results.” But it did not indicate the source of this information or provide the evidence, if it exists.
Boiling these lengthy circumlocutions down to their essentials, it appears that provincial bureaucrats and ministerial staff concluded that it was legitimate to condemn a small and politically vulnerable niche industry to eradication without recourse or appeal, despite lacking decisive scientific evidence that this was necessary to protect the public interest.
The science around this issue is not at all clear, say veterinarians and other experts, and does not support B.C.’s decision. Levon Abrahamyan, a virologist in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Montreal, says that to date there has not been one reliable report worldwide of mink transmitting Covid-19 to humans. “The research has not been done,” Abrahamyan says in an interview. This study by a team of scientists published in an apparently reputable European scientific journal mentions numerous examples of mink-to-human Covid-19 transmission. But attention to the paper’s language reveals that many such examples are “suspected,” i.e., speculative. The paper does suggest, however, that mink in the Netherlands and Denmark were initially infected by humans, not the other way around. Concludes Abrahamyan: “Basically, the main [Covid-19] danger is for animals, not for us.”
John Easley, Director of Research for the U.S. Fur Commission and a veterinarian, agrees the risks to humans are overblown. “No variants of concern have ever been developed due to the viral replication in mink according to the WHO,” Easley says in an interview. Infected mink do appear to mutate the virus rapidly, this recent peer-reviewed research article that mathematically analyzed mink-derived Covid-19 viruses indicates. So they can generate new strains and variants.
But these mutations, the same article indicates, make the virus less virulent and infectious, not more, and subsequent mutations in mink don’t seem to infect humans at all. Nor are these strains any more resistant to current Covid-19 vaccines. Accordingly, these mutations should not be described as variants of concern. In fact, the same article argues against culling any mink at all – even infected ones. Its reason: as the mink mutations become still-less virulent, they might turn out to be suitable for use as living Covid-19 vaccines for humans.
Experts also question why mink are being singled out when studies show that ferrets, hamsters, rabbits, white-tailed deer and hundreds of other animals can also contract the virus. Domestic cats are highly susceptible to Covid-19. Easley wonders why aggressive action would be taken against mink farming and not domestic cats. Abrahamyan says there is still much to learn about the way SARS-CoV-2 is spread among animals. “How did deer become infected?” he asks. “Should we be worried? Could they infect humans? I hope no one is suggesting we kill all white-tail deer.”
As for Denmark, Henry might have checked twice before citing it – except perhaps as an example of panicked and destructive government overreach. Critics say the wholesale destruction of Denmark’s mink industry was driven by shoddy and now discredited research. “Everything about that decision was not well thought out,” Abrahamyan charges. In particular, he says, “Farmed mink were culled based on a premature and scientifically not supported claim that the mink variant of the virus is dangerous.” This article in Nature magazine describes the furious back-and-forth among scientists around the time of the cull, including the largely speculative nature of the more dire predictions.
Following the mass cull, Denmark’s food and agriculture minister, Mogens Jensen, resigned and apologized to mink farmers. Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen also apologized for the “regrettable mistake” of what her government admitted was an illegal decree. In a bizarre twist, thousands of “zombie” mink carcasses emerged from their graves, pushed up from the shallow burial pits by gas emitted from their decomposing bodies. Public outrage led the government to exhume and incinerate the bodies. The issue didn’t die there, however, prompting a national inquiry and, most recently, a political scandal centred on Frederiksen’s deletion of text messages concerning the decision to order the cull.
Denmark’s hasty overreaction is reminiscent of the UK’s decision in 2001 to order the devastating mass slaughter of 11 million sheep and cattle following an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease. The decision was based in part on modelling by scientist Neil Ferguson that vastly exaggerated the risk of the disease becoming uncontrollable unless the herds were entirely destroyed. Ferguson went on to make similarly inflated projections concerning future human fatalities from mad cow disease. Early in the current pandemic, Ferguson gained worldwide fame – then notoriety – for producing wildly inaccurate projections of Covid-19 infection and fatality rates, exacerbating panic and prompting lockdowns in multiple countries.
B.C.’s decision seems to be anything but hasty, however; more like unapologetic exploitation of a handy political opportunity. Popham and Henry have insisted that pressure from the animal rights movement did not play into their decision, but mink farmers in B.C. simply don’t believe them. The B.C. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (B.C. SPCA) has been a particularly strong critic of fur farming, notes Bernemann. “The SPCA has had the minister’s ear, and they got what they wanted,” he says ruefully. “They’re quite happy.”
Indeed, after the announcement, the B.C. SPCA proclaimed on its website: “Success! Mink farms to be phased out in B.C.” The post went on to say, “The BC SPCA has been actively campaigning for the past 17 months for an end to the practice of farmed mink.” A headline on People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ international website was even more enthusiastic: “PETA Uncorks the Bubbly as B.C. Bans Mink Farms!”
Sara Dubois, the B.C. SPCA’s chief scientific officer, certainly sees the move as advancing its agenda. “It’s a victory for animal welfare, absolutely. We felt the animal welfare issues themselves were enough to end this industry,” Dubois said. “I think the pandemic broke down the political barriers.”
B.C.’s move to phase out mink farming stands in sharp contrast to the approach taken by Nova Scotia. Its government is working closely with mink farmers, including launching a trial mink vaccination program under which 54,000 doses of a U.S.-developed vaccine are being administered at a number of farms. This follows on a successful U.S. program to preserve its mink-farming sector by adopting enhanced biosecurity and vaccinating farm workers and animals alike. Since those measures were taken, says veterinarian Easley, “There have been no new diagnosed farm infections in the U.S.A.” Could something similar not have been tried in B.C.?
Mink farmer Bernemann notes that he had secured doses of the same experimental vaccine for his Aldergrove farm, expecting the government would approve use. But before he could administer any, the government announced the ban. What worries the CMBA’s Moses most about B.C.’s decision is the discounting of evidence that fur growers presented, showing that with additional biosecurity and vaccination the Covid-19 risk could be reduced nearly to zero. “That’s a great concern, not only to B.C. producers, but the rest of the country, as well,” he said. Farmers in other jurisdictions have told him they are worried about a province-by-province “domino effect” begun by B.C. For now, the two next-largest mink farming provinces – Ontario and Newfoundland & Labrador – seem to be in a wait-and-see mode.
Bernemann says he fears B.C.’s success in banning mink could embolden animal rights organizations to push governments to attack other areas of livestock farming. Hog farming could be a target, he says, perhaps even egg farming. “It’s a major victory [for the activists],” Bernemann says. “Now then, they could move on to something else.”
Like the Williams, Bernemann stands to lose a longtime family business. His father founded Dogwood Fur Farms in 1957 and it has 25 employees. Bernemann says the barns, pens and specialized equipment accumulated over the years cannot be converted to other uses. Although the government is encouraging transition to new industries, he has no interest in starting over: “I’m 64 years old. Am I supposed to start a blueberry business now?” Several other Fraser Valley fur farmers also borrowed heavily to fund expansion only to see their income source taken away. “You’ve left us with a huge financial burden here,” says Bernemann. “Are we nobody? Are you really that heartless?”
The Williams are similarly bitter over the province’s decision to destroy their industry without compensation, something Angela Williams terms “mind-boggling” and “criminal.” She and her husband had intended to pass the farm on to their three sons. “This is their livelihood,” she laments. “We are under so much stress; we’ll be lucky if no one has a heart attack.” By contrast, within three months of its illegal cull Denmark offered its approximately 1,200 mink farmers nearly $4 billion in compensation.
Angela Williams is somewhat fatalistic about the wider situation. She and the other mink farmers are well-aware of their industry’s unpopularity. A poll conducted last year by the public opinion firm Research Co. found that 79 per cent of B.C. residents are opposed to killing animals for their fur. In April, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs also called for a moratorium on mink farming. To date not a single B.C. MLA has spoken up for the beleaguered mink farmers, even though the duty of opposition parties is to oppose government policies – especially those that hurt people. “You know what? I get it,” Williams says. “Society has the right to ban something they don’t want. But there’s a cost to that.” Among those costs in this instance, it seems, are justice, fairness and plain common sense.
Doug Firby is an award-winning veteran journalist and newspaper manager based in Calgary, Alberta, who has worked in print and electronic media for more than 40 years.