First in a two-part series
With her green gardener’s gloves and trowel, Gladys Gilbert slops down more than a dollop of feed for one of the thousands of foxes at M&E Fur Farm.
A 10-year employee, Gilbert can regularly be seen walking the wooden aisle in one of the farm’s seven animal sheds in North Harbour, off the Burin Peninsula highway.
The feed she dispenses includes chicken scraps, brought in to the farm’s feed kitchen once a week from Country Ribbon. It also has milled cereal imported from Nova Scotia. Some fur farmers like to use fish offal from local plants in the mix.
“I’m not one for fur. … I like feeding them,” she says, when asked about her job. “They’repretty content as long as they’ve got food.”
Further down the shed, the farm’s co-owner, Merv Wiseman, is speaking with Björn Eriksson, an agent from the Saga Furs international auction house.
Eriksson was in the province this week to inspect the farm’s operations for certification as an acceptable source for the auction house, from an environmental and animal-rights perspective.
He flew in from Helsinki, Finland, and toured several other fur farms with Wiseman — mink and fox — before leaving the province.
“We don’t sell any foxes anymore from non-certified farms,” Eriksson told The Telegram, noting the sensitivity to the public’s perception of the industry and the demands of the major fashion houses.
On the Wiseman farm, there are no signs of animal in-fighting, no bloody stumps for tails or with patches or puss, as seen in some online videos made by both anti-fur activists and those interested in simply drawing attention to poor fur farming practices.
Wiseman’s animals are still filling in their prime fur for the year. The non-breeders to be taken for their pelts will start to be killed in late November.
The farm stands as one of the largest silver fox farms in the North America and Wiseman is looking to expand.
He is planning to move from 650 to 1,000 female breeder foxes.
“I’ve put a lot of hard work into it since 1984,” he said, running through some of the hard times in the farm’s history.
The foxes nearby are giving growly yelps and pressing against the back of their cages — no less keen to be around people than they would be in the wild.
A few display spurts of high-energy activity, leaping from the bottom level of their cages to an upper shelf and then down and up again in rapid succession. Some zip from one cage to the next through tunnels wired into paired enclosures, a feature not seen on all fur farms.
“Animal welfare is a big issue,” Wiseman says, noting there are tighter codes of conduct at the federal level and new provincial fur farming regulations, brought in under the Animal Health and Protection Act.
So long as animal-welfare and environmental issues are taken seriously, he sees no reason the fur industry should not be able to expand in Newfoundland and Labrador.
“Today, the public perception is really important,” said Peter Noer, at Viking Furs in Cavendish, visited by Eriksson during his visit to inspect the Wiseman farm.
Viking Furs is one of the province’s largest mink farms and, Noer says, proper care of his animals means the best possible product.
He makes no apologies for farming mink for their fur, but acknowledges it is a difficult topic for some people.
Discussion is not at all helped by industry terms like “killing trolley” — a common name for a cart used to euthanize mink come harvest time. Mink are typically killed, cleaned of grease using sawdust and then skinned.
Excess flesh and fat are removed from the pelts before they are dried, labelled and packed for shipping.
Noer hails from Denmark, was raised on a fur farm and said he was attracted to this province by an ACOA-assisted mission to his country.
He brought in 4,500 mink to start farming furs here.
He asks that people come in and tour his farm before passing judgment on the work that is his livelihood.
Viking Furs has about 15,000 of the 60,000 female mink used in the province for breeding and offers 22 full-time jobs to the local community, he said, with total employment running up to 60 in peak season.
“It’s very important to understand … we are having animals in captivity and we’re treating them good,” he said, saying the mink are fed three times a day and given fresh water.
In 2010, farm cash receipts for fur in Newfoundland and Labrador totalled $11.6 million. The next year, receipts came in at $18.9 million.
The province has pulled in $17.9 million in the first three months of 2013 — the key sales period for any year.
Fur farms are making money, but there are fewer now than in 2009.
MONDAY: farm numbers, how would-be farmers from the late 2000s have fared and the potential for growth.