It’s easy to forget that a mink is an actual animal, in the same family as the weasel, and not just material for expensive coats. While we adopt a closely related species, the ferret, as pets, we tend to confine mink to small cages on fur farms. Their monotonous life behind bars causes mink to respond to boredom much the same way as humans do – they eat when they aren’t hungry and lie awake in bed, presumably staring at the wall and sighing heavily.
In previous behavior studies scientists have described feelings of boredom, depression, and apathy in animals without explaining how those conditions differ or how they relate to the human versions of those states. Now, animal behaviorists at the University of Guelph in Ontario have attempted to define the various emotional states of caged mink based on how they respond to certain stimuli.
Since boredom stems from under-stimulation, the researchers hypothesized that bored mink would be more receptive to any type of stimulus — even those that are uncomfortable — in the same way that bored people seek out thrills like base-jumping and recreational drug use. Depression, by contrast, is more likely to decrease an individual’s motivation to engage with novel stimuli.
To test their assumptions, the researchers separated 29 mink into two groups, placing one in a ‘non-enriched’ environment – a cage only slightly larger than those typically found in fur farms – and the other in an ‘enriched’ environment – a cage with access to a wading pool and rubber toys. They then presented both groups with different types of stimuli and observed how quickly each responded to them and how long they stayed engaged. The stimuli fell into three categories: aversive (a puff of air and a handling glove), ambiguous (a plastic bottle, a maraca, and an ocean-scented candle), and rewarding (a moving toothbrush that the mink could chase).
In contrast to the mink in the enriched environment, the mink living in non-enriched conditions approached all of the presented stimuli quicker and exhibited more interest in them, even the ocean-scented candle. Because sensory-deprived mink were more eager to engage with novel stimuli, not less eager, the researchers concluded that boredom was the best description for the emotional state of caged mink.
So defined, the bored mink also exhibited behaviors typically associated with ennui in humans. They were more likely to snack on treats between meals, even though their appetites during the regular feeding time were unaffected, ruling out hunger as a motivation. The bored mink also had a tendency to lie awake and alert, but inactive.
The researchers noted that while we can’t be sure that mink subjectively experience boredom in the same way that humans do, our behaviors certainly have interesting parallels. And since prolonged boredom in humans has been linked to health problems such as depression and anxiety, it’s possible it has similar consequences for animals. So if we’re going to keep breeding mink for sartorial purposes, the least we could do is provide them with some amusing distractions.