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Milwaukee Furrier Keeps Close Eye On Coronavirus Outbreak At Mink Farms

Chuck Quirmbach
A.J. Ugent Furs is located on W. Capitol Dr. in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Four states — Wisconsin, Oregon, Michigan and Utah — are reporting outbreaks of the coronavirus among mink at about 15 mink farms. That's less than 10% of the roughly 275 farms nationwide. But, the impact on the mink industry could still be significant, especially if the coronavirus situation in the U.S. goes the way of Denmark, where the government ordered millions of mink to be put to death.

Wisconsin is the top mink producing state, and two mink farms, both in Taylor County, remain under quarantine, as about 5,000 of the small animals have died. Testing of pelts and remaining animals continues.

The developments are being watched in Milwaukee, especially by Rodney Ugent, one of the last furrriers in the area, and whose family business, A.J. Ugent, has been operating for 98 years.

Large department stores have been ending sales of natural fur, amid years of international concerns raised by animal activists.

But during a tour of his W. Capitol Dr. showroom, Ugent points to mink coats and purses. Turning to mink headbands, Ugent says, “Here they are in purple, fuchsia, pink, black, brown, red, and blue.”

Ugent says besides being soft and lightweight, one of the enduring appeals of mink is that it can be dyed. “People today don't want the mink their mother or grandmother bought. They're buying colors," he explains.

Ugent says he's following what's happening here, and in Europe, where some mink have become infected with a strain of the coronavirus known as SARS CoV-2, which in humans causes the disease COVID-19.

Federal guidances about preventing coronavirus infections went out to mink farms last summer. The advice includes handling the animals only when necessary and using protective gear and proper hygiene. But Wisconsin state veterinarian Darlene Konkle says it appears humans working at the two farms infected the animals early this fall.

"It is true with any situation, when you're talking about virus or bacteria all it takes is one opportunity sometimes and that pathogen can make it in to the mink farm,” Dr. Konkle tells WUWM.

Konkle says there's not enough evidence of risk at the Wisconsin farms to order a mass culling of the mink. A veterinarian who works for the trade group Fur Commission USA agrees. Dr. John Easley says the virus doesn't seem to hurt all of the animals.

"Just like it seems in the human population, there's a sub-population that seems most susceptible to the virus. The rest of the animals ward that off very quickly, “ Easley says. He adds that the mink industry is working with companies on a potential vaccine for the animals.

The SARS COV-2 infections in mink have some people worried about the virus affecting other species. But Dr. Keith Poulsen, who directs the Veterinary Diagnostics Lab, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says mink, which are related to ferrets have a lung structure that makes them more vulnerable.

''Those are the really highly susceptible animals that have those receptors that really grab on to that virus and allow it to propagate," Poulsen says. "We kind of have this kind of continuum of other species that we know can be infected, and propagate and shed [to others], like cats. But [cats] don't do it at the same level as people and mink and ferret."

And, as for animal to human transmission of the virus, state and federal health agencies continue to say the risk is very low, but not zero. Suzanne Gibbons-Burgener, an infectious diseases epidemiologist with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, says officials keep urging farmworkers near animals to take precautions.

She also says agencies continue to monitor whether the virus can survive in the pelts of mink that are harvested this year. "We want to assure people that we are not releasing those products until we know that they do not pose a risk,” Gibbons-Burgener says.

Back in Milwaukee, furrier Rodney Ugent says the mink garments in his store this year came from animals harvested at least a year ago. He says next year, there may need to be price increases in mink products.

But for now, standing in the store’s sewing room, Ugent says he's just trying to focus on keeping customers happy. He pointed to a white mink jacket, and says, “It was just sold yesterday. We have to do some alterations on it."

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