10,000 mink released from Sultan farm cages

Owners of a rural mink farm in Sultan spent a long day yesterday trying to round up more than 10,000 mink set free during a suspected ecoterrorism attack. Even as night fell, mink could be seen scampering through the area.

Brad Roesler said his family and neighbors set out traps and tromped through the woods with fishing nets and wire loops like the ones dog catchers use. While most of the animals had been returned to cages last night, scores of others died from dehydration or from being struck by cars.

Sultan Police Chief Fred Walser said about 9,000 mink had been recovered by 8 p.m. Search crews beat brush and peered into drainage pipes until dark. They plan to continue their search today.

"I don't know the loss," Walser said. "We probably won't know for a day or two."

Walser said someone cut through the fence of the Roesler Brothers Fur Farm, on 339th Avenue Southeast near Highway 2, and opened all of the chicken coop-like cages. Police were called shortly after 4 a.m. when someone saw hundreds of mink running loose.

Roesler said the cages were opened sometime between midnight and 4 a.m. He estimated about half of his 22,000 mink never left their cages.

"When I got up there, there was mink all over," Walser said. "One bit me. It felt like a sewing machine; their teeth are pretty sharp."

The Animal Liberation Front (ALF), an international animal-rights group which the FBI says is responsible for more than 600 crimes nationally since 1996, claimed responsibility for the attack in an e-mail sent to local media.

"Fencing was removed and nearly every cage opened," ALF officials wrote in the e-mail, which accurately described the location of the mink farm. "It has been shown through such efforts as the Mink Rehabilitation Project that farm raised mink can survive and flourish in the wild."

But Teresa Platt, executive director of the San Diego-based Fur Commission USA, said the mink had been hand-raised by the Roeslers. She said the mink don't know how to hunt for food or water.

"This is a great example of animal cruelty," said Platt, who estimated the damage at the farm at $500,000. "They're trying to terrorize the farmer into giving up his livelihood. That's ecoterrorism."

Platt said she came up with this figure after comparing the release to a 1997 mink release in Mount Angel, Ore. In that release, 10,000 mink were released and 6,000 were recovered. She said that loss totaled $750,000.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a grown mink is worth about $36. Because the Roesler Family Farm specialized in the coveted blue mink, Platt said, they could fetch about $40 per animal. She said the figure also includes the "uncalculated losses in lost genetic history for the animals." In addition, she said the stress caused to the animals could affect the quality of their fur.

Walser said police had not been contacted by the ALF or any other group claiming responsibility for the attack and could not confirm whether the group was being investigated. Walser said he suspected an animal-rights group was behind the attack.

FBI officials in Seattle said yesterday that they are working with Sultan Police, but were waiting for notification that someone had admitted responsibility.

FBI spokeswoman Robbie Burroughs said the agency handles cases involving the ALF and other ecoterrorism groups.

While Walser said this is the first time the 18-year-old family farm has been targeted, mink releases have occurred several times in Western Washington.

Nearly 200 mink were freed by from a Monroe farm by activists in 1999. Most were recaptured.

The ALF struck a mink farm in Cle Elum in 1997, releasing about 2,000. Half were recovered, said Platt.

The group also claimed credit for a 1991 arson at an Edmonds food and processing facility belonging to Northwest Farm Foods Cooperative. The co-op produced feed for mink farms.

In one of the costliest cases of ecoterrorism in the state, a group calling itself the Earth Liberation Front claimed credit for the 2001 arson at the University of Washington's Center for Urban Horticulture. Damage was estimated at about $3 million.

Snohomish County is a leader in the state in mink production and usually in the top 10 nationwide. The Farm Census estimated more than 63,000 pelts were produced in 1997.

ALF, according to its Web site, causes severe financial loss to "animal exploiters" through the damage and destruction of property. Group members acknowledge that their actions are illegal, which is why they work anonymously, either in small groups or individually.

Roesler said the family farm started as a Future Farmers of America project. Roesler's brother began by raising one mink, and now the farm harvests close to 8,000 mink annually.

The mink are sold to a company in Toronto, where they are used to make fur clothing and for oil.

While Roesler said his family will recover financially, his wife, Katy, was less sure.

"This makes it tough to buy school clothes for the kids, doesn't it?" she said.

Christopher Schwarzen: 425-783-0577 or cschwarzen@seattletimes.com

Jennifer Sullivan: 425-783-0604 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com