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She was doing an autopsy on a mink. Then, suddenly, her whole field of research vanished

Two mink researchers at the University of Copenhagen are shocked by a process that not only discontinued all mink breeding in Denmark, but also the purpose of their whole research.

When the Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen at a press conference on 4 November said that all mink were to be culled, Michelle Lauge Quaade was in a room at the University of Copenhagen doing an autopsy on one of them.

She only heard about the press conference when her phone vibrated. At the other end of the phone, her supervisor Anne Sofie Vedsted Hammer told her that the entire mink industry that she was working with, had been given a de facto death sentence.

»Is it all the mink?« she asked, several times, incredulous. Yes, all 17 million of them.

When she hung up, she looked at the dead mink in front of her and asked herself: Does this make any sense at all any more?

In January 2020, two months before the Danish coronavirus lockdown, she had received funding to carry out research on mink for a four-year PhD. The funds came from the fur farming foundation Pelsdyrafgiftsfonden, which is dependent on the sale of fur. These sales would now be non-existent.

Even if she could find new funding, who would be interested in a PhD project on mink diseases in a country where mink is only something to be found culled in pits?

»It was, and is, a huge shock,« says Michelle Lauge Quaade.

The day after the press conference, the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences took action to saved her project with fresh funding, but the PhD student still had to think everything through, all the way down to the basic research questions.

»I am still in the process of finding out where I stand and how to deal with this situation.«

Did not involve veterinarians

At the very least, she will most likely have a place in the history books – as the last Danish PhD on mink research.

Others have been going on for a long time. Her supervisor Anne Sofie Vedsted Hammer, for example, who has been working with fur animal diseases for 19 years, and who today runs the research centre CPH Mink (Center for Research in Mink Production, Health and Welfare).

She reckons that it is only a matter of time before the centre closes.

It was, and is, a huge shock

Michelle Lauge Quaade, PhD student, Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences

»There has been mink research here for over 30 years, in feed, genetics, health, welfare and much more. There are many research areas that will just disappear in one go. It is a shame for the University of Copenhagen, for the researchers, and for the students, that everything is now disappearing.«

The Danish government’s 4 November decision had mink farmers cull all their mink after the infectious disease authority Statens Serum Institute had assessed that the spread of infection from mink farms was a danger to public health. The institute had found that virus mutations in mink had spread to humans, and they feared that one of these mutations would prevent vaccines from working.

It turned out later that the government had made the decision illegally, and it has so far led to the Minister for Food and Agriculture Mogens Jensen stepping down.

If you ask Anne Sofie Vedsted Hammer and Michelle Lauge Quaade whether they understand the decision, they can offer no prompt answer.

They both grin, but seem as if they are at a loss to answer.

»It is a difficult question,« one of them says.

»Yes, it is a difficult question,« the other adds.

»I don’t understand the process,« says Anne Sofie Vedsted Hammer.

»It was a decision that, as far as I know, was taken without the involvement of the veterinary experts of this country. I see a huge frustration among veterinarians involved in the production of fur animals, and who have the knowledge about the management, infection pathways, and protection against infection, on the farms. And I’ve also seen a lot of frustration among the mink farmers themselves. I find it hard to understand why they haven’t been involved more, and I think we owe it to ourselves to look at this process.«

University’s mink also culled

When the decision was made, Anne Sofie Vedsted Hammer and some of her colleagues were in the process of developing plans for the vaccination of mink, which is something that the news site Jyllands-Posten had described. In October, they had a meeting with the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration, where they gave an account of their plans.

But they have to face the fact that all this work is wasted now. There are, simply, no more mink in Denmark to vaccinate.

»Me and my colleagues were in the process of thinking about solutions for protecting other types of animal production. It came as a shock for me to find that it was not the disease that was being combated. It was the animal itself that was seen as the risk. This was a strange realisation,« says Anne Sofie Vedsted Hammer.

There are many research areas that will just disappear in one go.

Anne Sofie Vedsted Hammer, Associate Professor, Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences

We are, on the other hand, in the middle of a pandemic, and you could see that the virus mutated in mink and spread to humans. Can you understand that the government had to act firmly when public health was at stake?

The researchers hesitate a bit again.

»It is not us as researchers that have to make these decisions, it is a task for politicians and government authorities. It’s a difficult decision and I don’t envy them,« says Anne Sofie Vedsted Hammer.

»I was about to say this,« says Michelle Lauge Quaade. »But it is true that there was no wider academic involvement in this.«

The two mink researchers are not the only university employees who have had to make new career plans. At Aarhus University, the Department of Animal Science intends to terminate the lease on the mink farm they rent from the Danish Building and Property Agency. In the middle of November, they culled the last of the 6,350 mink on the farm, according to head of department Klaus Lønne Ingvartsen.

Eight researchers at the department were involved in the mink research, while three people worked full time on the farm.

Life’s work in ruins

When the corona infection began to spread explosively on the northern Jutland mink farms, Anne Sofie Vedsted Hammer and Michelle Lauge Quaade became part of what was called the epidemiological investigation. They took long trips from Frederiksberg to the North of Jutland to collect data and samples from the farms and to bring back dead mink for autopsy in order to learn more about the disease and the spread of the infection.

The experiences they had in the north of Jutland left an indelible memory, they say.

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»One thing is that we lose a research area. But this cannot be compared to the consequences for the mink farms. These are families who have to give up their homes and move away, and who now have no income. This is a terrible thing,« says Anne Sofie Vedsted Hammer.

»I have corresponded with mink breeders who have spent their entire adult lives breeding certain types of colours and lines, and who have the pedigrees of these lines on their farms,« she continues.

»All they want to do is save these breeding animals and the extensive selection and registration work, something that will now disappear in one go when they are all culled.«

A hated industry

Many politicians have expressed their sympathy for the mink breeders. Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen shed a tear when she visited a mink farm in November.

But not everyone bemoans the end of the mink industry.

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The Danish society for the protection of the animals Dyrenes Beskyttelse had worked hard even before the corona outbreak to ban the mink industry, which they on their website label animal cruelty. A citizens’ proposal with more than 10,000 signatures also calls for a ban, and at Christiansborg the Red-Green Alliance and the Socialist People’s Party want to uphold a ban even after the corona crisis.

Among the criticisms is the fact that the mink live stunted lives in small wire cages – and the high density of mink is one of the reasons why the corona virus could spread so explosively on the farms – and that it is unethical to kill millions of animals a year to produce fur coats.

Several European countries have banned fur farming, including the UK, Norway and Germany.

»I’ve also met a lot of people who say that fur breeding is simply cruelty to animals when I tell them that I’m researching mink,« says Michelle Lauge Quaade.

»You are welcome to have this opinion. But you are obligated to make yourself familiar with how things are first. Most of the people I’ve talked to have never visited a mink farm and don’t know what it’s all about. They’ve seen an undercover programme made by TV2 in 2009 where animal rights activists went into a mink farm to document the bad living conditions of the mink. This is not a true picture of mink production. It was one-sided.«

I’ve also met a lot of people who say that mink breeding is just animal cruelty.

Michelle Lauge Quaade, PhD student, Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences

But the criticism includes the fact that it is, in itself, unethical and unnatural to have so many mink in small cages?

»If we are not allowed to fence the animals in, then we can hardly produce animals for any purpose. I think you need to see more sides to this question,« says Michelle Lauge Quaade.

»Otherwise you would have to consider all production animals and not just mink, because there are a lot of things that are not natural. We get milk by taking the calf from a cow, even though we do not, in principle, need milk. So I think you have to be careful about criticizing an industry because you get fur out of it and not something you can eat.«

As veterinary researchers, Michelle Lauge Quaade and Anne Sofie Vedsted Hammer’s task has not been to increase fur production, but to improve the animals’ health and welfare on the farms.

However, Anne Sofie Vedsted Hammer praises the Danish mink industry and says that the mink breeders have been receptive to the researchers’ results and proposals. And they have supported the projects they have carried out on the farms.

»When we have concluded something in our research results, I have often experienced these things being implemented in counselling and guidelines, almost on the same day,« she says.

»In any case, it is not animal welfare if the production moves to China or Russia – which is something that you might well expect.«

Research data still relevant

Even if mink production has left Denmark permanently, Anne Sofie Vedsted Hammer will likely not be left without a job.

She is part of the emergency response at the Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, and when the University Post first turned up at the department, she had to cancel our appointment as she had to do an autopsy on some wild birds. Here, the enemy was avian influenza, yet another serious virus that would still be around when the vaccines have taken the sting out of Covid-19.

Yet Anne Sofie Vedsted Hammer is still unhappy with the losses to the mink research. Not least because it was one of the last research fields at the department which had the purpose of improving the health of animals, not humans.

I am still in the process of finding my bearings

Michelle Lauge Quaade, PhD student, Department of Veterinary and Animal Sciences

The vast majority of their colleagues’ research has a human angle. The researchers use animals in experiments which, ultimately, are to learn more about how diseases develop in humans.

»Denmark has historically delivered fantastic research into the health and welfare of production animals. But perhaps some of us became veterinarians because we were interested in animals and their diseases, and not so much human diseases. I think it’s a real shame that with the loss of mink research there will be fewer platforms where you can do this kind of veterinary research,« says Anne Sofie Vedsted Hammer.

She explains that she has already removed 80 per cent of the content of her lectures on mink, so she no longer teaches the students about things that are unique to the animal. Now she only talks about diseases that also occur in humans or other animals.

Michelle Lauge Quaade is in the process of postponing her PhD to ensure the same change of tack. The purpose is no longer to ensure better diagnostics, treatment and prevention among the Danish mink farm herds. The purpose is now is to examine what covid-19 in mink can say about covid-19 in humans.

»We’ve collected a whole bunch of samples from the farms, which have quickly become historical material. But I can still feel that everything is still a little vague to me now. I still have to get used to the fact that it will be something different than what I had originally intended.«

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