September 27, 2013
CAMBRIA TOWNSHIP, Pa. — For nearly 60 years, George Rykola has raised mink on this quiet, bucolic farm in rural Cambria County. He and his wife, Anna, live next door to thousands of mink they keep and pelt for market. Their relatives live close, too, and help on the farm about 90 minutes east of Pittsburgh.
“We’ve always lived a peaceful life here,” Mr. Rykola, 92, said.
That is until early Wednesday morning, when he learned someone had come on his property overnight and released hundreds of mink from their cages, prompting a police investigation and sudden media attention.
Cambria Township police Chief Mark Westrick said one of his officers on patrol saw a few mink running around and contacted the Rykola family. Mr. Rykola’s daughter and grandson went to the farm Wednesday morning and told him what happened. “They come in and they told me mink was running around all over the place,” he said.
They scrambled to round them up. Mr. Rykola said his daughter, who lives about 7 miles away, found a couple in her yard. The family gave conflicting accounts of how many were let loose, the chief said, but he estimated it was fewer than 500. He said they retrieved the “majority” of them.
Mr. Rykola said the intruders also destroyed cages and some mink records, which detailed things such as the animals’ dates of birth and litter counts.
In a statement sent anonymously to Bite Back — a website that documents illegal actions people have taken to help animals — the group Animal Liberation Front claimed responsibility for opening “hundreds of cages” at the farm. “As expected,” it read, “the animals wasted no time escaping from their barren prisons into the natural world. “We possess no specialized skill set or expensive tools. A sense of determination and a desire for justice go a long way.”
Jerry Vlasak, press officer with the Animal Liberation Press Office, explained that these groups that break laws don’t want to get caught, so they send communiques to organizations such as Bite Back. Mr. Vlasak’s organization is not affiliated with the Animal Liberation Front; it only supports its ideology and tries to help reporters understand it.
“We don’t know who these people are,” he said. “We don’t want to know who they are. But we know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.”
The effort doesn’t seem as if it will deter Mr. Rykola. “I don’t think a mink farmer is doing anything wrong by pelting,” he said. That, by the way, is the stripping of the mink’s skin.
Mr. Rykola said he doesn’t like to talk about that part.
Once a luxury, mink coats aren’t worn much by Americans anymore, Mr. Rykola said. Greece and China are now his lucrative markets. He sends his pelts to a company in Wisconsin, which takes it from there. At one time, there were 30-odd mink farmers in the area, he said. These days, there are just four.
Mr. Rykola, an Army veteran who spent part of his childhood in Poland, said he worked 19 years in a bakery. His family instilled a value for hard work, and he longed for a career that would also give him independence. “And I thought, boy, what could I get into that would make me independent?” he said.
That was a little creature coveted for its fur.
He got into the pelt business in 1954, after he was driving around and stopped at a mink farm in what is now Northern Cambria and decided to buy one. Though he counts roughly 4,000 mink now, he said he once had 25,000. It takes between 30 and 36 mink to make a fur coat, he said, and each pelt is worth up to $100.
Mr. Rykola said he was pretty upset about the whole thing, but he’s also practical. “Can I cry right now? What can I do?” But some family members were in tears, he said.
Chief Westrick said the investigation is ongoing. “If we’re able to, we absolutely would file charges, if we were able to track down the people responsible,” he said.
Not likely, Mr. Vlasak said. Animal Liberation Front has taken hundreds of similar actions — some more extreme than others — for 30 years or so, and only a handful of people are in jail. (One man, for example, burned down fur and leather shops and revealed the details to his brother, who then turned him in, Mr. Vlasak said.) The groups work autonomously, he said.
Police said they had begun the “daunting task” of trying to trace the Animal Liberation Front statement. The Rykola family is already making repairs. As Mr. Rykola, and the activist statement noted, pelting season starts this fall. “This is our livelihood,” he said.
“It’s a bad way to make a living,” Mr. Vlasak said.
Molly Born: email@example.com, 412-263-1944 or on Twitter @borntolede.