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Denmark Nearly Killed 17 Million Minks Due To COVID-19. What’s That Mean For Fur-Farming Utah?

A photo of a mink with brown fur on grassy trail on a spring morning.
While COVID-19 has now been found in many animals, minks are particularly vulnerable to the virus because they have an ACE2 receptor, a lung protein that humans share.

When Clayton Beckstead first heard Denmark was going to euthanize its mink population, he said he was devastated.

“I just thought the government was totally overstepping their bounds,” said the third-generation Utah fur farmer. “And I came to find out, they were.”

The decision to cull the country’s 17 million farmed minks was announced by Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen last week, after Danish health authorities found a mutated form of COVID-19 had spread from the animals to humans. The virus strain showed less sensitivity to antibodies, worrying health officials there that it could jeopardize an eventual vaccine, according to Reuters. The Danish government changed course Monday, however, after admitting it did not have a legal basis for carrying out the extermination.

The concern over minks as potential vectors of a vaccine-resistant form of COVID-19 has particular resonance in Utah. The state is the second-largest producer of mink fur in the country, according to the United States Department of Agriculture, and has seen the virus spread among its farmed mink population since August.

Nearly 11,000 Utah minks have died of the virus so far, said state veterinarian Dean Taylor.

He added the Utah Department of Agriculture has confirmed COVID-19 infections on nine mink ranching sites across three counties, which is about a quarter of all the fur farms in the state. The severity of the infections has varied by site, with some farms seeing minimal impacts and others losing half their breeding populations.

The department has been working with federal agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to monitor the spread of the virus, Taylor said. But until conclusive proof emerges that COVID-19 is spreading from minks to humans, his office won’t be calling for any drastic measures to be taken.

“We’re certainly not going to ignore those reports,” he said, referring to information coming out of Denmark. “But it won’t change our course until we see an indication with a little more information that that might be necessary.”

Until then, his department is working to educate Utah’s fur farmers on steps they can take to keep their operations safe. Those include requiring personal protective equipment for staff, eliminating unnecessary visitation to the farms and maintaining perimeter fences to prevent the possibility of farmed mink intermingling with wild mink — a scenario that Taylor said could create a reservoir of infection that would be difficult to control.

For animal welfare activist Scott Beckstead (no relation), such measures don’t go far enough.

“The risk that is presented by the mink’s susceptibility to the coronavirus should be taken seriously, and the way that we do that is by ending mink farms in the United States,” said Beckstead, who now directs campaigns for Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy. “It’s an issue for animal welfare, obviously, but it’s also an issue for human health.”

Similar to fur farmer Clayton Beckstead, Scott Beckstead grew up in a mink-ranching family in Southern Idaho — an experience he recounted in a recent letter to The Salt Lake Tribune. In it, he described his time on his grandfather’s farm and alleged that contemporary mink operations are “factory farms in every sense.”

“What that means is huge numbers of animals, tightly confined in cramped and crowded conditions where the spread of an aggressive pathogen like the coronavirus is amplified greatly,” Scott Beckstead said. “If one mink gets sick with the virus, it’s just a matter of time before it engulfs the entire operation.”

Fur farmer Clayton Beckstead said those descriptions are disturbing but misrepresentative of modern mink-farming operations in Utah.

He also holds a seat on Fur Commission USA, a national trade group. He said Utah’s minks are regarded as among the finest in the world and the livelihoods of the state’s fur farmers depend on properly caring for their animals. That’s why, he added, they’re all taking COVID-19 seriously.

“It scares me to death to think about what could happen if [the virus] hit on my farm and the damage it could do,” he said. “It’s absolutely everything.”

David is a reporter and producer working on Sent Away, an investigative podcast series from KUER, The Salt Lake Tribune and APM Reports.
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