There’s a right way and a wrong way to oppose cruelty to animals

Here are the indisputable facts.

Mink are voracious carnivores. They eat small mammals, birds, fish, and frogs.

Mink are also playful, social animals with complex behaviors. They are wild animals, though, and don’t generally make good pets.

Mink farming is a deplorable practice in which animals are raised and butchered for their skins. The bodies are often ground up to make pet food.

These are all true statements, but they do set up a complicated ethical problem. What do you do with a mink farm in your neighborhood? I can tell you what you should not do, under any circumstances: you do not sneak onto the farm and release them all from their cages while singing “Born Free” and cheering them on as they scamper off to nearby farms, towns, wildlife refuges, and wilderness.

But somebody did that in Eden Valley, Minnesota. They freed 30,000 mink from a farm. You know what’s going to happen now, right?

Desperately hungry carnivores are going to radiate out, killing every small animal they can find. Rabbits and mice and birds are going to get hit hard; you might want to lock up your cats for a while, too. They won’t be particularly efficient at it, I suspect, since they’ve been raised in cages, so there will be some survivors. The mink are going to be competing intensely with each other for increasingly scarce food. They’re going to fight with each other, and most of them are going to starve to death.

It sounds like another PETA-inspired bit of ignorant fanaticism that does far more harm than good.


  1. prostheticconscience says

    Jeez, what the hell can you safely do with 30,000 minks? Drive down a highway through appropriate habitat, releasing one every five miles?

  2. microraptor says

    Considering that they’re 30,000 minks that were probably born in captivity and have no hunting skills? No.

    Didn’t a stunt like this happen in the 90s that resulted in a lot of minks getting killed on roads?

  3. Siobhan says


    Jeez, what the hell can you safely do with 30,000 minks?

    Farm them, presumably.


  4. says

    Yes, the whole question of ethical treatment of animals is very complex, and fraught with contradiction. As PZ is fond of pointing out, people keep cats as pets because they’re cute and fluffy and seem to be affectionate. But they are voracious predators who in fact kill for sport as well as food and torture their prey. If they happen to out and about in the vicinity of a coyote, in turn, they may well become lunch. Is there an obligation to prevent the coyote from eating the cat? If not, why can’t humans eat cats? It gets even more complicated the deeper you get into it.

    You could argue that people should not keep wild animals in unnatural conditions of confinement, therefore no mink farms. But the solution is not to release them as in this case for all the reasons PZ states. You would need to stop breeding them and either euthanize the animals you have, or let them die out.

  5. davidc1 says

    Same thing happens in GB ,the Mink have been held responsible for the decline of the water vole ,Ratty in “The Wind In The Willows ”
    I did hear somewhere that Mink don’t like dogs, so people walking their dogs on a lead can make Mink abandon a location..
    @5 Cats don’t kill for sport ,they can’t turn their natural behaviour off .
    Eating Cats ,what a disgusting thought .

  6. kestrel says

    Great. So they just “ethically” condemned a whole crap-load of animals to a horrible death. Yay?

    I agree with #3, microraptor: most of the mink are unlikely to survive, and yes, will end up dying in droves on the roads, long lingering deaths due to thirst and blood loss, if they are not “lucky” enough to be crushed and killed outright. But PZ is also right: an awful lot of small animals are going to die as prey.

  7. Chakat Firepaw says

    @prostheticconscience #2

    Jeez, what the hell can you safely do with 30,000 minks?

    You deal with them the same way you would eliminate any large population of farmed animals: Reduce or eliminate breeding and thereby allow the population to rapidly shrink over a generation or two.

  8. consciousness razor says

    Is there an obligation to prevent the coyote from eating the cat? If not, why can’t humans eat cats? It gets even more complicated the deeper you get into it.

    I don’t understand. What specifically would somebody be doing, if they were to “prevent the coyote from eating the cat”? They would be obliged (possibly) to do what?

    Does any animal rights person anywhere think there’s an obligation for us to do something about the coyote’s behavior (or the cat’s)? Does anybody say, for example, that we should hand out cheap pamphlets to the coyotes, which explain why they don’t need to eat meat, so as to convince them rationally that they ought to change their ways? Are there books or advertisements or political campaigns or any sorts of things addressed to coyotes as moral beings who can/should take responsibility for their own behavior, in order to somehow resolve this thing that somebody out there is supposed to believe is a genuine moral problem? In fact, coyotes do need to eat meat, as they are primarily carnivores (plus they can’t read, etc.), so several things would be wrong about that kind of approach, if anyone were going to take anything like that seriously enough to actually attempt it. That is not actually what anybody is doing, as far as I’m aware. And if anybody is, I assume we can both agree that they’re being fucking idiotic and have basically nothing to do with whatever everybody else is doing.

    Why shouldn’t humans eat cats? That to me sounds like a totally different question, logically unrelated to the first, about a different bunch of animals and what they should or should not do. I think that you can get explanations of that, if you’re not already able to do it yourself, from many people like me who would not have a clue what the fuck you’re talking about, when you propose that maybe we have some kind of an obligation to prevent non-human animals from eating other non-human animals. That both of them in your example are carnivores and are incapable of responding to moral reasoning/persuasion seems to have escaped you somehow. But those kinds of things certainly are relevant.

    What you do or don’t eat is also under your own control. And it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure out what is/isn’t being recommended — what sorts of actions you could take and what things you could do something about — when people simply tell you that you should do something other than eating cats, in extremely typical circumstances that nearly every person will find themselves in throughout their lives. Not hard at all to say “okay, sounds good, I’ll do something else” and have a reasonably clear idea of what that something else is.

  9. unclefrogy says

    well my guess would be that we don’t eat cats because they do not taste particularly good
    as for letting the animals go free that is an example of someone’s emotional reaction to animal farming without any understanding of the reality of the situation and I would go further that they anthropomorphize the mink and identify with them and what they are attempting to do is strike back at those who are operating the farm. What with insurance might even fail at that resulting only in the death of most of the mink and much local wildlife except possibly the flies and others who might benefit from it.
    uncle frogy

  10. says

    I’ve been trying to think of a “right way” to oppose the mink farm, and I think I’ve got it. The minks are hungry and the farmers are made of meat, right?

  11. Becca Stareyes says

    About the best solution I can think of for mink farming is ‘stop breeding mink’ (also ‘stop buying mink fur’ = no demand means people raise something else). There’s not much you can do with 30,000 adorable small carnivores that aren’t socialized or bred to be good pets.

    Re: eating cats
    I don’t mind if other people do this, but I have an icky feeling about eating animals socialized as pets. And that extends to species I don’t mind eating when they aren’t socialized as pets. So eating a chicken that was effectively someone’s pet is more icky than a chicken whose interactions with humans were more ‘strange beasts that hang around and sometimes bring extra food’.

    (And I’m so used to thinking of cats, dogs and horses as inherently socialized to value human companionship, that I probably would feel icky eating cat/dog/horse even knowing the animal was raised to be eaten. This is not an ethical position, it is a cultural one.)

  12. doubtthat says

    Last week I had two PETA-related stories appear in my Facebook feed (so, allow for potential fake news):

    1) Some assholes buried a puppy alive along a hiking trail. Some folks tried to save the poor animal, but it died. PETA is engaging in an all out effort to find and punish the human filth who did that. Good.

    2) A nature photographer gave his camera to a monkey who took a famous selfie. PETA is suing claiming that the monkey, not the photographer should own the copyright to the photo:

    …probably don’t need to add a lot of commentary. PETA, please more of #1 than #2.

  13. Rich Woods says

    @microraptor #3:

    Didn’t a stunt like this happen in the 90s that resulted in a lot of minks getting killed on roads?

    There were a several mass releases in the 1990s in the UK, before fur farming was banned. The animals just didn’t know how to survive. Genetic testing since then has suggested that less than 1% survived to breed, either with each other or with the pre-existing (also invasive) mink population.

    One interesting point is that amongst the sub-species (if it counts as that) which had been domesticated for farming for a century, the individuals which did breed most successfully were the ones which didn’t have dominant genes for fur colouration; their descendants very rapidly reverted to a colouration which matched the general population, rather than what the fur farmers had bred for. Natural selection in action, observable inside a decade.

  14. consciousness razor says

    well my guess would be that we don’t eat cats because they do not taste particularly good

    “Don’t” and “shouldn’t” (and “can’t” and countless other words) have different meanings.

    First of all, have you ever eaten a cat and obtained some perhaps limited knowledge about how they taste? I haven’t. It’s an empirical question, not one you could answer just by thinking hard in a dark room. Speculating about the taste of cats, whatever it might be good for, is not a reliable way to get such information. So, personally, all I’ve got is some ignorance about their flavor (and I’m perfectly content to leave it that way). That fact about me may have something to do with why some of my behaviors are the way they are, if you really want to squeeze out something from it. But it isn’t literally that my knowledge of how they taste (something which doesn’t exist) explains what’s actually going on (that is, why I don’t do that). Never mind the apparently paradoxical situation of having to do it in the first place, in order to be a potentially adequate explanation of why you don’t do it…. The point here is just that nonexistent things, of whatever variety, don’t do shit and don’t explain shit. I feel pretty safe in assuming there isn’t any such thing as what cats taste like to you, just like there isn’t for me. So if that’s true, what would it even mean to say that’s why you don’t eat them?

    One of the reasons you don’t eat other people could be that they do not taste particularly good — not to you, but again it’s very doubtful that this is an honest explanation of anything. You might have other reasons why you don’t do that. Maybe somebody just told you not to do it once, and you agreed with them. In that case, we could tell a coherent story of how it is physically that some set of events caused some others and those caused others, etc., with the end result being that you “don’t” do it and that this is (at least so far) a consistent feature of your behavior. In fact you don’t, and in this way somebody somewhere could say why, if they think it’s worth the trouble. But often, that’s not actually the type of thing people are interested in having explained to them.

    There aren’t any (correct, plausible) reasons for why you can’t eat other people. It’s a thing that you could do. People might try to prevent it from happening, might send you to prison for cannibalism after the fact, maybe it would make you sick or you wouldn’t like the experience you had, etc. But it can and does happen, and there’s no compelling reason to think you couldn’t be a person who does it. That also doesn’t matter a whole fucking lot most of the time.

    But do you get that there’s a different sort of question (different from either of the previous questions) about what you should do? That doesn’t depend on however cats (or anything else) may or may not taste to you, for example.

  15. timberwoof says

    A friend of mine does volunteer work at a tiger sanctuary that PETA has not discovered yet. The intent of the shelter is to ethically treat used tigers that circuses don’t want any more. PETA thinks that such captivity is inherently unethical and wants all such animals released into the wild. PETA know they can’t just release tigers into the wild because the tigers would eat people’s cats and children, so instead they call up the local county agencies in charge of animal control to harass the shelters by proxy. Grrrr.

  16. phrogge says

    Simply breed those littul kittons for telepathy and they can take care of PETA by themselves!

  17. says

    There are have been several incidents of mink farms being broken into over past several years in southern Ontario and the farmers have said the minks will be able to survive in the wild.

  18. bramhengeveld says

    This probably was pretty darn stupid.

    But the argument that killing animals for fur or for meat is somehow very different ethically wise always sounded a bit odd to me. I don’t know if PZ is vegan, but this is a very often heard sentiment.

    We don’t need both of them; it does your body neither good nor harm. If you can do fine without, why kill, if somewhere in there it must be deplorable to kill an animal for certain reasons?

  19. DanDare says

    I unknowingly ate cat in 1968. My memory of it is that it tasted much like rabbit.
    I’m inclined to think that we tend not to eat cats because we live with them as companions. We recognise personality in them in a way you don’t with rabbits and cows. It’s a cultural heuristic spread most actively now through the internet.

  20. handsomemrtoad says

    There is a FANTASTIC so-bad-it’s-good movie whose plot is virtually identical to this story. It’s GNAW: FOOD OF THE GODS PART 2 (1989). Some students liberate some experimental animals from a lab, and THIS happens:

  21. Feline says

    Mink release actions aren’t uncommon among animal rights people who are utterly uneducated and damnably stupid, but 30,000? That’s a lot of predators introduced into the ecosystem. And yes, a large number of them die as road kill, especially if the farm is close to well-trafficked roads, or by starvation. But you don’t need a large percentage to survive for them to have a large impact, since mustelids are generally aggressive and impactful predators.

  22. hemidactylus says

    Are these North American mink? If so are they so bred that they are significantly different enough from native mink that they pose a genetic risk? Worst case they are an invasive problem. Best case they are slightly different from native mink that can be absorbed and represent a major population uptick causing resource issues for conspecifics and a problem for potential stressed prey species.

    I am usually more a conservation minded person more than animal rights with little sympathy for invasives even if an anthropogenic issue. That’s why I am supportive of hog hunting though not a hunter myself. But again could these minks be considered invasive?

    The best thing would be to end mink farming and have benevolent people take care of the captive mink until their natural death. If they don’t differ from natural populations then gradual managed release would be possible.

    The authorities assert the mink have no survival skills:

    But mink live in the wilds of MN:

    So maybe not end of world. European rats, mice, nutria, hogs, Aussie pine, Brazilian pepper, and numerous other invasives have already wreaked havoc. These mink may kill some other species if skilled or succumb to starvation if not.

    How bad is the feral hog problem in MN versus some prison escaped mink?

  23. hemidactylus says

    If we could ship feral pythons from south Florida swamps to Minnesota to deal with the escaped mink during the remaining warm season, the pythons would succumb to winter and die after culling the mink. What could go wrong? Win-win.

  24. microraptor says

    DanDare @26:

    Cat meat was actually given the nickname “roof rabbit” by the British when starving Brits were forced to eat it during World War 2.

  25. Florian Blaschke says

    In German, cats have been known as “Dachhase” for a much longer time for the very same reason. Also for the optical resemblance when prepared ready for roasting.

    As for what food groups humans really can’t do without, that’s a … hotly debated question, to say the least. There’s certainly some individual variation involved. Some people feel fine on an animal-products-free diet for long stretches of time, others eventually switch back to at least some animal products eventually, for various reasons. (There are some for whom avoiding animal products is an absolute necessity, specifically those with PKU, but this condition is very rare.) The claim that society’s bias against veganism, lack of commitment or certain individual mistakes are to blame in every single “ex-vegan” case – and never genuine, inevitable issues with health – is not a demonstrated fact, to put it mildly. Even some vegans acknowledge that an animal-products-free diet is not for everyone (especially some with pre-existing health concerns) and that if you don’t thrive on such a diet it’s very much possible that it’s not just your own fault for “doing it wrong”.

    More decisive even, however, is the fact that even if global agriculture completely without keeping domesticated animals (let alone harming wild ones) at all were possible in principle (which is hardly certain) it’s definitely not possible to feed all of humanity this way (which regularly leads to extremely icky genocidal fantasies among vegans that amount to eliminating billions of POC, because it just so happens that most people on the planet are POC, not to mention that most vegans are white and believe they should be allowed to survive).

    The desire to improve the lot of animals is respectable, but eliminating all stockbreeding is not the solution, and misanthropy leads down a very perilous path. Barring drastic advances such as affordable in-vitro meat and futuristic agri-tech, we’re stuck with livestock so far. Agriculture is *complicated* and solutions proposed by vegans tend to be simplistic and uninformed.

  26. rietpluim says

    Also consider the possibility that the people who released the minks, knew exactly what they were doing and consider the deaths of both minks and their prey as collateral damage worth the cause.

  27. rietpluim says

    Florian Blaschke

    it’s definitely not possible to feed all of humanity this way

    Since the amount of vegetal food needed to grow an animal is two to twenty-five times higher than the amount of meat produced (the exact number depending on several factors) I find this hard to believe.

  28. Dunc says

    Since the amount of vegetal food needed to grow an animal is two to twenty-five times higher than the amount of meat produced (the exact number depending on several factors) I find this hard to believe.

    The thing is, you can raise animals on plant materials that people can’t digest. The US model of feeding animals on food that could otherwise feed people is not the only one, or even the dominant one. In much of the world, people raise small animals (chickens, rabbits, guinea pigs, and so on) on scraps and rubbish, and larger animals on pasture grown on land unsuited to other forms of agriculture.

    Agriculture is complicated.

  29. rietpluim says

    Dunc Fair enough, and if we take “all of humanity” literally then Florian Blaschke may even be right. However, the US (and European) model involves feeding mainly corn an soy to animals, which are very well digestible by people, soy even being an excellent source of proteins. So a vast improvement is possible perhaps not by eliminating, but no doubt by decimating meat production, solving a large number of problems at once.

  30. Dunc says

    rietpluim, @#36:

    Sure, the US-style CAFO approach to raising livestock is an abomination that should be eliminated, but it’s not actually that widespread even in Europe. (Actually, typical US CAFO operations are illegal in Europe, for a bunch of reasons.)

    But even then, the US population is ~318 million, Europe is ~739 million (using a definition of “Europe” which includes Russia, so that’s involving a lot of poor people who aren’t raising cattle on soy), so that’s not much over 1 billion people, out of a world population of ~7 billion. Now, sure, most of the rest aren’t eating a lot of meat, but many of them are eating some, and it’s forming an important part of their diet. Most often, it’s chickens being raised on kitchen scraps and whatever else they can find.

    It’s very, very important to realise that the US is an insane outlier in terms of both diet and agricultural practice, so any attempt to generalise from US data and experience to the rest of the world is worse than futile.

  31. consciousness razor says


    It’s very, very important to realise that the US is an insane outlier in terms of both diet and agricultural practice, so any attempt to generalise from US data and experience to the rest of the world is worse than futile.

    We should already be (and to some extent are) sending food to some places where enough of it cannot be grown. That’s not a situation in which every other country in the world does the same thing as what the US does; that wouldn’t be “generalizing” in the sense you seem to be assuming. There are very large tracts of land in the US, for instance, where livestock are raised on land that’s suitable for growing crops. Yields may not be as great (for soybeans, e.g.) as it is in other places, perhaps it’s not as profitable in our current system with the current demand for meat, and so on. I’m sure there are reasons why it’s done, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessary.

    Given the amount of extra food you can get (2-25x is a lot!), and given that as things are now, we’re already not lacking food for everyone (that’s not why people go hungry across the world), it’s awfully hard to see how the production of some chickens-raised-on-scraps is enough to outweigh all of that mega-industry on decent farmland everywhere else, enough to cause us serious problems that cannot be solved any other way than raising some livestock. And that would still only be raising “some” livestock here and there, to fill in the gaps if necessary (because no starving people is goal #1), not so much of it everywhere that ensures you can always have a cheap burger on your plate whenever you want it (that goal doesn’t even make it on my list).

    Anyway, if a person (anywhere) really doesn’t have any better options (for health reasons, economics, whatever), I don’t think they’re doing something wrong. Can implies should, so if they really can’t, it makes no sense to say they should. On the other hand, we’re all in this together, so it’s not really just one person somewhere who’s found themselves in a tough spot, all by themselves. You’ve got that one person, and you’ve got all of the other people, who either do give a shit or don’t give a shit about them. And it’s not easy to see how all of us together really can’t do that.

  32. Dunc says

    Sure, if we could fix the distributional issues, then all sorts of wonderful things become possible. However, those distributional issues seem to be remarkably resistant to being fixed. If step 1 of your proposed program is “eliminate poverty”, you’re probably going to struggle to make much progress. Yeah, it’s a great idea, and there’s no obvious reason why it shouldn’t be possible, but all prior experience indicates that it’s probably not going to happen any time soon.

  33. Azkyroth, B*Cos[F(u)]==Y says

    Also consider the possibility that the people who released the minks, knew exactly what they were doing and consider the deaths of both minks and their prey as collateral damage worth the cause.

    We’re trying to be charitable.