The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Fur-Bearing Animals, Cultivation of
FUR-BEARING ANIMALS, Cultivation of, or FUR FARMING, is a new and promising industry in North America, which has been begun in view of the alarming decrease of these animals in their wild state. It will relieve the pressure on the wild stock, and will make it possible not only to supply the market with the pelts of captive stock, better on the average than wild skins, but also will enable the persons engaged to supply themselves with excellent furs at a comparatively small cost. As most of the animals to be utilized are natives of cold regions the industry can be successful, according to present information, only in the colder Northern States and in Canada, as in warmer regions good long fur will not be produced; but the beaver, skunk, muskrat and raccoon may be cultivated almost anywhere when local circumstances are favorable. Farmers are most advantageously situated to carry on this industry as a side-line, so that it has come to be called “fur-farming.” Much of the food required, which is mainly such as is fed to dogs and cats, involves little expense, and the labor of attendance is light, except, perhaps, in the case of black foxes. This special line requires a considerable investment and an expensive up-keep if entered upon systematically.
The earliest serious attempts were made in Oneida County, N. Y., where minks were reared in 1866 by H. Resseque, and by others later, with profitable returns; but were not long continued. Latterly mink culture has been resumed in Canada by many persons, one company in Quebec having embarked about $50,000 in the enterprise. Minks require access to water, and the yard in which they are confined should include a small space of pond or of a running stream. They are fed on bread, corn-meal mush and the like, with fish or meat twice a week. The results thus far are highly encouraging.
The Canadian pine-marten and the larger pekan (see Marten) have been bred in captivity, and several serious efforts are now in progress in Canada toward their cultivation; but the difficulties of success with these animals are great. The same is true of the otter, experiments with which are being made, with good promise of success. The fur of all three is very costly, and successful cultivation would be very profitable. The raccoon is far more easily reared, and this is now done in hundreds of farm-yards, where the space required and the food supply can be furnished with almost no expense, and the returns are gratifying; but wild stock is still too abundant to make the culture of this animal very important as yet. The same may be said of the skunk. Two kinds of skunks exist in North America — the common black-and-white northern skunk, and the smaller variegated or “striped” skunk of the southwestern border and Mexico. Both produce fur that is in constant demand at good prices, the pelts of the northern skunk being now worth about $3. The skunk breeders in this country now exceed in number that of all other animals combined. This animal tames quickly and is easily managed and cheaply fed; and it offers the great advantage that it remains asleep in its den during cold weather, when other animals need the most costly attention. Any farmer or villager may easily rear a few; and there is much inducement to engage in skunk-breeding as a regular business on a large scale. In undertaking to rear these or any other animals the principle of action must be to arrange food and a manner of life for the captives as nearly as possible like that to which they are accustomed when wild.
The cultivation for its fur of the fox in captivity is the most important and extensive venture in this direction yet made. American foxes, from the point of view of the furrier, are of four kinds: (1) The gray fox of the southern United States; (2) the small swift or kit fox of the western plains; (3) the red or “common” fox, and (4) the white arctic fox. The first two have not yet been cultivated, nor do their pelts enter largely into trade. The arctic fox is yet too abundant to attract capital to its culture; but a small proportion of the species, perhaps 10 per cent, are not white even in winter, but slate-blue in color all the year round, and are known as “blue” foxes. These have been held in captivity and reared for their fur for many years at places along the shores of Alaska, and on certain islands in Bering Sea; but in most places they are able to pick up their own food (largely fish), or need be fed only a part of the year, and are caught late in the fall by trapping. Several expensive experiments have been made in establishing breeding establishments for these blue foxes in eastern Canada, and they promise well, but definite results are not at hand.
Fox-farming.— The red fox, which, in its normal fulvous condition, contributes thousands of beautiful pelts to the furriers annually, has a strong tendency toward black in its pelage. When one shows a line of black along the spine and across the withers it is called a “cross-fox”; when the dark coloring is more irregular it is a “patch-fox”; when black all over, with the tips of the hairs white, it is a “silver fox.” This last is the most valuable variety, and one which varies from grizzly to almost pure black; finally, some may be pure black. To rear in captivity the ordinary red type would not be worth the cost; but to cultivate by selective breeding the high-priced silver and black furs promised wealth. Attempts to do this began in eastern Canada more than 50 years ago, but no considerable success was reached until two independent fox-breeders in Prince Edward Island united their knowledge and stock in 1894, and began to produce black and silver foxes the sale of which, as breeding pairs, brought them great wealth, and aroused a furor of excitement and an army of more or less speculative fox-farmers. The success of these originators was owing not only to the acquired knowledge and experience of many years, but to what is now known to be a most favorable situation, and to the availability of wire-mesh for fencing. To make a fox-proof fence had been, until the invention of woven wire, a practical impossibility.
Messrs. Oulton and Dalton, operating with great secrecy, continually bred from darker and darker animals until finally they achieved silver and black strains that bred true; but it was not until 1910 that they felt justified in appearing in the market. The first 25 silver skins sent to London sold at auction for an average of $1,386 apiece. This created a furor of speculation. “People who formerly had known something of the business,” says Osgood, “were now eager to engage in it. . . . How rapidly prices for breeding-stock advanced is well illustrated by the experiences of one ranchman who sold his first pair of cubs for $750, and other pairs successively for $3,000, $12,000, $13,000 and $14,000.” The maintenance of this prodigious inflation of prices was due mainly to stock companies which sprang up like mushrooms and were capitalized so recklessly that in May 1913, when the value of the foxes on Prince Edward Island was estimated officially at $15,000,000, the combined capitalization of 196 registered companies was $29,305,700, and in December 1914 was $31,500,000. In addition to this fox “ranches” were established all over Canada, and in almost every one of our northern tier of States. Then the monopoly was broken. Wild stock was searched for and found in increased amount, the war came on, and the inflation collapsed. Ranch-bred silver foxes could soon be bought for $1,500 to $2,000, or often much less, and pelts fell in price to the level of 10 years ago. “Now, with a comparatively large number of silver foxes in domestication, with a clearer understanding of their successful management, and with a return of moderate prices for breeders, a steady, healthy and general development of silver-fox farming may be expected.”
Karakul.— A very different kind of domestication of animals for the production of fur is that of the Central-Asian sheep, known as karakul (Black Lake), whose lambs at birth are clothed in a coat of closely curled black hair, formerly designated astrakan or Persian lamb. Some of these sheep (known as Arabi, Krimmer, broadtail, etc.) were imported, at great trouble and expense, in 1908 and their progeny, crossed with other breeds, is now producing these valuable lamb-skins here and in Canada. The industry is experimental as yet, but seems likely to prove a very valuable success. Consult Ingersoll, E., “Animal Competitors” (New York 1911); Jones, J. W., “Fur Farming in Canada” (Montreal 1913); Circular on Karakul Sheep (Department of Agriculture, Washington 1913); Dearborn, Ned, “The Domesticated Silver Fox” (Department of Agriculture, Farmers' Bulletin 795, Washington 1917, which summarizes Farmers' Bulletins 301 and 328 previously issued).