Animals infecting humans are scary. It’s worse when we infect them back.
And unlike a jail, a mink shed has no plumbing. “We focus a lot on respiratory transmission between people,” says zoonotic disease ecologist Jonathan Epstein, “but it’s important to remember that this is also a virus of the gastrointestinal tract and that ‘it is excreted in the stool’. As we flush our own infected droppings down porcelain toilets, mink droppings accumulate under their cages in damp mounds in which the coronavirus can remain infectious for days, long enough to be aerosolized when farm workers shovel it. .
It is likely that the factory farming conditions to which mink are subjected make them particularly susceptible to microbial pathogens. Despite their undeniably adorable exteriors – alert, wide eyes, delicate, partially webbed paws, and long furry bodies – minks are not social herd animals like cows, sheep, chickens and pigs, which were domesticated by humans for thousands of years, exchanging microbes with each other and with us. They are solitary, carnivorous predators, unaccustomed to living near other individuals. It is unclear exactly how the stress of overcrowding affects mink, although it is thought to suppress their immune systems. Farmed mink are notoriously vulnerable to pathogens such as distemper and influenza. Mink farmers have to pump them with vaccines to keep them alive for the few months it takes them to develop thick fur.
Michael Whelan, then a spokesman for the mink industry, told me that ranchers in the United States had developed “strict biosecurity measures” to prevent microbial transmission between humans and animals on farms. of minks. Livestock operations – such as poultry farms, for example – often require workers to wear Tyvek coveralls, masks and booties and “shower-in” and “shower-out” fully sealed sheds where captive animals are kept. And yet, many mink farms I visited in Utah didn’t even have proper fencing around their borders. The rickety perimeter gate around a farm I saw was open to traffic, including cows in an adjacent clearing, deer that nearby road signs warned of, and a pack of feral cats weaving their way across the gravel plot of the farm a few meters from the mink without door sheds.
Unlike Europe, health officials in the United States have not conducted active surveillance of mink farms for the coronavirus, relying instead on mink farmers to self-report outbreaks. Publicly, industry representatives said they took the risk of coronavirus incursions seriously, but privately many were almost dismissive of the threat the virus posed. A mink farmer, Joe Ruef, described the coronavirus in mink as a “non-event” when we spoke by phone. Industry trade group Fur Commission USA called it a “suspected ‘public health threat,'” in an email to its members that was leaked to activists and shared with me. learned that I was visiting mink farms in Utah, the Fur Commission USA sent a “safety alert” to its members, with a photo of my rental car and its license plates. on your property” and “under no circumstances leave it near mink sheds,” he said, because “any photos or documented cases of ranches not adhering to recommended biosecurity protocols could harm our advocacy efforts. American producers.
As a relatively small industry that sells most of its animal products overseas as clothing rather than food, mink farms have escaped most regulatory controls. Federal animal laws — such as the Animal Welfare Act and the Humane Slaughter Act — do not cover animals on fur farms. Few states require mink farms to be licensed or inspected; none require veterinary supervision. Like most states, Utah has no regulations on raising fur animals. Even minimal containment strategies designed for infected mink farms have proven difficult to implement. In Utah, mink farmers were “pretty reluctant to have anyone come into their facilities,” Utah State Veterinarian Dean Taylor told me. In internal correspondence acquired through public records requests, Utah health department officials discussed an infected farm that the department was not authorized to access, even for testing. Unregulated and secretive mink farms, says Han, “are not that different, if you think about it, from those captive wild animal farms that we hear about in Asia.”
At the 12 mink farms that have reported outbreaks, health officials have implemented quarantines, testing protocols and trapping programs to capture and test nearby animals. Unlike Europe, there was no culling of susceptible or infected mink. While in 2014 and 2015 the USDA paid $200 million to compensate farmers for culling 50 million farmed birds to stave off an outbreak of bird flu, the agency had no budget to do the same to prevent the coronavirus from exploding in mink farms.