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After Denmark’s mink cull, questions over legality, science and what to do with ‘zombie minks’

Burial pits containing the carcasses of culled minks in Karup, Denmark, on Dec. 10, 2020. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)
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JYLLINGE, Denmark — When Denmark's prime minister announced last month that every mink in the country should be culled to prevent the spread of a mutant strain of the novel coronavirus, Kim Christensen quickly got to work. 

The next morning at 6 a.m., the 53-year-old mink farmer began making his way through 44 rows of cages, dropping the animals — and thereby his father’s life’s work — into containers and gassing them with carbon monoxide.

Christensen and the farmworkers killed all of his 23,000 animals. He knew it would effectively end his business. But he also believed they were rushing to prevent a new pandemic from a potentially vaccine-resistant mink variant of the virus that had reinfected humans.

That assumption has now been called into doubt, and the government’s handling of the mink cull is haunting the country’s leadership — in more ways than one.

Animals like Christensen’s that are among 15 million minks already killed were hurriedly buried in huge trenches, their decomposing bodies soon resurfacing from the shallow graves as what the media dubbed “zombie minks.” Other mass graves pose a pollution risk to the drinking water supply.

Then there are the 4,700 tons of dead minks that are simply missing and unaccounted for in official records, according to officials.

But more of a blight for the government has been the revelation that the whole thing was illegal — and whether Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen knew she was bending the law when she ordered the cull without the approval of Parliament.

She tearfully apologized over “mistakes” during a visit to a farm last month but has pushed ahead regardless. The government has been scrambling to bring in legislation to retroactively legalize the nationwide cull. It is expected to pass Monday.

'It's insane'

“They’re doing the world’s biggest backpedaling,” said Christensen, whose father, then age 17, founded their farm in 1964 at the end of a dirt road on the outskirts of Jyllinge, a town of around 10,000 people 25 miles northwest of Copenhagen.

“Nobody wants to take responsibility for what they’ve done,” he complained. “We ought to send them to the Olympics and they would win gold for Denmark in backpedaling. It’s insane.”

The mink fiasco has blighted Frederiksen, who had enjoyed strong support for her handling of the pandemic. Some experts also wonder about wider fallout: whether the political flap has hampered the government’s ability to act decisively against the pandemic, with daily case counts more than doubling over the past two weeks.

Criticized as needlessly sparking international panic, the saga highlights the delicate balance that governments must strike as they try to keep ahead of a virus that has killed more than 1.5 million people worldwide.

Mink farming is a century-old industry in Denmark, with the country the largest producer of pelts in the world. In auctions that attract buyers from Russia, China and across the world, Kopenhagen Fur, the largest fur auction house in the world, sold 25 million mink pelts from Danish producers last year. Before the cull began, the country had three times as many minks as people.

The industry had survived in the face of stops and starts in demand for fur and decades of criticism from animal rights groups, which decry what they see as inhumane conditions at farms.

It’s also what made minks a particular risk during the pandemic, experts say, after the discovery of mutated strains of the coronavirus in the animals.

“[Minks] are densely populated. They don’t keep their distance. They don’t have the capacity to wash their hands,” said Allan Randrup Thomsen, a professor in experimental virology at Copenhagen University. “The way in which these animals were kept and their numbers made them a special concern.”

Mink-to-human spread

Coronavirus also has been found in minks on farms in the United States, Spain and the Netherlands, where the first cases of mink-to-human spread of the mutated virus strains were observed. Spain and the Netherlands have carried out partial culls, but with far less drama.

In the Netherlands, five mutant mink strains of coronavirus did not spread beyond mink farmworkers, said Arjan Stegeman, a veterinary epidemiologist at Utrecht University who is researching spread on the farms in the Netherlands.

“We really did look very carefully,” he said.

But in Denmark, the State Serum Institute had said that thousands may have been infected with strains of mink-related coronavirus — and at least 12 of them with a “cluster-five” strain that appeared to be more resistant to current vaccines, it said.

The institute has since said that the “cluster-five” mutations were no longer spreading to humans at the time the announcement was made but that it had not been certain of that at the time.

Kaare Molbak, the outgoing head of the State Serum Institute — who alongside Frederiksen gave the dramatic warning that parts of Denmark could become a new pandemic starting point — conceded in a recent television interview with the state broadcaster that he had been “too dramatic.”

He said the institute had been under pressure and “simply didn’t have the time” to go thoroughly through its data while the coronavirus was rapidly infecting mink farms.

Experts including the professor Thomsen still say a cull was prudent to get rid of a “reservoir” that could spur mutations and reinfect humans, even if those mutations were less likely to spread as easily among people.

At the time of the announcement, 50 percent of human infections in the North Jutland region — home to many of Denmark’s mink farms — were with mink-related coronavirus strains. That has dropped to 24 percent, said State Serum Institute virologist Tyra Grove Krause.

“I’m certain it was the right decision to cull,” Krause said.

There’s a need for acting transparently, but time is also of the essence, she said. “There’s always this balance,” she added.

“We were very concerned about the situation,” she said.

While “cluster five” might have been less of a problem than first thought, virologists say mink variants might become more of a danger as vaccines begin to roll out and target other strains.

Thomsen also sees a more immediate impact, with the bungled mink cull putting a once-sure-footed Danish pandemic response on shaky ground.

“It’s eroded public trust and added to a lack of reacting in time,” he said. “It’s all worked together to get into this mess we are in now,” he said of the country’s surge in infections just before Christmas.

Politics of the cull

The prime minister said she didn’t know the cull order was illegal until Nov. 8, four days after she announced it.

But Tage Pedersen, the chairman of the Danish Fur Breeders’ Association, said Frederiksen called him Nov. 7 after he asked whether the order was lawful. Pedersen told TV 2, a national network, that the prime minister said, “The government stands firm. All mink must be culled. There’s no way back.”

“The big problem is that Parliament should have been involved. It could have made a difference that could have saved the mink industry,” said Frederik Waage, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Southern Denmark.

The prime minister’s full-throttle defense of the decision has rattled some in Denmark, where a more consensus-seeking approach is preferred, said Kristian Madsen, a political analyst and former member of Frederiksen’s Social Democrats.

But Frederiksen herself has not taken a political hit, with opinion polls largely unaffected, indicating that many may think the cull was good policy despite the bungled process.

That doesn’t ease the sting for farmers, including Christensen.

His eyes watered up again as his team of Latvian seasonal workers came to say goodbye before they returned home in early December.

“Take care! I love you,” Christensen said as they hugged.

With some work left to do and compensation still not in place, he has not made plans for the future. But he’s thinking of renting out some of his farm buildings as rooms or office space and some of the land for storage. Minks, he said, will never come back.

Morris reported from Berlin.

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