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Mink farmers are skipping to the front of the vaccine line — for an important reason

Wisconsin mink farmers are getting coronavirus shots ahead of teachers, flight attendants and others after outbreaks in Europe’s fur industry raised fears of animal-to-human transmission

Minks look out from their cage at a farm near Naestved, Denmark, on Nov. 6. (Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP/Getty Images)
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As some of Wisconsin’s seniors, teachers and other front-line and essential employees wait for a limited supply of vaccine doses, an unlikely group of people — the 300 or so people involved in the farmed mink industry — have already started getting their shots.

Wisconsin is the country’s top producer of mink pelts, yielding 38 percent of the United States’ total. The industry generates $22 million a year for the state.

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But mink production was deemed an essential industry not only because of its importance to the state economy, but because of the potential risk a coronavirus outbreak on a mink farm presents to human health.

The ferret-like mammals have shown a particular susceptibility to the virus. There have been outbreaks of coronavirus at 416 mink farms in 11 countries. Sixteen of those occurred at U.S. farms, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including 12 in Utah and an outbreak in Oregon. And in Denmark the infected minks transmitted the virus back to humans, in a mutated form.

Wisconsin officials said they prioritized mink workers over sectors such as non-livestock veterinarians, flight attendants and librarians because of fears that an outbreak on a mink farm could spread from animals to humans, possibly as a new, more dangerous strain, and lead to a surge in coronavirus cases across the state.

Mink workers “should be prioritized before other similar occupations as there are specific risks associated with the mink population,” wrote the state committee charged with determining eligibility for the vaccine.

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Across the country, industries have lobbied for priority access to the vaccine.

For Wisconsin, the imperative is avoiding a repeat of an October outbreak at two farms in northern Wisconsin that wiped out 5,500 animals. Although multiple farm employees had the virus, the state doesn’t believe any mink-to-human transmission has happened in the state.

But the inclusion of mink farmers among more recognizable groups such as police officers, firefighters and prison guards prompted calls by animal rights groups to shut down the industry entirely, which the state has resisted.

“The only way to end the dual problems of pandemic outbreaks on fur farms and the animal suffering inherent in fur farming is to close down this industry for good,” wrote Kitty Block and Sara Amundson of the Humane Society of the United States in a statement.

Bob Zimbal, third-generation owner of Zimbal Farms and Minkery, one of the state’s largest operations with about 100,000 minks, called the statement “propaganda,” and said animal rights groups are using the pandemic to try to shut down the industry.

“We care for our animals: That’s our number one job every day,” he said. “If we don’t care for the animals, we’ll go out of business really quick.”

Zimbal was able to obtain shots for all 30 of his employees the first week of February, with follow-up boosters scheduled for the last week in February.

“It gives us extra security,” he said. “In Wisconsin they’ve been doing a pretty good job with getting the farmers vaccinated.”

Zimbal said his farm, located about an hour’s drive north from Milwaukee, hasn’t had any cases among the animals. It’s been a very different story for his employees, many of whom missed work throughout last year due to positive cases or exposure to others that forced them to quarantine.

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After hearing of outbreaks at European farms in April, he and his family instituted strict safety measures: masking up, staying socially distanced — in guidance redistributed by the Fur Commission, the CDC notes that six feet is the length of four adult male minks — and mandating hand-washing and showering.

Zimbal also required employees to skip work and quarantine if they’ve tested positive, been exposed or have symptoms.

“It’s certainly been challenging for our staff,” he said. “The animals require seven-days-a-week care. When you had people exposed and were out, it put extra stress on our family and the people who care for the animals. They were expected to work many days in a row and long hours.”

He was able to keep paying staff using funds from the federal Paycheck Protection Program. About 112 fur farms nationally got PPP aid, including 18 farms in Wisconsin. The financial cushion allowed Zimbal and others to keep sick workers away from the farm, and the virus away from the animals.

Other farms weren’t as fortunate.

On a Monday last September, a woman who with her husband owns a farm near Medford, a small northern Wisconsin town about two hours west of Green Bay, worked through a bout of mild fatigue and body aches, wheeling a cart through the sheds and feeding thousands of caged minks, her daily routine.

(The state will not name the farmers or the farm due to ongoing investigations.)

Two days later, she was in bad enough shape that she couldn’t work. Also that day, her husband started feeling similar symptoms. Without warning, many of the minks stopped eating.

Within days, the farm’s three employees — father, mother and son — had symptoms of or a positive test for the coronavirus. Their prized minks showed ever-worsening symptoms, from coffee-colored urine to an audible raspiness to their breathing.

Starting Sept. 30, two days after the wife first walked the sheds feeling not quite right, the animals dropped dead by the hundreds — 625 in a single day at the peak of the die-off. Necropsies showed they had the virus, too.

Two weeks after the first outbreak, a nearby farm experienced a similar die-off. In total, the two farms lost about 5,500 animals.

“Each farm lost approximately 15 percent to 35 percent of their mink,” said Jennifer Miller, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

Both farms were put in isolation amid fears of the virus spreading to dogs, cats, cattle and even birds. But Wisconsin so far has avoided further outbreaks.

It also escaped the prospect of animal-to-human transmission as happened in Denmark, where at least a few minks passed the disease back to humans, in a mutated form, known as Cluster 5.

The widespread outbreaks prompted the Danish government to order the entire herd of 17 million animals euthanized, with a $3.1 billion aid package compensating farmers for their losses.

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In the United States, scientists have not found cases of mink-to-human transmission, nor have they found cases of minks developing mutant strains of the virus.

“Of human and animal sequences related to U.S. mink farms analyzed to date, none contain all five mutations that define the Cluster 5 variant reported in Denmark,” said Jasmine Reed, spokeswoman for the CDC.

Even so, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other animal rights groups have called on Gov. Tony Evers (D) to cull the state’s herd, and retrain the farmers to use their acreage to grow crops already in the state, including snap beans, sweet corn, cranberries, cucumbers, carrots and cabbage.

Differences between Danish farms and those in Wisconsin make outbreaks less likely, the state’s veterinarian has said. Denmark’s farms were geographically close, whereas Wisconsin’s are scattered in sparsely populated rural areas. And state officials have not said they are considering euthanizing the animals.

Still, some farmers fear that further coronavirus outbreaks could take down an industry that has struggled for over a decade with declining prices for pelts.

Randy Wiebensohn, who got out of the family mink business in 2019, said many farmers entered the mink business over the last decade when a surge in demand from China pushed prices for a pelt to $94.30 in 2011.

As newcomers entered the market, prices crashed, falling to about $15 in fall 2020, although it’s expected to rebound to double that this year, according to Zimbal.

“Everybody and their mother got into it,” Wiebensohn said. “A lot of people doubled and tripled their size, and it just flooded the market.”

In 2019, when Wiebensohn called it quits, a pelt fetched just $21.90.

Now, the farm produces dog food for greyhound race tracks. Wiebensohn still has 90,000 mink pelts in a freezer from his last year of production. He is waiting until coronavirus-related travel restrictions lift and allow workers to travel internationally to auctions again.

“We have the availability to hold them for a couple years,” Wiebensohn said. “That’s kind of what we’re doing here.”

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