Denmark’s mink nightmare is far from over.
Following a massive, apparently rushed and certainly messy cull and burial intended to thwart a potentially dangerous mutation of the virus that causes Covid-19, the country plans to exhume millions of the dead animals over fears that the rotting carcasses will pose a new health risk.
The Danish parliament voted Sunday to unearth up to 5.5 million buried mink after environmental inspectors found evidence of contamination in some water sources, though officials said there is no immediate pollution risk with lakes, streams or drinking water. The process will begin in May, allowing a six-month waiting period to help ensure the bodies are free of the virus and safe for workers to handle, they added. Once dug up, the carcasses will be incinerated as “corporate waste.”
The mass burials occurred because rendering plants, which normally process dead animals, have been overwhelmed by the scale of the culls, which have roiled the world’s second-largest producer of mink after China and brought into question the future of fur farming. Many mink were covered in lime and disinfectant and buried three feet deep, though the measures have not proven wholly effective. In recent weeks, some carcasses, bloated with post-mortem gases, have resurfaced from mass graves in Holstebro, West Jutland and other sites, leading some local newspapers to dub them, with a mix of horror and mirth, “zombie mink.”
Denmark’s mink troubles began last month, when Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen’s administration ordered the deaths of up to 17 million mink after 12 animal handlers contracted the so-called “cluster 5” variant of SARS-Cov-2. Scientific advisors warned the government at the time that the mutation could derail the efficacy of vaccines in development.
“We have a great responsibility toward our own population, but with the mutation that has now been found, we have an even greater responsibility for the rest of the world as well,” Frederiksen said in early November. “The mutated virus in mink may pose a risk to the effectiveness of a future vaccine [and it] risks being spread from Denmark to other countries.”
A week later, the government downgraded its order to a “recommendation,” citing its lack of jurisdiction and calling its previous mandate a “regrettable mistake.” By then, millions of mink from both infected and non-infected farms had already been destroyed, and Denmark’s Kopenhagen Fur, the world’s largest fur auction house, had announced plans to shutter and liquidate operations in 2023 because of the “loss of Danish mink production.”
The political fallout, too, has been vociferous, with mink farmers protesting—literally, with hundreds of tractors trundling into the capital of Copenhagen last month—the loss of their livelihoods and the lack of clarity regarding financial compensation. Opponents of the minority Social Democratic government have suggested that Denmark is “gambling” with democracy. Amidst a vote of no confidence by opposition parties, the agriculture minister resigned. Frederiksen has faced similar calls to do the same.
The country’s mink crisis is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. On Monday, Danish lawmakers backpedaled on their backpedal by retroactively creating the legal basis for their order to cull all of the country’s mink and placing any surviving animals on the chopping block. The new law also bans any new mink breeding by Jan. 15, effectively creating a ban on raising mink for fur for the next year.
Captive animals like mink, animal-rights groups say, are particularly susceptible to contagion because they’re raised in tightly packed, often unsanitary cages under high-stress conditions, creating a perfect “reservoir” for viruses to thrive and proliferate. Earlier this month, the European Parliament’s Intergroup on the Welfare and Conservation of Animals called for a permanent end to fur farming in Europe.
“Confining wild animals in small wire cages for the trivial purpose of fur production should be consigned to the past,” said Anja Hazekamp, Dutch Member of the European Parliament and president of the intergroup, noting that Netherlands’ fur phase-out was accelerated to eliminate potential coronavirus reservoirs. “Fur farming is now over in my country. I look forward to the day when we can end the suffering of all animals on fur farms and see a completely fur-free Europe.”
Other mink-producing countries, including the Netherlands, Sweden and the United States, have detected SARS-Cov-2 mutations in their animals, though none have had to face cullings of the same scale as Denmark, where mink previously outnumbered people three to one.