The animals we use: mink, mice and ethical issues

Tens of millions of mice are kept in labs around the world, and tens of millions of mink are farmed for their fur.  One reason so much of our experimental work uses these animals is to improve conditions in these systems in an evidence-based way.  However, mink and mice are great model animals too, allowing the test of hypotheses that are relevant to a wide range of other species.

I work with mice because it’s easy to create diverse housing conditions for them, there are tonnes of pre-existing data on their neuroanatomy and physiology, and they are naturally short-lived, making it relatively feasible to collect data from birth into senescence.  My NSERC Discovery grant is therefore based upon using mice as model to investigate a number of fundamental questions about environmental enrichment. However, buying mice from commercial breeders and killing them some time later obviously raises ethical questions. We rehome mice where we can. Where we need to kill them for their brains, we do our best to do so as humanely as possible (I pay for expert cervical dislocation, rather than using the cheap default of CO2 which is not humane). We also do not waste the bodies (they are fed to snakes), and we do our best to share mice in overlapping complementary projects so as to use as few as possible. There are also some housing conditions I simply will not use or study: even our least enriched animals always have bedding, nesting and social contact (grid floors and social isolation may still be common practice, and nesting sometimes regarded as a luxury, but for us they represent the bare essentials that all mice should have).

Working with mink allows us to capitalize on animals that are already housed on local farms. Our mink studies thus don’t increase the total numbers of animals in cages (unlike our mice work).  They also allow us to make a real impact on how mink are housed in practice (the Canada Mink Breeders Association has a genuine interest in welfare, and environmental enrichment is becoming standard practice on Canadian farms, largely thanks to the work of my group). Uncomfortable with the idea of using animals for their fur? Fur is an unnecessary, luxury product, yes, but no part of the mink is wasted (bodies are typically composted); it is hard to argue that keeping horses, or pets, or even farming animals for protein is really any more essential; and the mink themselves don’t know or care why they are caged. Fur farming is just another form of intensive animal production, and is likely here to stay. We are therefore keen to improve it. Working with mink has some major scientific benefits too. They allow us to collect data from thousands of animals (giving us incredible statistical power). Mink are also great ‘model carnivores’, relevant to endangered mustelids like black footed ferrets, and also displaying pre-feeding pacing just like tigers, polar bears and other Carnivora in zoos.