HERRIMAN — Shayna Page knew something was wrong when she heard the baby rabbits screaming one morning in February.
The Herriman woman ran outside and saw an animal trying to get into the cages of the rabbits her family raises. When the cat-size animal saw her, it ran away.
"The next day, I went out there and it had killed one of the babies and eaten a leg off two other babies," Page said. "Only one survived. It also ate the toes off eight other rabbits. My 8-year-old daughter was frightened and horrified."
The family put out a trap and caught the animal on the third day. They learned it was a mink.
On an August morning 2½ years earlier, Lindsey McMullin arrived at his family's mink farm to find animal activists had broken into one of the sheds and released all of the minks — 650 animals. The sheds also had been spray-painted with graffiti and the name Animal Liberation Front, an extremist group known for vandalizing farms and research laboratories that raise animals.
McMullin was devastated. "Most of the mink they released were young, 3 to 4 months old," he said. "They wouldn't know how to survive. And we're right in the middle of a suburban area, just a few hundred yards off a six-lane major street used by tens of thousands of cars every day."
The Page family doesn't know if the mink that attacked the rabbits was a survivor from the McMullin farm. Utah has a significant wild mink population that occasionally attacks domestic animals. But mink farming is big here. Utah is the second-largest producer of mink fur in America, and the fourth-largest in the world.
Animal rights groups have vandalized three local mink farms over the past ten years. One rancher in Sandy had 3,500 animals released into the surrounding area. Another in Summit County had 1,500 minks set loose. In the McMullin case, two men who claimed to be part of the Animal Liberation Front, or ALF, were captured by police and convicted of federal crimes. William James Viehl, 23, of Layton, was sentenced to two years in a federal prison.Alex Jason Hall, 21, of Ogden, is scheduled to be sentenced April 12. Viehl appealed his conviction to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver March 19.
Minks are small, water-loving animals with partially webbed feet and weigh between three and seven pounds. Closely related to otters, they are members of the weasel family. Like otters, they're extremely quick and agile. They also are ruthless carnivores in the wild, and with their needle-like teeth and long claws will hunt anything smaller, including chickens and even pet cats.
When the McMullins learned what had happened at their farm, the large and extended family rallied and began searching for the released minks. By noon, they had recovered 550 of their animals. Within a week, they were able to find most of the others. But not all of them.
"There were about 50 that we didn't recover," McMullin said. "A high percentage of those were killed on the road. I saw their bodies on the street. We also had mink that fell into window wells in the surrounding subdivisions. It was August, and with the hot sun, they would get dehydrated very quickly."
Working with South Jordan Animal Control, he learned of one mink trapped in a nearby window well and went to rescue it. "It was the middle of the afternoon, two days after they were released, and this window well was directly in the sun. The mink was almost dead; she was dying of thirst. She was so disoriented and lethargic that when I got into the window well, she didn't even try to get away; she just walked over and laid her head on my foot. She survived."
Another mink didn't. McMullin's brother-in-law saw it being chased down a street by two men. By the time he was able to get there, the mink had collapsed. He brought it to McMullin, who tried to revive the animal by trickling water into its mouth.
"I've got a picture of her in my arm," he said. "I held her in my arm and tried to get her to take water. She made it through the night. The next morning, I was able to give her water and she was able to drink, but that afternoon, she passed away."
Though minks are meticulously cared for in a comfortable environment by their farmers, the fact remains that the eventual fate of the animals not used for breeding is to be killed and skinned for their fur.
Animal rights groups justify their actions as an attempt to stop that slaughter. Los Angeles surgeon Jerry Vlasak is a spokesperson for the North American Animal Liberation Press Office, which he says is not part of the Animal Liberation Front. "There are other groups besides ALF that are operating," Vlasak said. "Certainly we sympathize with ALF and what they do. But I am a press officer; I am not a member of ALF. ALF members do not identify themselves, because they're breaking laws to help animals, and if they get caught, they end up going to prison."
Vlasak's group and ALF share the belief that animals should not be exploited or abused by humans for their own purposes. "We believe that animals should live out their lives as they see fit," he said. "Certainly there's no reason to imprison and kill fur-bearing animals so that a rich woman can make a fashion statement with her fur coat."
When it comes to law-breaking activism, Vlasak said, "ALF isn't particularly concerned about laws that allow the continued suffering and exploitation of animals. And there are people willing to break unjust laws, whether it's liberating animals from conditions of abuse, or inflicting economic sabotage on those who abuse animals for profit."
Teresa Platt, national spokesperson for Fur Commission USA, explained that released farm minks often end up killed on highways because they are attracted to the sound of traffic. "It sounds like food carts to them. If they do manage to survive, it's a very tough life; they have to get through the cold winter and hot summer. They will cannibalize their own little tails just to survive."
Platt questions the motives of activist animal rights groups. "They're willing to burn your building down to force you to embrace their cause. I would think that if you were that committed to protecting animals, you'd be vegan, but we know that they are not. Cars that have been involved in these incidents have been littered with old hamburger wrappers. I think their purpose is to cause great financial harm and stress to the (farming) families. But is it the 'cause,' or the thrill and adrenaline rush of the vandalism?"
McMullin believes it's the latter. "I think they're trying to put my family and I out of business," he said. "The individuals who broke into our farm should have been charged with animal cruelty for what they did to the mink. There's no sense to it at all. When you release more than 600 animals into a suburban area, where are they going to go?"
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When Page learned of the earlier South Jordan release of minks, she was shocked and said, "When people let animals go from the farms, what do they think they're going to eat? Do they think they're going to get food handouts in the wild like they've been getting all their lives? It's ridiculous that those people think they are doing animals a favor."
Page added, "After that incident, we now go out and enclose our chickens every night so that nothing gets them. They can't be free range any more. And I'm always looking out and watching, always checking under the rabbit cages to make sure nothing has been there to hurt them."
When the men who vandalized the McMullin farm were convicted, the judge fined them $66,000 for damages. McMullin shook his head. "I won't be holding my breath until I get that money," he said.