Battle lines have been sharply drawn between anti-fur forces and mink farmers across the United States.
In a nationwide offensive stretching from New Hampshire to Oregon, guerrillas of the Animal Liberation Front have raided 22 mink farms over the last year.
Causing millions of dollars of damage, these self-styled radical vegetarians have “liberated” thousands of minks and destroyed pedigree cards containing irreplaceable genetic data.
Tension fairly crackles here in Utah, the state with the largest number of mink farms. Since June, Animal Liberation Front members have conducted pre-dawn raids on five of the state’s 130 farms.
In hill towns, weary mink ranchers take turns driving pickups in nighttime patrols, cradling shotguns and searching for suspicious vehicles. Visiting security experts give seminars on property defense, recommending guard dogs, floodlights, electric fences and infrared alarms over mink cages.
“It’s nothing more than terrorism,” said one mink rancher, weary from a night on patrol. “This is my family’s livelihood that I am trying to protect.”
Like virtually all Utah ranchers contacted last week, he refused to be identified.
“There have been break-ins at some of the farms,” said an agitated woman who answered the telephone at one ranch. “Everyone is too scared. They don’t want to talk.”
The stakes are high for ranchers. This year prices have hit $53 a pelt, up 60 percent from last year and the highest in more than 20 years. And this week, farmers start skinning mink for their silky winter pelts.
The timing could not be better for those who oppose the wearing of fur. Disney’s film “101 Dalmatians” was released last week, bringing to movie theaters across the nation all the vile and bile of Cruella De Vil, the fur-addicted fashion designer, who schemes after a “cozy puppy coat.” She makes mere puppy poachers seem benign.
Even among more mainstream anti-fur groups, there is growing sympathy for direct action, including ranch raids. “We feel liberators should be celebrated,” said Sandra Lewis, New York director of the Friends of Animals, an international animal protection group.
While stopping short of advocating raids on ranches, the group is distributing a 50-page guide listing the street addresses of nearly every mink and fox ranch in North America.
At the state breeders cooperative here, Christopher Falco, the general manager, warned animal rights groups that his members were “people who have served in the armed forces and who feel they have the right to protect their property.”
In Summit County, where a mink ranch was raided last month, Sgt. Kyle Lewis of the sheriff’s department spoke about the local citizens patrols - primarily men who have been working 16-hour days skinning, stretching and sorting pelts - and said he was concerned about the potential for violence.
Mink farmers keep in touch with the sheriff’s office by cellular phone, he said. “They are armed,” he said. “They have been going without sleep. They are extremely nervous.”
Five years ago, the FBI classified the Animal Liberation Front as a “domestic terrorist organization.” But the local police have made little headway in capturing its members since the attacks began a year ago.
Still, four young people were arrested on Thursday in Hinsdale, Mass., after they broke into Carmel’s Mink Ranch and opened 20 cages, setting off alarms. Jeanne Carmel said the attack was the third on her Berkshire Mountains ranch since August.
In Utah, where mink ranching is a $30-million-a-year industry, legislators are preparing a bill that would make the crime of releasing fur-bearing animals from farms a felony.
Dissatisfied with the lack of progress against the Animal Liberation Front, the Fur Commission USA, a Minnesota-based association of the nation’s mink and fox farmers, and the Canada Mink Breeders Association offered a $100,000 reward this year for the arrest and conviction of perpetrators of farm raids.
“Farmers are intimidated, harassed; their occupation is under attack,” said Christine Dennis, a spokeswoman for the fur commission. “It’s awful. The ALF describes it as a war.”
According to Animal Liberation Front guidelines drawn up in the 1970s, the group “carries out direct action against animal abuse in the form of rescuing animals and causing financial loss to animal exploiters.”
Following the principles of non-violence, members are “not to harm any animal (human or otherwise).”
The group has taken credit for hundreds of acts of vandalism in the United States this year, but there are no firm estimates of its size.
Without any apparent central leadership, the front’s only coordination seems to be Internet Web sites, including Diary of Actions for North America. “Twenty-two fur farm raids in 12 months,” reads a Web site caption over a map of North America where each raid is marked by a star. “The A.L.F. is watching and there’s nowhere to hide.”
In Utah, which is responsible for 20 percent of the nation’s mink production, ranchers now stress the sustainable nature of their industry. Pointing out that voters in Colorado virtually outlawed trapping earlier this month, they say ranchers do not remove animals from the wild.
On Wednesday morning here, one rancher fumbled with a set of keys for new padlocks on a mink shed, still daubed with an intruder’s slogan: “ALF Stop Now.” As a German shepherd paced nearby, the third-generation rancher weighed the cost of security against the price for pelts.
His decision: “I plan on increasing my operation next year. I’m not going to bend to illegal activity.”
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