SAEN seeks Animal Welfare Act charges against “fur farm” that appears to breed animals mostly for laboratories & the pet trade
NEW SHARON, Iowa––If the 85-year-old Ruby Fur Farm was just a fur farm, producing mink or fox pelts for the garment industry, it would not be subject to unannounced visits from the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS)––but it isn’t.
Despite the name inviting an association with the fur garment trade, an association that most actual pelt producers try to avoid these days, the Ruby Fur Farm in recent years does not seem to have been involved much in fur pelt production, if at all.
Run by at least three generations of the Ruby family in New Sharon, Iowa, about halfway between Iowa City and DesMoines, the Ruby Fur Farm appears to have been chiefly engaged for many years in raising fur-bearing animals for other purposes.
One Ruby Fur Farm activity is breeding animals of species seldom used in biomedical research for highly specialized lab use. The Ruby Fur Farm also produces skunks, raccoons, ferrets and exotic birds for the pet trade.
Breeding animals for lab use and the pet industry are both regulated under the federal Animal Welfare Act, unlike fur farming, which is considered a branch of agribusiness, like breeding cattle, pigs, and chickens, and is therefore exempt.
Because the Ruby Fur Farm is subject to USDA-APHIS inspection, it produces a paper trail of inspection reports accessible through Freedom of Information Act requests.
How many skunks does the government want?
Because the Cincinnati-based organization Stop Animal Exploitation Now closely monitors USDA-APHIS inspection reports, the Ruby Fur Farm is subject of a recent SAEN complaint alleging “nearly two dozen” violations of the Animal Welfare Act, and “calling for the termination of the animal dealer’s license, and confiscation of all animals,” according to an October 18, 2017 SAEN media release.
SAEN in a separate media release alleged that the federal government is “protecting animal abusers by removing the identifying information from the inspection reports.”
Ironically, the USDA itself appears to be the Ruby Fur Farm’s biggest individual customer. In recent years the USDA has placed eight orders with the Ruby Fur Farm, paying $67,525 for at least 50 skunks and more than 40 raccoons for unspecified laboratory uses.
SAEN cities USDA-APHIS inspection reports documenting “dead animals left in enclosures to rot, animals infested with insects, swarms of flies buzzing enclosures, and animals exposed to deadly, excessive heat.”
Specifically, one USDA-APHIS inspection report found, in the language of the inspection report, a “dead, decomposing, headless juvenile ferret incorporated into the fecal material buildup on the wire floor in the corner of the cage,” which was occupied by “One live adult and six juvenile ferrets.”
The inspection also found that “Under several enclosures containing raccoons, there are numerous live maggots present in the piles of excreta,” in a building with “a high ambient temperature and humidity.”
SAEN has asked USDA-APHIS to fine the Ruby Fur Farm the maximum $10,000 per infraction/per animal, “which could lead to a fine in excess of $1 million,” SAEN calculates. Fines even close to that high have never been levied in a comparable case, but even much smaller fines would seem likely to put the Ruby Fur Farm out of business.
The present proprietors, Randy Joe and Merrill Ruby, are close to 60 years old, having taken over the farm from Randy’s parents Lawrence C. and Mae Ruby, who died in 1985 and 2011, respectively. Lawrence C. Ruby was son of the founders.
Diversified more than 50 years ago
Initially the Ruby Fur Farm was, like hundreds of others, engaged chiefly in pelt production for the fur garment industry. But it diversified long before most other fur farms began looking for ways to make a buck amid declining demand for fur garments.
The Ruby Fur Farm began raising skunks as early as 1932, when fur farming of any species was still a new industry. In 1951 the Ruby Fur Farm proprietors took out classified ads in various rural Iowa newspapers offering trappers $2.50 apiece for red fox pups, who apparently were the breeding stock used for conventional fox pelt farming.
By 1966, however, most U.S. fur farmers were transitioning from fox to mink production, as fox fur fell enduringly out of vogue. Instead of going into mink, the Ruby Fur Farm re-emphasized breeding striped skunks, descented at an early age, for sale to pet stores.
From 1969 to 1974 (at least) the Ruby Fur Farm advertised “red fox, blue fox, coyote, owls, albino skunk” and sometimes also ferrets in Field & Stream magazine.
Dominates the skunk trade
Skunks appear to have accounted for most of the Ruby Fur Farm’s business for circa 35 years. By reputation, the Ruby Fur Farm is still the leading supplier of descented skunks to the pet trade, but only 19 states still allow possession of pet skunks.
As of 2011, the Ruby Fur Farm inventory reportedly included 1,500 ferrets, 1,000 striped skunks, 350 raccoons, and 30 grey foxes, a species rarely ranched for pelts.
Mainstream fur farmers “think mink”
The fur farming business in the U.S., as worldwide, remains dominated by mink. According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, “Mink pelt production in the United States in 2016 totaled 3.32 million pelts, down 10% from 2015,” but close to the annual average of the past 40 years.
U.S. ranched mink production peaked at nearly six million pelts in 1969, dipping thereafter due to increased foreign competition, even as U.S. retail fur garment sales rose to an all-time high, in inflation-adjusted dollars, in the mid-1980s.
The value of ranched mink pelts produced in the U.S. in 2016 was $116 million, the lowest total since 2004, but close to the 20-year norm, though barely a third of the $291 million peak reached in 2011, a year of unusually intense speculation in the international fur industry.
The average price paid per pelt in 2016 was $35.00, barely a third of the peak price of $94.30 reached in 2011, but also close to the 20-year norm.
If not prospering, the U.S. ranched mink industry has survived a long shakeout that has seen Chinese production fall from 40 million mink pelts in 2013 to just eight million in 2016. China briefly overtook Denmark as the leading producer of ranched mink, but Denmark, pelting 17 to 19 million mink per year, is again the world leader.
Globally, ranched mink offerings at auction remain in the range of 70-75 million pelts, accounting for most of the total of about 110 million raw pelts sold per year.
The rapid rise of fur ranching in China in the early 20th century, however, followed by a glut of Chinese pelts on the market in recent years, weakened the fur farming industry in Europe to the extent that many governments are no longer trying to protect what remains of it.
Fur farming bans
Most recently, both houses of the Czech Republic legislature have voted to ban fur farming effective in 2019. This would close nine fur farms with cumulative production of about 20,000 mink and fox pelts per year.
Austria, Croatia, Japan, the Netherlands, Slovenia, and the United Kingdom have already banned fur farming, or at least mink, raccoon, coypu (nutria) and fox farming, from a combination of humane concerns with concern about mink, raccoons, and non-native fox breeds escaping and going feral.
In addition, Germany has reportedly adopted environmental and animal welfare standards that are expected to close the last five German mink farms.
The Dutch ban on fur farming, adopted in 2012, was judicially overturned in 2014 on appeal from a consortium representing the 160 fur farmers in The Netherlands, but the appellate ruling was then overturned in December 2016 by the Dutch Supreme Court.
Mink, raccoon, and coypu farming in Japan was prohibited under the Invasive Alien Species Act in 2006, but fur farms already operating were allowed to continue. The last Japanese fur farm closed in November 2016.