U.S. mink farmers are counting on Senate negotiators to protect their businesses from extinction as lawmakers draft the final version of legislation aimed at boosting innovation and competitiveness with China.

The hundred US mink farms, faced with declining sales in the United States as retailers hesitate to sell furs on ethical grounds, have turned to China as a market for their pelts. The House version of China’s legislation (HR 4521) would ban mink farming in the United States, a goal activists have long sought and which has gained momentum amid fears captive mink are spreading the Covid-19.

“The evidence is clear: mink farms can incubate and spread new variants of COVID-19 and pose a unique threat of spreading the pandemic,” the representative said. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), sponsor of the mink ban amendment in the House bill, said in a statement. “At the same time, with virtually no domestic market, the US mink industry has been in steady decline for years.”

Catherine Ertmann/Bloomberg

Mink share a cage in Gjol, Denmark on November 6, 2020, a week after authorities said a variant of the coronavirus justified the culling of the country’s 17 million animals.

senators, led by Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), oppose the ban, saying it would target American jobs and businesses.

“This is really one of the most inappropriate additions the House has made to this bill,” Johnson told the Senate. “In Wisconsin, it supports hundreds of jobs and produces exports to China.”

US mink exports to Asian countries are valued at around $45 million a year, according to trade group Fur Commission USA.

A nonbinding motion asking participants to oppose the provision won 59 votes from members of both parties last month, with just 33 senators voting against and in favor of keeping the ban in the bill.

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“Stressed” in captivity

Campaigners against mink farming say it is unethical to keep territorial and anti-social animals in captivity, only to later kill them for their fur.

“Americans have stopped buying fur because keeping these semi-aquatic animals in cages and breaking their necks to kill them for fur is inhumane,” Cory Booker (DN.J.), a leading Senate opponent of mink farming, said, urging his colleagues to support the ban.

“Minks are so stressed out having these other minks around that they regularly run wild and attack each other,” Wayne Pacelle, founder of advocacy group Animal Wellness Action, said in a phone interview.

“We won this market fight,” Pacelle said. “Nearly every major fashion designer and most apparel retailers – everyone from Coach and Armani and Neiman Marcus in the high end to Macy’s and Nordstrom in the mid to upper mid range – have all stopped selling .”

Macy’s Inc. decided to phase out natural fur after customers drifted away from the trend, a company spokesperson said.

That leaves the bulk of U.S. mink pelts exported to China and other countries like Russia, which is currently under war-related sanctions in Ukraine.

“Perfect storm for Covid”

Scientists’ findings that Covid-19 is spreading among mink have prompted authorities elsewhere to cull the animals. The Danish government killed millions of mink in November 2020, including healthy animals, as a public health measure.

The proximity of mink farms means Covid can spread quickly among animals already susceptible to the coronavirus, said Jim Keen, a researcher at the Center for a Humane Economy.

“That makes it kind of the perfect storm for Covid,” Keen said.

The fur industry counters that vaccinating mink helps prevent them from becoming a public health problem. Challis Hobbs, executive director of the Fur Commission USA, said he was encouraged by Johnson’s motion to instruct the Senate.

“How it happened was a lot of grassroots outreach — farmers reaching out to their congressmen,” Hobbs said. He said he did not expect the ban on mink farming to make its way into China’s final competition bill.

Booker acknowledged the uphill battle he and other enemies of mink farming face. “We tried,” he said this week. The struggle to include the ban in the Chinese bill is “obviously frustrating for me”.

house tenant Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she hopes both houses can pass the final version of the legislation next month.

With the help of Mia McCarthy

To contact the reporter on this story: Maeva Sheehey in washington at [email protected]

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Anna Yukhananov at [email protected]; Robin Meszoly at [email protected]