Investigation on mink farm in Bulgaria reveals scandalous conditions

Anima International has just published a new investigation from the biggest mink farm in Bulgaria. The investigation - which was carried out between the autumn and winter of 2021 - is being published together with Nevidimi Zhivotni, a newly formed animal-welfare group from Bulgaria.

In recent years animal advocates have made considerable progress in terms of working towards a mink farming ban in Bulgaria. In 2017 the Bulgarian animal welfare organization CAAI launched the first ever investigation into mink farming in the country, showing gruesome scenes that shocked the general public and led to a citizens initiative to ban fur farming in the country. Mink farming and its impact on local communities and the environment has since then been the topic of public discussions and a ban on what many believe to be an outdated practice gathered widespread support in Bulgarian society. 

Image: Bogna Wiltowska/Anima International

In the meantime, further countries banned the practice of breeding animals for fur, including France, Ireland, Estonia or Italy. There has been a continuous trend for legislative change, with discussions in countries like Poland, Lithuania and Latvia to introduce a ban on farming of animals for their fur. Recently the industry was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially as minks proved to be a transmitting agent of the virus. As a consequence, Denmark, which was the biggest mink producer at that time in the world, culled almost all of their mink population. Also, other large producers like Greece or Poland have to differing degrees been affected by the pandemic. 

Anima International member groups have been involved in fur farming campaigns for many years, especially in countries such as Denmark or Poland, which for many years have been the biggest skin producers in the world. But the organisation also continuously works to investigate conditions in countries that have been receiving less international spotlight in recent years, such as Bulgaria.

The mink farm in Madzherito is located just outside the historical city of Stara Zagora in central Bulgaria and is the biggest and currently only functioning operation of this kind in the country. The farm itself has been criticized for many years by activists and local communities as residents said that escaping minks continuously bear a burden on their livestock as well on populations of wild animals. The American mink, which is commonly bred at farms like this one, is a non-native, invasive species and due to its predatory behavior and good adaptation skills is considered a threat to biodiversity. Even at well-managed farms escapes of minks cannot be fully avoided due to the sheer scale of the operation.

Also, the breeding of minks, which are considered wild animals despite claims from the industry, holds many welfare problems that are endemic to this kind of farms. The barren cages with very limited or no enrichment at all, the limited space available to the animals, as well as keeping animals that live solitarily in the wild together has been criticized by animal welfare groups for many years, as these conditions may lead to behavioral problems like aggression between specimen or self-mutilation. Issues like poor management and insufficient training of employees amplify these problems. These issues have been documented in a number of investigations throughout European countries and may be considered systemic. 

To tackle these issues the industry has developed a certification scheme called WelFur, which is a science-based, independently assessed welfare program with the prime goal of securing welfare of animals at the farm and takes into consideration factors such as housing, animal health, feed quality and appropriate behavior. To be awarded with such a certificate, each farm has to undergo three assessment visits during different stages of the production cycle carried out by an industry-independent certification company. These visits are repeated at random once a year to check on the upkeeping of production standards. According to WelFur, in the years 2017-2019 a total number of 2104 mink farms in 23 have been visited and certified, including apparently the farm in Madzherito. The certification has been confirmed by a farm representative in an interview for Bulgarian television.

Image: Bogna Wiltowska/Anima International

What Anima International investigators together with Nevidhimi Zhivotni found during a number of visits in late 2021 paints a dramatically different picture and shows that little has changed since the farm has been exposed for the first time in 2017 by CAAI — in fact, things have gotten worse. 

The investigators documented animals in horrible conditions with wounds that seemingly have never been treated on their tails and backs. It seems as if no one inspected the animal health sufficiently, to provide proper treatment for animals in need. Some animals were found dead in their cages, their companions not being separated from them, nor their bodies removed by farm workers.What can be observed in the footage is a general state of neglect: broken cages with leftover food on them, cobwebs and filth below and above the cages, some animals running freely around the perimeter of the farm. It seems that there are severe problems in the management and infrastructure of the farm -  nothing that could be expected from an operation that has been subjected to a thorough certification process. 

Image: Bogna Wiltowska/Anima International

The broken cages, animals running freely and often escaping the farm are potentially problematic from an environmental point of view. But seeing the footage gives additional context to the claims of surrounding residents and highlights the problem of escaping minks.

After the footage has aired on national TV earlier last month, the Bulgarian Minister of Environment and Water, Borislav Sandov, has issued a draft order that would introduce a ban on the import and breeding of American mink on the ground of the Biodiversity Act that allows such action if the breeding or raising of invasive fauna could threaten the existence of local species if released into the wild. This would be a major step that would in practice outlaw the breeding of American mink for their fur and thus protect Bulgaria’s biodiversity, as well as spare a hundred thousand mink from a life of meaningless suffering and gruesome death.

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