10,000 freed mink roaming the Ohio countryside now pose a threat to ecology and public health

Animal rights activists released thousands of mink from confinement into the wild. Unforeseen consequences ensued

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published December 2, 2022 1:46PM (EST)

A curious mink, it's head slightly lifted as it sniffs the air (Getty Images/JZHunt)
A curious mink, it's head slightly lifted as it sniffs the air (Getty Images/JZHunt)

The North American Animal Liberation Press Office says they do not know the identity of the vandals who illegally released 40,000 mink into a populated area, but they definitely see the act as a righteous one. As Joseph Buddenberg told Salon, the fur industry's end "can not come soon enough." Buddenberg, who has been convicted of illegally releasing mink from commercial farms, and who identifies as a press officer for the North American Animal Liberation Press Office and a former member of the Animal Liberation Front, said that "laws and the corporate state have failed these animals. The Animal Liberation Front will continue to break the law until the fur industry is eradicated."

"The Animal Liberation Front will continue to break the law until the fur industry is eradicated."

On Nov. 15, currently unknown culprits attacked a mink farm known as Lion Farms USA in Van Wert County, Ohio. In addition to sending the aforementioned waves of mink into the rural Midwestern region, the culprits left graffiti with the initials ALF (seemingly for "Animal Liberation Front") and "We'll be back." While most of the mink were corralled back into their pens soon thereafter, roughly 10,000 remained unaccounted for over the subsequent weeks, and authorities have had to warn residents not to approach the bite-prone animals. Ohioans have reported running over mink in traffic or shooting groups of them, and local farmer Kirsten Barnhart wrote an editorial announcing a class action lawsuit against the nearby fur farms. In addition to losing a number of her birds, Barnhart reports how her "very sweet rooster" Jack was maimed by one of the escaped animals (which she had to kill).

"I'm heartbroken for the trauma Jack has suffered," Barnhart writes of the shaken bird, whose face remained swollen after its near-death encounter. Barnhart also noted that the escaped mink more broadly had created "ecological damage" by attacking local animals like Jack the rooster. At the time of this writing, the crime remains unsolved; Sheriff Thomas Riggenbach told Salon the case is still being investigated.

Despite her animals being killed or hurt due to the mink running amok, Barnhart was unequivocal in denouncing mink farms and other fur farms, which have become a political flashpoint in recent years. Animals at these facilities are killed by bludgeoning, gassing and even anal electrocution. Prior to those painful and terrifying deaths, livestock like mink will be kept in cramped, dirty cages while living in close quarters to each other. For a species that naturally enjoys a solitary lifestyle and avoids socializing with its own species, this existence is likely psychologically as well as physically painful.

Living in confinement also means domesticated mink are riddled with disease, a problem that does not exist for their wild counterparts. In the words of Hannah Connor, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, "these naturally solitary animals are often maintained in extreme confinement and unhygienic cages, circumstances that facilitate the spread of disease among the animals and, as we saw with COVID-19, can facilitate the spread of disease back and forth between the confined mink and humans." This has long been a cause of concern from a public health standpoint, and quite obviously "if released into the wild, diseased farmed mink can pose a threat to public health and native wildlife."

"The clearest way to prevent those threats is to stop the industrial farming of these animals for their fur," Connor said.

While the practice of mink farming is itself unhygienic and cruel, releasing them into the wild is far from an ideal solution from a public health standpoint. If anything, it could precipitate a public health crisis, as the North American Animal Liberation Press Office acknowledged to Salon. Press Officer Jerry Vlasak initially claimed that the public health risk posed by releasing the mink was "essentially none," but later admitted that "there has always been some risk of infectious disease from animals kept in close and unnatural confinement."

"Mink are the only species known to have the ability to catch COVID-19 from humans and transmit it back to humans in a mutated variant form."

Vlasak also observed that factory farms (including, of course, mink farms) are vectors for infectious diseases, and pointed out to Salon that "COVID-19 is itself a zoonotic virus that jumped to humans due to animal abuse, captivity and killing in animal markets."

Yet even though the unnatural living condition in torturous mink farms are at least partially responsible for the animals carrying diseases upon being released, doesn't that very fact reinforce the criticism that releasing them in populated areas poses a public health risk?

"The North American Animal Liberation Press Office supports fully the liberation of captive mink, all who were destined to die at the hands of their captors within the next few weeks," Vlasak replied when asked about this. "We fully condemn the exploitation, imprisonment and murder of innocent beings so that rich, arrogant humans can make a fashion statement."

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Many people who formerly associated with the mink farming industry feel the same way about the last part of Vlasak's statement, although he is in the minority about the former part. Scott Beckstead is intimately familiar with mink farms and has been since his childhood, when his grandfather had a mink farm. Beckstead says he loves his grandfather, though he vehemently opposes mink farming as cruel. Today, Beckstead is the director of campaigns for Animal Wellness Action at the Center for a Humane Economy, and recalls to Salon how the male mink on his grandfather's farm "were killed with cyanide gas," while the females "were killed by having their necks broken with a tool that looked like an oversized bottle opener. I believe many and perhaps most farms these days use carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide."

In addition to opposing mink farms, however, Beckstead also opposes the release of the mink from the Ohio farm. He cited many reasons, among them the fact that mink are prone to spreading diseases like COVID-19.

"Mink are the only species known to have the ability to catch COVID-19 from humans and transmit it back to humans in a mutated variant form," Beckstead observed, citing incidents from Denmark and Michigan to Oregon and Utah. "As someone who grew up on and around mink farms, I can attest that mink are accomplished escape artists, and escapes are a routine occurrence on every mink farm I've ever known. The very real danger is that infected farmed mink will infect any human who comes in contact with them, or that they will infect wild mink that may infect a human, such as a trapper or field biologist."

"When nature is totally turned on its head by thousands of mink suddenly flooding an area, then it causes all kinds of chaos. The mink end up killing and eating each other, in addition to every unfortunate animal they can catch for miles around."

Dr. James Keen, an expert on zoonotic diseases who studied outbreaks as a senior scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, disagreed with the North American Animal Liberation Press Office's claim that the risk of a mink-caused disease outbreak was "essentially none."

"There are several worldwide reports of escaped farmed mink infecting wild carnivores, especially Mustelids (mink & skunk carnivore family)," Keen wrote to Salon, ticking off cases from Canada and France to the United States and Spain. "The risk is far from zero."

Connor echoed Vlasak's observation about mink farms cultivating disease outbreaks by having cramped, unhealthy environments. "The zoological risk of diseases being able to be spread from mink in fur farming operations to human populations has been known for some time, and roots in the exploitation and treatment of the animals on these facilities," Connor explained.

Connor does not endorse the release of the mink, adding that she does not "have any further knowledge beyond news reports about what happened at this 40,000+ mink facility." Both she and the Center for Biological Diversity, however, support "a just phase-out and closure of operations like this that dangerously confine thousands to sometimes hundreds of thousands of these solitary, curious animals for the mere purpose of producing high-end fashion or furniture."

A very different kind of mink expert also had strong opinions about the Ohio incident — YouTube star Joseph Carter the Mink Man, who has performed the exceptionally difficult task of training mink, an animal that is characteristically stubborn, smart and sassy. Carter uses his so-called minkenry to help eliminate urban river banks and canals of pests in an ecologically friendly way. Carter is as knowledgeable about mink as any equestrian might be exceptionally familiar with horses or any falconer can feel entirely comfortable with raptors.

Carter told Salon that he admires mink as "extremely efficient predators," but that this is part of the reason why releasing them in the wild is dangerous to local ecosystems.

"Thanks to their highly antisocial ways, in their natural state mink obviously don't harm the environment because they are almost never overpopulated, not even a little bit," Carter explained. "They also move around a lot, so they aren't prone to over hunting any given area, since they are very spread out, and constantly moving. But when nature is totally turned on its head by thousands of mink suddenly flooding an area, then it causes all kinds of chaos. The mink end up killing and eating each other, in addition to every unfortunate animal they can catch for miles around."

"What was done in Ohio is nothing short of domestic terrorism. The animal rights activists are sacrificing these poor mink to make a political point."

Keen was even more blunt, describing the newly-feral mink as an invasive species. Notably, the mink used for mink farming, the American mink (Neogale vison), is carnivorous and indigenous to most of North America. This means that, like domesticated pigs who breed with and commingle with wild boars, the former mink livestock that are released will both interact with and steal food from wild mink — all at the expense of the other wildlife in that area.

"Feral American mink pose a particular risk to island biodiversity, especially to ground-nesting birds and small mammals which in certain circumstances they may have the potential to extirpate," Keen explained. "In Canada, wild mink numbers have declined over the past several decades based on trapping records. It is believed that escaped feral American mink are a primary cause of this wild mink decline." Although the exact impact of feral "domesticated" mink on wildlife remains understudied, Keen noted four trends in how those mink impact their ecosystem: They physically dominate smaller animals like wild mink, hybridize with wild mink and thereby reduce their genetic fitness for their environment, spread mink-specific diseases and can spread zoonotic SARS-CoV-2.

In addition to being bad for wild animals like other mink, releasing the mink is also bad for the mink themselves.

"Mass mink releases are one of the most horrifically cruel things a person can do to the mink," Carter told Salon. "What was done in Ohio is nothing short of domestic terrorism. The animal rights activists are sacrificing these poor mink to make a political point."

In addition to being aggressive toward other animals, mink are prone to fighting with each other. "According to [conservationist] Paul Errington, more wild mink die from fighting with other mink, than every other natural predator combined. So you can imagine the mass carnage that results from thousands of anti-social animals being released in the same area. Everyone loses when these releases happen."

Beckstead likewise predicted that "most of the released mink will likely die terrible deaths due to their inability to survive," although "some may adapt to the wild environment and have an impact." Keen told Salon that "the escaped [Ohio] mink will be starving and will kill or eat whatever they can to survive, including each other and pets or wildlife they may encounter." That includes beloved animal companions like Barnhart's rooster. 

While there are valid questions about the ecological crisis — and possibly public health crisis, too — precipitated by the mink release, all the scientists interviews agreed that mink farming is cruel and should probably end. If mink farming did not exist, there would not be so much cruelty involving millions of mink being condemned to agonizing lives and painful deaths. In addition to helping the mink, the risk of mink-caused pandemics and mink-caused ecological problems would significantly decline.

"To that end, revealingly, so many countries outside of the United States have taken reasonable action to prevent the spread of disease and cruelty from these operations by phasing out existing operations and banning the breeding of animals for fur farming purposes," Connor told Salon. "Just this September, for example, the Parliament of Latvia, known as Saeima, supported a complete ban on the breeding of fur animals in Latvia." That ban will go into effect in 2028. 

The United States could ban mink farming soon, too. The US House has already passed a ban on mink farming, although it is unlikely to get out of conference in 2022. Even so, Beckstead took pride in the fact that the House was on record opposing mink farming.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Animal Liberation Front Covid-19 Furthering Infectious Disease Mink Mink Farm Mink Farming Pandemic