Few industries are more cruel than the fur trade, but some anti-fur tactics take matters from bad to worse
OSLO, Norway; SEATTLE, Washington––The Norwegian Court of Appeals on October 18, 2017 ordered four members of the anti-fur organization Nettverk for Dyrs Frihet (Network for Animal Freedom) to pay damages amounting to 21,000 euro, plus legal fees of 37,000 euro, a total of $68,100 in U.S. dollars, to a mink breeder in Figgyo borough, Sandnes city, Rogaland county, near the southern end of Norway.
Explained the fur trade web site Fur Europe, “The damages are to cover blood testing of 7,500 mink the animal lobby advocates put in danger of [contracting] the virus Aleutian disease by breaking into various fur farms [in 2013],” including one that was under quarantine, “without taking the necessary precautions. The animal advocates claimed in front of the court to have been wearing [surgical] gloves when breaking into more farms, but the very farm footage they obtained and published revealed this not to be true.”
“Fur industry wants to make investigations impossible”
Responded Nettverk for Dyrs Frihet, “By pressing charges and demanding economic compensation from a voluntary organization, the fur industry wants to make it impossible for Nettverk for Dyrs Frihet to continue to investigate the conditions at fur farms. The fur industry wants to put an end to disclosures which have added to the trend of the general public increasingly distancing themselves from the fur industry.”
Infiltrating more than 200 fur farms in 2008-2009, undercover personnel from Nettverk for Dyrs Frihet and the Norwegian SPCA released video documentation of shocking conditions that turned Norwegian public opinion against the industry. By 2011, Oslo Fashion Week founder Pål Vasbotten banned fur from the catwalks of Norway’s only world-class fashion event. Four years later, in 2015, Norwegian finance minister Siv Jensen halved agricultural subsidies to fur farmers.
Aleutian disease compounds fur farm suffering
But Aleutian disease, a form of parvovirus that causes spontaneous abortion and death in mink and ferrets, is also a serious concern, not only for fur farmers but from a humane and environmental perspective.
First recognized in ranch-raised mink in 1956, named for the strain of mink in which it was identified, Aleutian disease is believed to have spread from fur farms to wild animals, including not only mink and ferrets, but also otters, polecats, both stone and pine martens, skunks, genets, foxes and raccoons.
The chief and perhaps only vector for transfer of Aleutian disease into the wild appears to be mink and ferret escapes and releases.
Mink and red foxes, the two species longest and most intensively raised for fur, would not even be candidates to be kept in captivity if assessed strictly from a behavioral perspective. Both are highly active, inquisitive but furtive mostly nocturnal carnivores, who tend to dwell alone when not raising families. Both need a great deal of exercise. Mink prefer to be able to swim and dive; foxes to run.
Fur farming is self-evidently cruel
To see either a mink or red fox (or any fox) in close confinement is to see a miserably anxious, uncomfortable animal, likely to snap and bite at the approach of any human or other animal––and to urinate in fear.
Keeping vixens (mother foxes) calm enough to refrain from cannibalizing their own young has been among the enduring difficulties for fox farmers since the industry began. Of the approximately 20% of foxes whelped who die before being killed for their pelts, about half are cannibalized.
Fur farming is so self-evidently cruel, and the caged mink and fox so visibly suffering, that the impulse of any observer to just open cage doors and let the animals go is easily understood. But few actions undertaken from humane motives have more inhumane results, as fur industry spokespersons emphasize whenever asked to comment on activist releases of animals from fur farms.
Eden Valley mink release
For example, persons still officially unknown and at large in July 2017 released 38,000 mink from Lang Farms in Eden Valley, Minnesota. Many of the mink were kittens, not yet weaned.
Describing the mink as “$750,000 worth,” Fur Commission USA offered a reward of $10,000 for information leading to the conviction of the suspects.
The money involved was clearly the first priority for Fur Commission USA, and for anyone who would raise mink for pelts.
But, as Fur Commission USA executive director Michael Whelan added, “Anyone who thinks they are helping the animals by doing this are severely misinformed. This is a crime against the animals as much as against the Lang family.”
Wrote Cory Zurowski for CityPages, “Handlers using fish nets have managed to recover less than 6,000, and 90% [of those] were dead. For those who remain on the lam, an equally brutal fate awaits,” not that being gassed or electrocuted, then skinned, would have been anything less.
Voracious eaters, with a very fast metabolism, mink “eat just about any kind of creature who lives in and near water, including frogs, mice, and worms,” Zurowski explained.
“Now they’re going to have to hunt. Some could get injured by their prey. Some will starve. It’s hard to say if they’ll even know if they can acquire food,” as opposed to being fed slaughterhouse offal by the fur farmers, University of Minnesota extension service wildlife and conservation educator Andrea Strauss told Zurowski.
“There’s no ecosystem in one square mile that can support 40,000 minks,” Strauss emphasized. “They’re going to destroy the food supply. There was no chance that was going to go well.”
Summarized Zurowski, “It requires multiple acres of wetlands to support one mink with an ample food supply. Three to four animals can be sustained when living along streams. Tens of thousands of mink were freed into an ecosystem that was completely unable to sustain anything close to their numbers. Some will attempt to enlarge their range in search of food and will become roadkill. Sustenance will be short-lived at best. Strauss won’t speculate on how many might survive. But their prospects are dismal. In the short term, the creatures that will benefit are turkey vultures.”
“Turkey vultures are going to have a heyday for a couple of weeks,” Strauss finished. “They’re going to have a smorgasbord and all the other scavenger species will have a smorgasbord, and then it will be over.”
The Eden Valley mink release much resembled three others in Brant and Perth County, Ontario in 2015 and 2016 that set loose about 8,500 mink, among them. Many of those mink were likewise still nursing.
Even if the Minnesota and Ontario mink releases were unrelated, there tends to be little variation among either fur farm releases or fur farms themselves––except that a break-in at a fox farm near Anamosa, Iowa in October 2014 reportedly failed when, fur farmer Robert Roman told Anamosa Journal staff writer Robert Crozier, only two of 30 foxes whose cages were opened actually left the cages.
“Most mink ranches are the same,” explained Eric E. Magnuson in the October 4, 2017 edition of Seattle Weekly, “with cages hung off the ground in long sheds that contain multiple rows and are generally surrounded by a fence. In a typical raid, ranch raiders arrive under cover of darkness; the cages, each of which typically houses one mink, are opened; and fences are cut. There is no attempt to rescue the mink, in no small part because they bite hard and are difficult to handle. Instead, the animals are left to compete for survival in the wild.”
Magnuson credited the recurring phenomenon of mink farm releases to the influence of Rod Coronado, an activist who first came to public notice when in 1986, as a Sea Shepherd Conservation Society crew member, and fellow crew member David Howitt scuttled two Icelandic whaling vessels at dockside. Both were later refloated and returned to use.
Leaving the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, Coronado went on to attack mink research facilities at Michigan State University, Oregon State University, Washington State University, and Utah State University in 1991-1992. Coronado in February 1992 released mink kept by Michigan State University in East Lansing. There he also set a fire that destroyed the office of longtime mink researcher Richard Aulerich.
“The attack was catastrophic for Aulerich and another animal researcher, Karen Chou,” recalled RJ. Wolcott, on the Lansing State Journal in a February 2017 look back at the case.
Razed info on alternative to use of live animals in toxicology testing
“Aulerich lost 32 years’ worth of research,” Wolcott wrote, “while Chou lost a decade of her work studying the use of animal sperm as a substitute for live animals in toxicology testing.”
Originally charged with arson, theft, possession of explosives, extortion, destruction of government property, and illegal interstate flight, Coronado in March 1995 pleaded guilty to one count of aiding and abetting arson of a research facility as well as lesser offenses.
In August 1995 Coronado drew a sentence of 57 months in prison and was ordered to make restitution of more than $2.5 million, of which he actually paid $2,375, Wolcott reported.
Coronado has remained a high-profile activist, and has served prison time twice more, for felony conspiracy associated with an arson and for violating probation.
“Perhaps Coronado’s most enduring influence, though,” assessed Magnuson in Seattle Weekly, “comes from a list of mink ranches across North America he began compiling in 1990 with the now largely inactive Coalition Against Fur Farming.
“Published as a zine called The Final Nail, the list was first released in 1996. The most recent printed version (#4) was released in 2013, although The Final Nail website added Canadian farms more recently and seeks ongoing crowd-sourced updates.”
“The Final Nail”
Reported the Animal Liberation Front Press Office on February 3, 2014, “After the City Council failed to block a proposed mink farm in Preston, Idaho, ‘Fur Farm Intelligence Unit’ mailed a copy of The Final Nail #4 to every home within half a mile of the proposed farm. The guide was delivered to 95 homes in total. The manual contains a step-by-step ‘proven method’ for raiding a fur farm and shutting it down.”
Coronado and The Final Nail appear to have inspired two generations of emulators, but whether any of them could actually be credited with shutting down any mink farms is questionable.
To the extent that The Final Nail has influenced the fur trade at all, mink releases may have encouraged the relocation of the industry from the U.S. and Canada to China––a trend that was already well underway before the first deliberate mink releases on record occurred.
Fur farming was already in decline
Coronado struck first after the number of working mink farms in the U.S. had already contracted from the 1980 high of 1,122 to 683, with only one increase in 11 years. From then to 2008, when the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service last reported the number of working mink farms, the number contracted further, to just 274, with only two slight blips upward. Each time the downward trend resumed the next year.
The rate of contraction most closely parallels the increase in fur pelt production in China, a minor mink pelt producing nation in 1980, but producing more mink pelts than the rest of the world combined by 2008.
A second major factor in the reduction in the number of U.S. fur farms has been the decrease in U.S. retail sales of fur garments, which fell by half from 1987 to 1992 and––despite frequent fur trade claims that fur is making a comeback––have remained close to the 1992 level ever since when the dollar volume of retail sales is adjusted for inflation.
Third, closely related to the first two factors, occasional steep jumps in fur pelt prices on the international market, occuring most recently in 2005-2006 and 2010-2011, triggered by speculative buying when furriers believe their own hype about fur making a comeback, have not caused the number of U.S. fur farms to increase.
The drops in pelt prices that follow in the ongoing industry boom-and-bust cycle, however, tend to put more fur farmers out of business.
Straight Edge “boom” led to busts
At least 29 mink farm releases between 1995 and 1997 were the work of an “anti-drug, anti-sex group called Straight Edge,” whose hub was Salt Lake City, reported Salt Lake Tribune reporter Vince Horiuchi after nine Straight Edge members were charged with related offenses, including the March 1997 pipe bombing of the Fur Breeders Agricultural Cooperative in Sandy Spring, Utah. The bombing jeopardized the lives of a Mexican immigrant family who were sleeping on the premises.
Four of the Straight Edgers were eventually convicted and did prison time, one was prosecuted as a juvenile, three were acquitted, and one committed suicide while under indictment.
While the pipe bombing brought the involvement of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a variety of state and local law enforcement agencies had already been on the case for some time.
Released mink deaths marked turning point
The turning point in the investigation came soon after graphic video aired in mainstream news coverage of the May 31, 1997 botched release of up to 9,600 mink from a fur farm at Mount Angel, Oregon, and appeared to come through one or more informants who had lost confidence in the Straight Edge tactics.
Released from the Mount Angel fur farm were as many as 1,600 adult female mink and 6,000-8,000 kits. An estimated 400 adults and 2,000 kits either died of exposure, killed each other in territorial fighting, were apparently trampled underfoot by the raiders, or disappeared with little chance of survival in habitat unlikely to sustain their metabolic needs.
Other break-ins, other busts
Other attempted releases in Ontario and upstate New York during the same time frame as the Straight Edge activity also reportedly resulted in hundreds of mink deaths, but to much less notice. That string of incidents appears to have ended after five Michigan activists, including Gary Yourofsky, later noted as a touring vegan speaker, were arrested in March 1997 in the act of allegedly trying to release mink from the Ebert Fur Farm in Blenheim, Ontario.
Yourofsky in 1999 served 77 days in a Canadian federal penitentiary for his part in the Ebert Fur Farm raid.
Meanwhile, in October 1997, Seattle-area activists Justin Clay Samuel and Peter Daniel Young released a cumulative total of about 8,000 mink from six fur farms in three states. Apprehended in 1999 and 2005, respectively, both were sentenced to serve two years in prison and to make restitution of $364,000 for Samuel, $254,000 for Young.
More than a decade elapsed before the next major series of mink farm releases.
Recounted Magnuson, “Kellie Marshall and Victor Vanorden, from Austin, Texas, traveled to Iowa in 2011 and were apprehended and convicted for attempting a raid at a ranch targeted by Young and Samuel in 1997. Joseph Buddenberg and Nicole Kissane are currently in Federal prison in California for a series of [mink] releases in 2013, after being apprehended in 2015.”
Convicted of releasing about 5,300 mink from fur farms in Idaho, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, Buddenberg and Kissane were ordered to make restitution of $398,272.
Kevin Olliff (also known as Kevin Johnson), who pleaded guilty to releasing 2,000 mink at one fur farm in 2013, told Magnuson that “Young’s past actions were hugely influential,” Magnuson wrote.
Olliff/Johnson was sentenced in February 2016 to serve three years in prison. His partner-in-crime, Tyler Lang, also pleaded guilty to the charges against him and in March 2016 was sentenced to three months time served, six months home imprisonment, six months community confinement, and one year of supervised release. Lang was also ordered to make $200,000 restitution.
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago on November 8, 2016 rejected an appeal from Olliff/Johnson and Lang contending that their convictions under the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act violated their First Amendment right to free speech.
Mass abandonment is neither “rescue” nor heroic
Each mink release defendant is widely regarded as an animal rights hero or heroine in some sectors. But would this be true of anyone else who in effect abandoned hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of animals, who have no experience at feeding themselves, to starve and/or wreak mass havoc on wildlife before starving?
Though the comparison is sometimes made, mink releases are in no way accurately comparable to carefully returning feral cats, one or two at a time, to habitat they had already occupied before being trapped for sterilization and vaccination.
A much closer parallel would be dumping hundreds or even thousands of house cats into a completely unfamiliar environment, with rodents enough present to sustain only a few cats for a couple of days.
Only the suffering inflicted by fur farming makes the suffering of both mink and prey species resulting from mink releases look superficially acceptable to animal advocates, and then only to those who don’t think deeply about it.