Farming for Fur

E-g-g-s used to spell pin money for the suburban wife. Today c-h-i-n-c-h-i-l-l-a is the de luxe way of spelling it. Only, instead of yielding pennies for the bank on the kitchen shelf, this new farming has been known to pay for the farm itself, since two young chinchillas bring as much as $3200 and three litters a year are not unusual.

Ten years ago, raising these exotic rodents in captivity was practically unheard of. This year something like six thousand of the lustrous, downy-furred little beasts are placidly — and economically — munching corn and alfalfa on lowland and upland farms here and there in the United States. One woman is even raising a pair in a penthouse twenty floors above New York City.

And, by these tokens, more than one mother calculates that by the time her daughter is a debutante — say in early 1955 — a flattering chinchilla coat will be in the mink price range. Today a fulllength new chinchilla wrap costs in the neighborhood of $60,000. Some furriers quote $85,000, if and when they can assemble the pelts.

Chinchilla has been an ‘oh-may-Itouch-it-just-once’ fur only since 1918. Before that, especially back around the turn of the century, it was just another fur. Made up into chunky tippets and muffs, it was the sort of thing an indulgent uncle gave his well-bred young niece when she got to the leggy age.

But suddenly, in 1918, Peru, Chile, and Bolivia put a frantic and decisive ban on its export. High up in the snowy Andean provinces of these three countries, where the chinchilla made its home, the tiny twenty-ounce creatures were almost extinct. And when they became extinct in the Andes they would be extinct in the world, biologists said, for chinchilla is purely the South American version of a squirrel. Its size and shape are those of a squirrel; so are its ears and eyes and tail. But the fur — well, to say it is the finest animal fibre in the world is a bald way of describing incredibly soft spider-web tendrils that spread a black veil over dawn-gray down.

Ruthless trapping had led to this near extinction. From 1895 to 1910, the pelts exported from Chile alone averaged about 300,000 annually. In 1899 these Chilean exports reached an all-time peak of 435,000. Naturally, by the time 1918 rolled around, it was taking the Indian hunters a year to bring back the bag they had formerly obtained in a week.

Meanwhile in Chile, it seems, there were numerous Englishmen engineering for English companies. After hours and on week-ends they were homesick. And, as homesick men of England will do anywhere they go on the globe, they brought a bit of England to South America. In this case it was long-legged hunters, hounds, and European red foxes, to set up the institution of fox-hunting.

What the Englishmen didn’t foresee — nor did anyone else, for that matter — was that the alien vixen and her litters would like nothing so much in the way of food as a tidbit of chinchilla along about midnight. The result was that the immigrant fox throve and multiplied in vast numbers during the next few years, while the chinchilla disappeared, completely in some districts.

The species being raised in this country are Costinas, and the first ones were brought here in 1923 by an American mining engineer, M. F. Chapman. But it wasn’t as simple as that sounds.

In the first place, it took twenty-three native trappers, working from camps 17,000 feet high, a full three years to capture eighteen of the nocturnal creatures alive. Then there was the matter of inventing a cage (since there were no models) which would approximate a rocky burrow and into which enough ice could be stuffed to maintain the chilly temperatures of the Andes.

This, it seems, was all preliminary to the matter of acclimatizing the midget animals to lower altitudes. It was done by stages — one or two thousand feet at a time, and a month, perhaps, spent at each stage. This stretched into another year before they were at sea level.

During all this time, too, there was the matter of diet — learning that the friendly but timid little creatures were entirely vegetarian and that any moisture was fatal to them. Starting out from the high reaches with eighteen chinchillas, using a great deal of ice and keeping electric fans blowing on the cage twenty-four hours a day, Mr. Chapman finally reached Los Angeles with eleven, only four of which were females.

The original farm at Inglewood, California, to which Mr. Chapman brought his chinchillas, is now chinchilla headquarters in the United States. From this mother colony breeding pairs have been purchased to set up some thirty other substantial chinchilla stock farms in Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and New York.

Until three years ago none of the Chapman animals were killed for their pelts. They were considered too valuable as breeders. A pelt (about twelve by eight inches) in the present market brings anywhere from $85 to $250. A live chinchilla sells for $1600.

Mr. Chapman’s worries weren’t over, though, when he landed his odd cargo in California in February. There was a still more difficult task of acclimatization ahead in realigning the lives of the chinchillas with the calendar of the North Temperate Zone. In February the chinchillas were just putting on their heavy coat in preparation for an Andean winter. By May, when the days in California get really hot, the chinchillas were fully dressed for subzero weather.

The tiny beasts were miserable. Ice was piled in the cages. But the chinchillas continued to lose interest in eating and, what was more alarming, all interest in sex life. By the time cool weather rolled around, the little animals began to moult. Precious fur that was worth three times its weight in gold came off in large chunks. Then, instead of ice and electric fans, blankets and hotwater bottles were called in for the shivering and naked little bodies.

Somehow they got through that winter, and by the spring of 1924 there were babies frisking about the pen. No more than two inches long, they weighed about one and a half ounces apiece.

All this while Mr. Chapman was experimenting with food and houses. He knew that, despite their delicate fur, the chinchillas were extremely hardy little beasts. The Indian who had brought the first one to him had put it in an old oil can and carried it over his shoulder for seventeen days, without water and with little food, in altitudes varying from 11,000 to 17,000 feet. In other words, the animal had survived in the can which was an oven in the daytime and a refrigerator at night, in varying altitudes, and with the minimum of food.

The trial-and-error method was the one used in the early experiments. Since the chinchillas in their native habitat live on rocky ground, on cliffs and hillsides, or on high plateaus where shrubs grow sparsely and the ground is soft enough for burrowing, it was assumed that they would do best in captivity if they were allowed to burrow. Chapman dug burrows in the California hillside. That idea was no good. The chinchillas would have none of the burrows, huddling outside them in a disturbed manner.

Exactly a dozen different kinds of houses were tried out. Only the last one proved workable, and, ironically enough, it is the simplest of the lot. It is a pen four feet by six by six, with a flooring and roof of oven-dried timber. All four sides are screened and open to the fresh air. In the centre there is a small timbered nest, with a sort of covered runway and hinged trapdoor. Apparently this is all that is needed to satisfy the chinchillas’ burrowing instincts, which, after all, may have been no more than a desire for privacy.

Hitting upon a balanced diet was achieved in much the same manner as the best housing arrangements were discovered — by copious experimentation and detailed observation over a period of years. To confirm his own findings, Chapman took several pairs to St. Louis to the Ralston-Purina Company, which puts out the prepared foods largely responsible for the high standard of silverfox and mink pelts raised in captivity.

Between Mr. Chapman and the food specialists a mixture has been worked out which seems to take care of all food requirements. This mixture includes such items as irradiated yeast, molasses, wheat germ, oat middlings, beet pulp, peanut-oil meal, brewers’ dried yeast, soybean-oil meal, corn-meal germ, yellow corn meal, chopped alfalfa, bone meal, and mineralized salt.

The list sounds overwhelming for such tiny animals, but they consume no more than two ounces of the mixture a day. Supplementing it are carrots three times a week and orange juice on alternate days. Two dollars a year buys everything a chinchilla can eat.

Chinchillas are monogamists. Once mated, they remain so for life. To maintain domestic peace, each pair is housed in a separate pen. The mating season for those in captivity is not restricted to any season. Young have been born every month of the year. The mild California climate and a liberal quantity of fertility vitamin E in the diet have considerably stepped up the matings; two and three a year are usual now. Babies in a litter vary from one to four. A few quintuplets have been born, but the average is two.

The gestation period lasts 111 days, rarely longer. During this period the pregnant mother is fed some greens and lettuce, and about ten days before whelping an electric bulb encased in aluminum is turned on under the nest to provide a slight heat until a few days after the young are born. An hour after birth the one-and-a-half-ounce babies are up and doing for themselves. They are fully furred and their eyes are open, although, like their parents, they can only see things at night.

During the forty-five days the mother nurses the young, the father leaves her side only at short intervals. The babies are never left alone. When the mother goes out of the nest to the food dish, the father takes her place with the babies. Although the babies are weaned at fortyfive days, the parents do not consider them mature enough to fend for themselves. For another thirty days they are tended and pampered.

At the end of this seventy-five-day period, however, the young are separated and put into pens with chinchillas from other litters. Great care is taken to prevent inbreeding, and brothers and sisters, even first cousins, are no longer placed together. Once together, the young chinchillas indulge in a considerable period of courtship, which seems to be a definite part of their scheme of things. Then, when they are anywhere from five to eight months old, they mate. Usually the first litter is born before the female is a year old. Her bearing span is eight to ten years, and during that time she produces constantly.

Next to karakul sheep (the Persian variety now being bred so successfully on ranches in the Southwest), chinchillas are the least laborious of all stock on fur farms. They are never nervous and high-strung like the fox and the mink, nor are they subject to pulmonary diseases. Although somewhat timid, they are docile and very friendly, as easily handled as pet rabbits.

They seldom bite humans, but they are inveterate snake-killers. The snakes, lured by the prospect of what they evidently take to be fat mice, find themselves no match for the incredible speed of the chinchilla.

On all the large farms there are charts, like those outside hospital rooms, which hang on each pen. Keepers check four important points each day and make their notations accordingly. First of all, the keepers look to see whether the large ears are standing up erect and perky, as they should if all is well. Then the beady eyes tell their story: they should not be watery. The tail is the next indicator, and always curves in a bushy arch when vitality is high. Last of all, the droppings tell the state of gastro-intestinal health.

The present stock is approximately twenty-nine generations from the original Costinas brought from Chile. Each is tattooed, however, for identification and has its complete pedigree. The animals are sold with a veterinarian’s certificate of health and are guaranteed to litter within six months or they are replaced with another pair, which have littered within that period, and with one of the young of this last litter.

The purchase price also entitles the new owner to bulletins on chinchilla care and forthcoming data on future experiments.

The quality of the fur raised in this country is exquisite. It far surpasses that of the wild chinchilla. One factor is the rancher’s ability to pelt when fur is at its thickest, what the furriers call No. 1 Prime. This is in February. No wild skin was ever taken in its prime because the native trappers didn’t have the feet or the stomach to go up 17,000 feet after chinchilla during the fierce and bleak Andean winter. Instead, they took skins in midsummer when the fur was thinner and the hide weaker.

It has been found that the fur is not so dense on animals raised in coastal and lowland regions. Three to six months in a cold climate, however, will put on a long and lustrous coat that is more like down than fur. Since the warm Southern climates noticeably stimulate breeding activity and interfere in no way with health, chinchilla farmers are talking about a future that is not very far off, according to them, when there will be breeding farms at one altitude and pelting farms at another.

Killing is done with a monoxide gas which puts the animals to sleep quite painlessly and doesn’t injure the fur in any way.

The first pelting of the captive chinchilla was done three years ago at the Chapman farm. This pelting was a little early, according to Reginald Chapman, son of the founder, but it was done to show furriers the exquisite texture of the home-grown chinchilla.

Like orchid raisers and diamond miners, the present group of chinchilla farmers have no intention of glutting the market with this precious fur. They distinctly do not anticipate a day when it will be an ordinary fur any more than the ranch-raised mink or the silver fox is. Nearly 99 per cent of the silver fox is raised in captivity, and it is not exactly cheap. Mink comes from more than a thousand mink farms about the country, and yet the price of a mink coat isn’t confused with that of rabbit. So, even with chinchilla a new and flourishing industry, the chances are that you’ll never get a coat of it at bargain-counter prices.