Jens Wistoft was halfway through killing his life’s work this week when he stopped.
The Danish mink farmer had put more than 10,000 of his mink in boxes to be gassed after being ordered to do so last week by the government in Copenhagen over worries that a mutated form of coronavirus could threaten the effectiveness of future vaccines.
But on Tuesday the centre-left government admitted it did not have a legal basis to order the killing of mink such as Mr Wistoft’s, whose farm near the German border is almost 100km from the nearest Covid-19 outbreak among the creatures famed for their fur. Denmark is the world’s largest producer of mink.
“I feel stupid. I feel stupid because I’ve been killing them and there’s no legislation for it. But you won’t see me give up until I put the last mink in the box,” said Mr Wistoft, who has farmed mink for the past 35 years.
Denmark’s decision to cull its entire population of up to 17m mink was initially presented by the Danish government and health authorities as a bold measure to stop the Scandinavian country being the starting point for the next stage of the coronavirus pandemic.
But this week the killing descended into a legal, political, scientific and logistical farce. Pictures of hundreds of dead mink squashed on roads after falling off lorries spread on social media. People living next to the military land where millions of mink are being buried because of a lack of capacity at incineration plants complained of the overwhelming smell.
“Many big, grown men are crying. It’s devastating,” said Ole Bakke, a mink farmer in North Jutland, the heart of the Covid-19 outbreak. He has killed all his 15,000 mink on a farm he inherited from his father. He was himself infected with coronavirus. “Now it’s all thrown away. And they didn’t have the law to do this — it’s a huge scandal,” he added.
In Copenhagen, ministers and health officials contradicted each other. Ministers said it was not until the weekend that they realised they had legal authority to kill only those mink infected with Covid-19 and those found within 8km of the infected. But officials at Denmark’s veterinary and food administration said they had known there was a lack of legal basis for the cull on Wednesday of last week, when prime minister Mette Frederiksen said: “It is necessary to kill all mink.”
The government failed to rush through emergency legislation, and on Tuesday presented a bill proposing to ban mink farming in Denmark until 2022. A day later, food and fisheries minister Mogens Jensen floated the possibility of keeping a small number of mink alive, but quickly reversed his position. Already more than two-thirds of Danish mink have been killed, not least because authorities offered a DKr20 ($3.20) bonus for each creature killed quickly — another measure that legal experts say may not have a basis in legislation.
“I’m in limbo,” said Mr Wistoft, who owned 24,000 mink before the cull. “I stop killing my animals because maybe there will be a game-changer. But then I maybe won’t get a bonus for killing them at high speed. It’s extremely frustrating.” Tage Pedersen, head of the Danish mink breeders’ association, offered a blunter assessment of Mr Jensen’s statement: “I’m shocked. I’m in despair. I’m furious.”
Scientists have also cast doubt on the need for a cull, arguing that mutations are normal as the virus passes from one species to another. Denmark’s health agency has conceded that the most dangerous mutation, which affected the spike protein targeted by several vaccines, has probably already died out.
Many mink farmers suspect politicians were only too happy to see a controversial industry shut down. Mr Wistoft said the authorities should have gotten a second opinion about how dangerous the mutation was. “How much is politics and how much is hard reality? Nobody wants to sit in a situation where any people are dying because of me, and my mink. But where’s the hard evidence?”
Mr Bakke argued authorities could have tried another approach, such as isolating infected farms.
He still hopes to sell the pelts from his mink even though he is having to kill some of them before their coats are properly developed. The last average selling price was DKr180 per pelt. “I think there’s a political agenda to have no mink in Denmark. So if they offer me a little money, I take it. What else can I do? If they won’t help me, I’ll go bankrupt anyway,” he added.
The government has ordered an internal investigation to report by next week, but the centre-right opposition wants an independent probe and some are calling for Ms Frederiksen to explain herself fully. Mr Bakke argued she would try to save herself by pinning any blame on junior ministers such as Mr Jensen. “It’s not looking good for her,” he said.
Economists at Capital Economics estimate the outbreak alone will reduce Denmark’s gross domestic product in the fourth quarter by 0.7 percentage points.
Few mink farmers believe there is much of a way back for the industry, whatever happens next. Mr Bakke wonders what he can do with his farm now. “We have killed so many that it’s impossible to bring the mink back,” he said. “They have killed the whole industry.”