-- Commentary -- 12/09/01
These cold, gray days stir vivid memories for me, childhood images I shall live with forever. Strongest among them are those of pelting season on Grandpa's mink farm.
My grandfather, gone now for more than a decade, raised minks in Franklin, Idaho. Every fall, my family traveled to Franklin to help my grandparents with what we called "the pelting season."
I remember the smell. Like all members of the weasel family, minks are equipped with powerful scent glands. They sprayed their musky stench while in the throes of death. That smell permeated everything. Our clothes. Our hair.
I didn't have the manual dexterity to do the skinning, so I helped with the killing. We killed the females by breaking their necks. The males were not so lucky. They were too big to have their necks broken, so they were gassed. It took them a long time to die. I remember hearing their gasps and screams, and I remember having to pry their jaws from the wire mesh once they went silent.
After they were killed, I piled their warm, soft bodies into a wheelbarrow. I wheeled them to the mink shed just outside the pelting shed and positioned their bodies so as they stiffened, they would be easier to skin.
I remember how the minks within eyesight or earshot reacted to the cries of their dying mates, how by the hundreds they bobbed and paced frantically inside their tiny pens. One mink, a beautiful smoky gray female, died as she was pulled from her pen. She screamed, and then simply went limp.
In the preceding hours, she had watched and listened as others were pulled from their pens and killed. I always believed she knew what was happening around her and what was about to happen to her. I believe she died from sheer terror.
Grandpa's mink farm wasn't my only fur farm experience. My family lived a half-mile from the largest fur farm in southern Idaho. Minks, foxes, bobcats, even wolves, were raised for their pelts.
While doing my morning chores, I remember hearing the foxes yelping as they were electrocuted. Despite the distance, their sharp cries carried clearly through the crisp morning air.
Minks and foxes are wild animals. Although they've been kept in captivity for many years, they've been bred only for the quality of their fur. There's been no effort to eliminate their wild urges and behaviors. They act just as you would expect wild animals to act when kept by the thousands in tiny, cramped pens. Their urge to roam and hunt is transformed into psychotic behaviors, cannibalism and self-mutilation.
When it comes to killing, fur farmers are concerned about preserving the pelt. Being quick and humane is not the priority.
That's not to say my grandfather was a bad man. Grandpa was kind, gentle and decent to his children and grandchildren. I believe most people who raise animals for their fur are honest, hardworking people.
But the unspeakable misery of their animals cannot be denied.
These conditions are prevalent throughout the fur industry today. The industry's animal husbandry practices have changed little over the years, other than advances in medical technology that have eradicated many of the diseases, such as distemper.
I've also done a lot of hunting. Although some might say killing is killing, for me the sportsmanlike killing of an animal in the wild had a certain nobility and grace to it. We were in awe of the animals we pursued; there was a respect, a reverence, for our quarry. We spoke in hushed tones of the animals' intelligence, wit and spirit.
But the pelting season was pitiful and sad.
Last year, Americans were horrified when "Dateline NBC" aired the terrible conditions for domestic dogs and cats raised and killed for their fur in China. Immediately, the Oregon Legislature moved to ban the trade in dog and cat fur. Yet we accept the same conditions for foxes and minks in several fur farms across our state. Why is that?
It is time for Oregonians to confront reality. Instead of focusing on the rantings between activists and the fur industry, the media need to show the plain truth about life and death on the fur farm. Let's show the gassing of minks or the electrocution of foxes on the six o'clock news.
Only when Americans acknowledge those horrors will our elected officials take action to protect these animals. If they don't, then perhaps voters will take the initiative and do it themselves.
Three months ago, my Grandma passed away. For the first time in many years, I returned to Franklin. After the funeral, I walked across my grandparents' back yard to see what was left of the mink yard. Years ago, Grandma decided to "pelt out," meaning every one of the thousands of minks on the farm was killed.
Now, the roofs of the mink sheds are rusted and collapsed. Vines and weeds grow up through the wire mesh pens. The wooden beams and nest boxes are rotten and dilapidated.
The smell of death is gone. The images, however, will stay with me forever.
Scott Beckstead, a Waldport attorney, is president of the Central Coast Humane Society. You can visit his Web site at www.animal-law.com.