And unlike a prison, a mink shed has no plumbing. “We focus a lot on the respiratory transmission among people,” Jonathan Epstein, a zoonotic-disease ecologist, says, “but it’s important to remember that this is also a GI-tract virus, and it’s shed in the stool.” While we flush our own infected excreta down porcelain toilets, the excreta of mink collects under their cages in dank mounds in which coronavirus can remain infectious for days, long enough to be aerosolized when farmworkers shovel it away.
It’s probable that the factory-farm conditions that minks are subjected to make them especially susceptible to microbial pathogens. Notwithstanding their undeniably adorable exteriors — alert, wide-set eyes, dainty, partly webbed paws and long furry bodies — mink are not sociable herd animals like cows, sheep, chickens and pigs, who have been under human domestication for thousands of years, exchanging microbes back and forth with one another and with us. They are solitary, meat-eating predators, unaccustomed to life in intimate proximity to other individuals. Just how the stress of crowding affects mink is unknown, though it is thought to suppress their immune systems. Farmed mink are famously vulnerable to pathogens such as distemper and influenza. Mink farmers must pump them up with vaccinations to keep them alive for the handful of months it takes for them to grow thick fur.
I was told by Michael Whelan, then a mink-industry spokesman, that farmers in the United States had developed “strict biosecurity measures” to prevent microbial transmission between humans and animals on mink farms. Livestock operations — such as poultry farms, for example — often require that workers wear Tyvek suits, masks and bootees and “shower-in” and “shower-out” of the fully sealed sheds where captive animals are kept. And yet many of the mink farms I visited in Utah didn’t even have adequate fencing around their borders. The rickety perimeter gate around one farm I saw was open to passing traffic, including the cows in an adjacent clearing, the deer of which nearby roadway signs warned and a band of feral cats that slinked onto the farm’s gravel lot just yards from the doorless mink sheds.
Unlike in Europe, health officials in the United States did not conduct active surveillance on mink farms for 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 about the threat the virus posed. One mink farmer, Joe Ruef, described coronavirus in mink as a “nonevent” when we spoke by phone. The industry trade group, Fur Commission USA, called it a “supposed ‘public health threat,’” in an email to its members that was leaked to activists and shared with me. And when word got out that I was visiting Utah mink farms, Fur Commission USA sent out a “security alert” to its members, with a photograph of my rental car and its license plates. “DO NOT let her on to your property,” and “under no circumstances allow her near the mink sheds,” it read, because “any pictures or documented cases of ranches that are not following the recommended biosecurity protocols could damage our efforts to defend the US producers.”
As a relatively small industry that sells most of its animal products overseas as garments rather than as food, mink farms have escaped most regulatory oversight. Federal laws that pertain to animals — like 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 oversight. Like most states, Utah has no regulations on fur farming at all. Even the minimal containment strategies devised for infected mink farms proved difficult to implement. In Utah, mink farmers were “fairly resistant to having anyone come onto their facilities,” the 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 permitted to access even for testing. Unregulated, secretive mink farms, Han says, are “not that different, if you think about it, from these captive wildlife farms that we hear about in Asia.”
On the 12 mink farms that reported outbreaks, health officials implemented quarantines, testing protocols and trapping programs to capture and test nearby animals. Unlike in Europe, there were no culls of susceptible or infected mink. While in 2014 and 2015 the U.S.D.A. paid $200 million to compensate farmers for culling 50 million farmed birds to short-circuit an outbreak of avian influenza, the agency had no budget to do the same to prevent coronavirus from exploding on mink farms.