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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Scott Beckstead: Lawmakers need to eliminate mink farms

Scott Beckstead

Thanks to good watchdog newspaper journalism, we now know that our top government agencies have been failing miserably to protect human lives and animal well-being when it comes to transmission of the coronavirus.

In its May 22 article, “The Michigan Mink Mystery: How did an Interspecies Outbreak Unfold?,” the New York Times reported new and alarming information about coronavirus outbreaks on mink farms across the country.

Mink farms may prove to be the proverbial sleeping giant that will wake up to spread new and deadly coronavirus variants from animals to humans during this global pandemic that isn’t done with us yet.

I spent a lot of my childhood and youth on and around mink farms, and it’s extremely disconcerting that our federal authorities are not investigating or reporting outbreaks with a sense of urgency and spirit of transparency.

A unique coronavirus variant found in humans was likely transmitted from farmed mink, but no one is doing the research or gathering the data we need to protect public health and safety and to prevent more mass killing of animals.

Life on the ‘farm’My grandfather raised mink on his farm in Franklin, Idaho, and I grew up next door to the largest fur farm in the state

We also had horses and cattle that roamed free, and it was my job from a young age to fix the fences, irrigate the fields and stack bales of hay.

I was a 4-H kid, a Future Farmer of America, who raised rabbits and goats to show at the local fair.

It was also my job to set the timer for 7 minutes and wait for the gas chamber to work.

I quickly learned that raising farm animals for show was proud work; breeding mink for their pelts was not.

Mink are wild by nature and prefer solitude.

Water is their most critical habitat and nature compels them to dig burrows into the banks of rivers; mink can hold their breath underwater for an impressive 36 minutes.

Kept dry, in cold, dark cages and in massive numbers, and then gassed to death is the pinnacle of cruelty for such a creature.

Mink in captivity will fight and exhibit violent, unnatural behaviors, such as killing their young when startled by humans. It became my daily routine to collect mink wounded and bloody. It’s no surprise that mink in captivity will do anything to escape and are often successful.

Mink and coronavirus

Coronavirus infections have been detected in mink on U.S. farms – including Oregon, Wisconsin, Utah and Michigan – but no one knows how far the virus has spread to mink or to humans, pets or other wildlife.

Our Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Agriculture and state agriculture agencies have ignored or downplayed this real risk, with spotty investigations done only when invited.

CDC field teams investigated only eight of the country’s estimated 275 farms, the Times reports, which makes me wonder how many cases are not being detected.

Jim Keen, who studied infectious diseases in farm settings for the USDA for more than two decades, said mink farming is both an “urgent and a moral public health risk” that’s not to be ignored.

Public safety, not politics

Comprehending the interspecies trajectories of the coronavirus is like chasing a moving target, but eliminating mink farming would help solve a major piece of the puzzle.

Thankfully, Washington Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray are following the science and voted for the Senate to pass a ban on mink farming that recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives in the form of an amendment to H.R. 4521, the United States Innovation and Competition Act.

Unfortunately, there are lawmakers who voted the wrong way, choosing to side with the lobbying efforts of the American Farm Bureau Federation, rather than the health of their constituents.

We deserve not only to know where, how and why the coronavirus may spread, but that our lawmakers and public health agencies are being transparent and working to save lives. Please, senators, follow your colleagues from Oregon and follow the science, or you will wake the sleeping giant.

Scott Beckstead grew up working on his grandfather’s farm in Idaho and lives in Sutherlin, Oregon. He is campaigns director for Animal Wellness Action and an adjunct professor of law at Willamette University.