Jo-Anne McArthur, the most recent guest on The Animal Turn, has taken striking photographs of mink on fur farms that are confronting and even repellent. The beauty of the mink stands out and transcends their squalid surroundings. And even though I’m imposing anthropocentric standards of aesthetics onto animals, mink really are beautiful. They’re in the same family as otters and stoats - they have the same long, lithe bodies, the same grace and speed, and they have facial proportions which people find endearing because of their ‘cute’ attributes.
There are two kinds of mink - American and European. The IUCN classifies the European mink as critically endangered but the American mink as of least concern. It’s the American mink I’m focusing on because they’re the ones found in fur farms - in fact the American mink has the unenviable record of being the animal most farmed for their fur. But let me tell you about mink in the wild before I get on to fur farming.
Mink are described as semi aquatic. They always live close to water and even when they’re moving around a landscape they tend to follow water lines. They have webbed feet which makes them excellent swimmers but they’re just as at home on land as in water and they can burrow and climb as well as swim. So, they’re really adaptable little animals and they’re also really self-reliant, being entirely solitary as adults except for mating. Because they’re solitary, mink in the wild rarely meet each other so they communicate mostly through scent, leaving chemical messages to mark their territory or find a mate. They also vocalize though and they purr when they’re content, in the same way as cats do.
Let me contrast this with the experience of mink on fur farms - on fur farms mink are kept in ‘battery cages’, usually with other mink and with no access to water to swim in. Remember they’re semi aquatic, solitary animals so being deprived of the opportunity to swim and being caged with others is detrimental to their wellbeing. When kept in such conditions mink can become aggressive, harming or even killing each other.
One of Jo-Anne’s photographs captures this poignantly. The image is called ‘Life and Death in Fur Farming’ and was awarded Highly Commended in Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 2022. It’s an image of mink crowded into a wire battery cage. The mink look sleek and grey and impossibly clean despite the squalor of their surroundings. A hand written sign above the cage indicates how many mink are in it. The original number, ten, has been crossed out and replaced by the number eight scrawled in a different colour pen - it still seems an impossible number. If you try you can count perhaps six mink, leaving you to assume that the other two are squeezed into a corner somewhere, because the cage is too small even for one mink. The image captures the casual, and brutal, attitude to the life, and death, of the mink caught up in fur farming.
In her interview, Jo-Anne said that animal photojournalism strives to show individual animals and the system they’re in, and I think this image does exactly that. Animal photojournalism often portrays individual animals, like mink, with care and sensitivity while also highlighting concerns regarding the systems they’re in, like fur farms. As a lay observer, I can see that in Jo-Anne’s photographs of mink in fur farms - she captures the character and essence of the mink while framing them within the harsh and brutal reality of fur farming, consciously exposing the dirt, disease, decay and death involved. There’s an incredible pathos to the images. They evoke deep pity for the mink and also incredible sadness that fur farming can go on. There’s also a horrible irony that the minks’ incredible fur, which is so valuable to them for its denseness and water proofness, is also valued by people - people take beautiful animals and subject them to the almost unimaginably ugly process of fur farming, to produce something which is considered beautiful, or fashionable.
It’s worth talking a little bit here about wider issues in relation to mink, fur farming, and anti-fur campaigning. Human-animal-environment relations are utterly entangled in fur farming, and even anti fur campaigning. This means that they have effects on animal, environmental and human health so we can think about them from a One Health perspective. Mink are adept at escaping from fur farms and they’re also released by anti-fur activists. In fact, in Denmark, which used to be the world’s largest producer of mink fur, it was thought that most free living mink were escapees from farms. And, because they’re so adaptable, mink who escape or are released can have significant impacts on the ecosystems they enter, to the point that they’re sometimes classified as an invasive species.
The pollution from fur farms also has a significant impact on the environment, contaminating waterways and affecting aquatic life: eutrophication and persistent organic pollutants have both been associated with fur farming in Nova Scotia in Canada. And lastly, as the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated, diseases can be passed between humans and mink. The transmission of COVID-19 from people to mink and mink to people resulted in the death of millions of mink (17 million in Denmark alone) as they were killed as part of the attempt to control COVID-19 (National Geographic, PNAS).
So, as with many other cases of human-animal relations, it’s worth thinking about the bigger picture when we think about fur farming. Mink fur, with its dense undercoat and long, waterproof outer coat, which makes mink so well adapted to their ecological niche, might be prized by people but there’s much more than just fashion at stake when we exploit mink for their fur. A mink fur coat might cost around 8000 pounds but the true cost of the coat includes the environmental and ethical cost as well.
Virginia Thomas is a fellow with the Animal Turn. She is also an environmental social scientist with a PhD in Sociology. Virginia is interested in people’s interactions with their environment and with other animals. Virginia’s work explores the social and ethical questions in human-animal relationships. She is currently a research fellow on the Wellcome Trust funded project ‘From Feed the Birds to Do Not Feed the Animals’ which examines the drivers and consequences of animal feeding. This leads on from her previous research which examined human-animal relations in the media (as part of zoonotic disease framing) and in rewilding projects (in relation to biopolitics and human-animal coexistence).
You can connect with Virginia via Twitter (@ArbitrioHumano).Learn more about our team here.