At Knud Vest’s farm an hour’s drive west from Copenhagen, a deathly silence pierces unusual wafts of fresh air. Rows and rows of cages are empty, with nothing left but mud and hay. The smell of fertilizer is gone, along with the animals.
For breeders of small, furry European mink like the 74-year-old Dane, the Covid-19 pandemic has been more than just a threat to his health. The past weeks wiped out his business of more than five decades, and spawned a political crisis in Denmark that’s turned into a cautionary tale of the coronavirus’s potential to endure as a menace.
Early last month, Denmark’s government told all mink farmers to kill their stock because of concern that a mutated form of the virus was spreading more quickly than previously thought. Vest and his family carefully started the eradication of 23,000 animals, while opposition political parties rounded on Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen.
“At first when I heard about it I didn’t believe it,” Vest said at his farm last week. “This severe over-reaction has in fact done what animal rights activists have been trying to achieve for years.”
Denmark fared pretty well through the first wave of the pandemic in spring as a swift lockdown helped halt the spread of the virus while global attention turned to neighbouring Sweden’s decision to keep its economy open.
That work has been undermined by a scandal over the government’s handling of a cull of 17 million mink, roughly equivalent to three for every person in the Scandinavian country. Opponents say the eradication of all healthy mink was a breach of the Danish constitution.
Yet beyond the political outcry, health experts say Denmark serves as an alarm bell the world needs to heed. So far, it’s the only country that has eliminated all its mink, though as of Nov. 20 the World Health Organization said the most worrying strain linked to the animals is no longer circulating in humans.
“All countries that have this kind of animal farming need to aggressively monitor what’s going on with contamination as a minimum,” said Marion Koopmans, a virologist at Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands. “Keeping an eye on the animal side of the virus is an urgent question, and for me it is a high priority to understand what is going on.”
Mink are being bred and skinned for their fur in many countries including Russia and the US. So far, eight have reported Covid-19 in farmed mink to the World Organisation for Animal Health, WHO said on Dec. 3.
The New York Times reported on Nov. 29 that the Department of Agriculture ordered quarantines of infected farms, but stopped short at mass culls. Thousands of mink have apparently died from coronavirus infections at American farms, the newspaper said.
In Europe, the Netherlands brought forward plans to shut down the mink industry by 2024 after outbreaks earlier this year. Denmark, though, has more at stake.
Until a few weeks ago, the country was the world’s biggest producer of mink skins, or pelts. Kopenhagen Fur, the largest auction house for furs, announced it was winding down operations after 90 years.
Indeed, the past few months have been particularly troubling for the country. It all started in June, as Danes were gradually returning to normalcy following a national lockdown. A local outbreak of infections in the northwest was traced back to a local mink farmer and several of his 10,000 mink.
Prime Minister Frederiksen ordered the culling of all mink at the farm and two neighbouring ones. But it wasn’t until October that the threat became more urgent as outbreaks spread across the western peninsula of Jutland.
Testing by health authorities showed the virus had mutated as it traveled from humans to animals and back again. A warning from the government’s advisers led the prime minister to order the cull on Nov. 4 and police and the military were dispatched to oversee farmers. Frederiksen said the strain was serious “not only for Denmark, but the whole world’s handling of coronavirus.”
That week, the UK banned visitors from Denmark, though WHO now advises against travel or trade restrictions.
The issue for the government, though, was that it didn’t have the necessary legislation in place to order the killing of healthy mink. Frederiksen said she wasn’t aware the command was unlawful and continued with the cull.
At that point, it morphed into a full-blown scandal and the minister responsible for veterinary affairs resigned. There are still daily protests outside the parliament in Copenhagen over the mink cull, as well as coronavirus restrictions.
On Nov. 25, Frederiksen dismissed claims she deliberately broke the law as “absurd.” A day later, in a tearful appearance on national television after visiting a local farm, she admitted her handling of the crisis could have been better.
“There is a reason to apologize for this process because of the mistakes that have been made and the unrest there’s been,” she told broadcaster TV2. “It’s been an extremely rough process for the families and the mink farmers.”
The problem was that the swiftness of the cull resulted in additional mistakes and embarrassment. Trucks filled with dead mink dropped carcasses on the roads, while some live animals were stuffed in containers with dead mink. Some that were buried in mass graves in Jutland started resurfacing because of gas in their rotting bodies.
Meanwhile, the compensation for mink farmers like Vest is being negotiated and the government is introducing legislation effectively banning mink farming throughout 2021. Frederiksen has said she hopes farmers will be able to reestablish the industry once the ban is lifted in 2022.
Touring his property, Vest reminisced about better times when Santo Versace, the older brother of fashion icon Gianni Versace, came to his farm by Roskilde Fjord sometime around 2005. The pair discussed the quality of Danish mink fur, while sharing an almond cake.
It’s going to take at least seven years to revive the industry. Many of the shuttered farms will never see mink again, he said.
“It felt like I was under anaesthetic,” Vest said of the day the cull was announced. “We went into survival mode where we had to solve the task given to us by the government. But once we emptied the farm it was like walking around in a trance.”
By Morten Buttler.