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Ranch Service and Research

Mink. Mink.

This chapter was the most difficult one to write; in fact, just to find a title for it took a lot of thought. All the early technical help was confined to veterinary diagnosis and treatment. These services were provided for fox ranchers only. Mink was an offbeat backyard hobby that attracted little technical attention until the 1930s. Research as we know it today began later than that. So if you will bear with us, we will tell the story of the early veterinary services and the people who administered them. Most of these people became involved with mink at a later time. Oddly enough, despite the foregoing, the first investigative reference we could find, related to mink. Stanislas Valiquette in the Seventh Annual Report, Commission of Conservation, Canada, 1916 says "In the autumn of 1912, we had twelve mink in our ranch; divided by couples, as far as possible. A greater number of these had been caught in the neighbourhood using wooden boxes like ordinary muskrat traps. These mink were fed with fresh meat, fish and table refuse, as well as bread and milk. The results were disastrous, all died within about six weeks, some apparently of diarrhea and others of wounds caused by fighting among themselves. A strange fact is that two mink, separated by a wire fence of three-quarter inch mesh, fought each other until they died.

"In the summer and autumn of 1913, we again started our experiments, but the results were still unsatisfactory, though better than those of the previous year. We had been able to keep mink for periods varying from one to six months, but have finally lost them. We give them as food, meat, strictly fresh fish, bread and milk at intervals, though in less quantity than formerly; but we still had cases of diarrhea and other diseases that we were unable to diagnose. They seemed to fight less.

"We kept mink until February during the winter of 1913-14, but they eventually died and were found frozen. During the coldest weather, whenever we noticed that a mink was sick, we were sure to find him frozen in the morning.

"I will mention here a peculiar incident in connection with mink. In some of our pens, we had put troughs of 3 ft. x 3 ft. x 8 ft. in length, kept full of running water. Frequently, we put in small fish, such as trout, chub, carp and perch. As soon as they were in, the mink were chasing them with extraordinary vivacity and they never stopped until the last fish was caught."

Valiquette illustrated something that few people realize. Experimental findings do not have to be positive to be of value. He noted three basic facts - an adult mink penned in groups will fight, usually to the death; a single wire partition of three-quarter mesh didn't prevent fighting and death; in cold weather, sick mink die quickly. Nothing strange to us today in these statements, but at the time Valiquette made them they were items of new knowledge.

Joseph Alexander Allen, V.S., B.V.Sc., was born in Belfast, Ireland. He graduated from the Ontario Veterinary College, then located on the campus of the University of Toronto, in 1916. He entered the federal veterinary service as a pathologist and was stationed in Ottawa. In 1918 the P.E.I. fox ranchers reported to the Dominion Health of Animals Branch that their herds were being depleted through a mysterious disease or diseases and Dr Allen was assigned to investigate. The ranchers, impressed with his work petitioned the government to have him remain permanently. The petition was successful and Dr Allen established the first experimental Fox Research Laboratory at Charlottetown.

In 1919, he resigned and was made the head of the Pathological Department of the Ontario Veterinary College. During the summer of 1920, the Veterinary Director-General urged the College to release Dr Allen, to meet the insistent demand for his services by Prince Edward Island breeders. Following his return to the Island, he assisted in the organization of the world's first live fox show held in Montreal in the late fall of 1920.

In October 1926, he resigned his federal position to accept an offered post as Director of Health of the Manitoba Fox Breeders Protective Association. Later he spent two years in research work with the All-Star Ranch of Winnipeg.

In May 1931, he was appointed Pathologist to the Manitoba Game and Fisheries Department. In 1936, he became superintendent of the newly organized Manitoba Experimental Fur Farm and organized short courses in fur farming under the auspices of the University of Manitoba. Dr J. A. Allen died suddenly on April 27th, 1942. This information and much more can be found in his obituary in the May 1942 issue of the Canadian Silver Fox and Fur. Joe Allen, despite his inability to stay in one place very long, was a very able and productive researcher. His many articles on fur farming and his two books "The Theory and Practice of Fur Farming" and "The Principles of Mink Ranching" were factual, well-written and still worth reading today. Joe has two important firsts to his credit. He was the first fur animal veterinarian and he established the first fur animal research laboratory.

Robert J. Kirk, B.S.A., V.S., B.V.Sc., began working at the Manitoba Experimental Fur Farm in 1936. At that time he had a degree in Agriculture. While he was a permanent employee, he was allowed to attend the Ontario Veterinary College during the winter months until he obtained his veterinary degree. When Dr Allen died in 1942, Dr Kirk took over the administration of the Experimental Farm until 1946 when Dr H. C. Collins became a director and Dr Kirk moved to Regina to work for the Saskatchewan government.

1949 found Bob Kirk back in Manitoba in charge of the Experimental Farm and facing the most widespread and devastating outbreak of mink distemper on record. It was a long, expensive battle. Area quarantines, autogenous bacterins and sanitary programs eventually brought the epidemic under control.

Profiting from this, Bob in collaboration with the Manitoba Game and Fisheries Branch and the Fur Breeders Association set up a disease control program that was to prove its value when virus enteritis struck in the middle fifties.

At this time a method of preparing a virus enteritis vaccine had been developed, but none was available commercially. Bob and his staff prepared two hundred and fifty thousand doses, distributed it to Manitoba mink ranchers and stopped the disease in its tracks.

Dr. Kirk's work on the Aleutian disease, nutrition, controlled lighting and temperature and his educational programs with mink ranchers while not so spectacular are more valuable in the long range. Dr R. J. Kirk was retired and the Experimental Farm was abandoned in 1972.

By the early 1920's, the P.E.I. fox ranchers were a powerful livestock group. They convinced the federal government of the value of a Dominion Experimental Farm for foxes and succeeded in having it located at Summerside in 1925. George Ennis Smith, B.Sc., who had done a commendable job in solving the problem of hairlessness in young pigs in California, was made superintendent. It became a large and important operation under the guidance of G. Ennis Smith and his second in command, John C. Jack, M.A. It must be remembered that these people were not veterinarians and their field of endeavour was fox husbandry.

Their most interesting and most imaginative program was the development of Fox Illustration Stations under the supervision of John C. Jack. In the August 1939 issue of the Canadian Silver Fox and Fur, there is a long and fully descriptive report from which we make the following extractions.

"The Maritime Fox Illustration Stations in the Experimental Farms Service are an effort upon the part of the Dominion Department of Agriculture to provide exemplary material in fox husbandry for illustrative purposes to the fox ranching public. Eight such stations have been established in the Maritime provinces. "The contracts were made with the operators during the summer of 1938. The Experimental Farms do not own any foxes, land, buildings or other properties upon these stations, the contract being rather of the nature of a lease for the use of the fox rancher's property for illustrative purposes."

The eight stations listed were located at O'Leary and Montague in P.E.I.; Chatham Head, Salisbury and Fredericton in N.B.; and Bridgetown, Debert and Bayfield in Nova Scotia. A final quote from this report brings mink into the Experimental Farm picture for the first time "To some extent minks are dealt with in fieldwork in the east. The Fox Illustration Station contracts do not include minks. There is, however, an excellent mink ranch upon the operator's ranch at Fredericton where some four hundred kits are raised annually, and also upon the operator's ranch at Bridgetown where ninety kits are present."

C. K. Gunn, M.Sc., Ph.D., born in Winnipeg and educated at the Universities of Manitoba and Toronto became the superintendent of the Dominion Experimental Fox Ranch on the retirement of G. Ennis Smith late in 1940. It wasn't until 1949 that Dr Gunn brought mink to the Experimental Ranch though he had been interested in a private mink ranch for several years. In 1949, he wrote and published a book entitled "Mink Ranching" that was useful to the industry. Dr Gunn did much good mink research work on conditions that affected the pelt until he retired and the Experimental Farm was closed.

John R. Cunningham, V.S., B.V.Sc., M.R.C.V.S., graduated from the Truro Agricultural College and in 1916 from the Ontario Veterinary College. After a distinguished military career in the Middle East and India, he returned to Canada in the federal civil service. In the middle twenties, he left the service at the invitation of a group of Summerside fox ranchers, to set up a private fox practice. This practice was unusual in many ways. It was a contract practice in which the ranchers paid three dollars a fox for all their breeding stock every year. It was a forerunner of Vesicare. In return, Dr Cunningham looked after the health of these adult foxes and their offspring. As parasites were a big problem, one of the main jobs was a monthly fecal test of all these animals during the warmer months of the year.

As the foxes under contract grew, fecal testing became a big part of the service. Dr Cunningham set up the Old Orchard Laboratory to handle it and other services. In 1927, A. A. Kingscote an ex-R.C.M.P. officer from Cowichan Bay, B.C. and now a third-year student at the Ontario Veterinary College was hired for the summer and a month later I was added to the staff as well. In 1928 Dr A. A. Kingscote returned after graduation bringing another third-year student, A. H. Kennedy for the summer. By now, there were twenty thousand foxes under contract and we were submerged in fecal samples. My only way to escape drowning in the stuff was to become a veterinarian. That fall I returned with Arnold Kennedy to Guelph to begin my freshman year.

The only privately owned veterinary practice dealing with fur-bearing animals.
The only privately owned veterinary practice dealing with fur-bearing animals. It was in existence from the middle twenties to the middle thirties. The staff of Dr. Cunningham's Laboratory, Summerside, P.E.I. left to right: Edward Arnett, A. H. Kennedy, A. A. Kingscote, J. R. Cunningham and Rendle Bowness.

In the spring of 1929, I returned and found that Dr. Kingscote had set up a fox practice in Salisbury, N.B. and was sending his fecal samples to the Old Orchard for testing. As Dr. A. H. Kennedy set up a fox practice in Sackville, N.B., I became the chief technician by default until rescued by the fall term at the Veterinary College.

In 1930, Dr. A. A. Kingscote was appointed as head of the parasitology department at the Ontario Veterinary College. I spent my summer as a veterinary technician on the O. W. Thompson Ltd. fox farms in Ontario. The next year, 1931, saw the end of the Old Orchard Laboratories. Dr. J. R. Cunningham became head of the diagnostic laboratory at the Prince County Hospital and remained in human health services for the rest of his career.

I spent my final summer before graduation at the Dominion Experimental Fox Ranch doing, of all things, the recording of all the fecal tests that had been done but not entered in the records, since the Experimental Ranch began.

The Ontario government Experimental Fur Farm at Kirkfield under the direction of the Game and Fisheries Ministry was the result of public demand for information on problems arising in the ranching of fox and mink. A few years before, the Game and Fisheries Department issued permits for raising wild furbearers in captivity. These permit holders now looked to the department for technical help.

While moose, deer, muskrats, beaver, raccoons, wolves and gamebirds were added at intervals, research was conducted principally on foxes and mink. In reality, the history of the Fur Farm is the story of its Director, Ronald G. Law, B.V.Sc., D.V.Sc., and his staff veterinarians. In 1925, Dr R. G. Law was ranch manager of Canada Foxes Ltd. of Ringwood in Ontario. The February 1936, issue of the Canadian Silver Fox and Fur says the following, "Dr Law was appointed temporary assistant at the Fur Farm on July 1st, 1925; he continued in this position until January 15th, 1926, attending College from January 17th to February 28th, 1926. On March 1st of the same year, he was appointed temporary veterinary surgeon. On November 1st, 1927, he joined the permanent staff and on May 1st, 1929 accepted the position as Director of the Farm."

Alan Cartwright Secord V.S., B.V.Sc., upon graduation in 1929 was appointed to the Kirkfield staff. My freshman year and Alan's senior year coincided. He was a track and field star and as I had some athletic tendencies we soon became friends. In a College devoted to the horse and the cow, a student interested in fur animals was looked upon as a little weird. Alan had some of the same problems, as he was interested in dogs and cats. We had many discussions on our offbeat interests and did a good selling job on each other. The next year saw Alan in fur farm work and shortly after graduation, I was to spend two years in a dog and cat hospital.

In 1930, Dr. R. G. Law published a booklet entitled "The Mink in Captivity" which was a practical resume of all the factors involved in mink ranching. It is interesting to note that of the six pages devoted to diseases, four of them were about parasites. Under today's modern penning and management, parasites have ceased to be a problem and while not extinct are looked upon as an oddity. In the preface of the book, we find the following credit "The writer wishes to express his appreciation to Dr Alan Secord of the Experimental Fur Farm, for many helpful suggestions and assistance in the preparation of the bulletin."

Dr. Secord resigned from his position at Kirkfield in September 1931 and entered Ohio State University as a graduate assistant and set up the first veterinary course in Fur Animal Diseases. While there, he continued his studies on parasites and was awarded a Master of Science degree in June 1932.

On October 1st, 1932, he announced the opening of the Secord Animal Clinic on Yonge Street, Toronto, near the C.P.R. overpass. In 1942 he was awarded the Doctor of Veterinary Science degree by the University of Toronto for work in surgery. Later, he was accepted as a member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (M.R.C.V.S.) in England. Apart from these and many other honours, his work in wildlife conservation has earned him the warm regard of concerned Canadians.

Arnold Hugh Kennedy, B.S.A., V.S., B.V.Sc., D.V.Sc., succeeded Dr Alan Secord at Kirkfield in 1931. Dr Kennedy, who will continue to weave through this history like a golden thread, deserved one more degree - D.D. (Doctor of Deviltry). Behind that shy, pleasant and ingenious exterior lurked a mischievous and inventive mind. In retrospect, the number and variety of pranks he committed would be a chapter on their own. It won't be written because it brings back too many painful memories of undeserved punishments. Who would suspect Arnold the angelic, when Rendle the rip was, conveniently at hand?

In mentally sorting through the pranks for one that would be printable, I recall one when Arnold had a room in the Old Orchard Laboratory in 1928. Dr Cunningham, whose home was on the property had a spaniel that enjoyed house privileges. When the Cunninghams went out for the evening, Arnold babysat the spaniel in his room at the Lab. The spaniel was fond of cheddar cheese and Arnold learned by experimentation that an overdose of cheese caused a gassy condition that made the presence of the spaniel hard to bear. That summer, whenever Arnold knew dinner guests were expected, the spaniel was primed with cheese two hours before dinner and it performed adequately throughout the evening. Dr Cunningham was puzzled by the fact that the dog never misbehaved when they were home alone, or when they had unexpected guests. Very privately Arnold renamed the spaniel Rose, from the abbreviated quotation "A rose by any other name smells".

The Experimental Fur Farm at Kirkfield prospered during the early thirties. It was a busy centre for service and educational projects. In 1933, Dr A. H. Kennedy was granted the profession's most prestigious degree, Doctor of Veterinary Science, for original work done on typing mink blood. Dr R. G. Law organized field days at Kirkfield and educational short courses at the Ontario Veterinary College in collaboration with the College staff. But the clouds were beginning to gather. The depression had created much misery and financial ruin. An Ontario election was fought on the premise of too many unnecessary services in the civil service sector. The opposition won and the slaughter began; one of the victims was the Experimental Fur Farm.

In the February 1936 issue of the Canadian Silver Fox and Fur, the Editor notes that "Dr Ronald G. Law has resigned as Director of the Ontario Government Experimental Fur Farm, Kirkfield, Ontario and has accepted a position starting February 15th with one of Canada's largest public utility corporations." This was in the medical division of the Canadian National Railways, headquartered in Montreal, where he became the veterinary officer. His friend Dr John MacCombe of Langdon Hill Fur Farm was head of the medical division.

Dr. Law continued his association, in his spare time, with the Quebec mink business in particular. His advice and counsel in lectures and articles were eagerly sought and greatly appreciated.

In an autobiography published in the August 1945 issue of the Canadian Silver Fox and Fur, Dr A. H. Kennedy records the following "In November of 1935, I left the Ontario Government Experimental Fur Farm and accepted a position as supervisor of a laboratory preparing veterinary biological and pharmaceutical supplies. I remained at this work until the spring of 1939 when I went to the province of British Columbia and took up the general veterinary practice, located in the lower Fraser Valley near Vancouver and New Westminster.

"In 1941 I accepted a position in charge of the Department of Parasitology and teaching on the faculty of the Ontario Veterinary College."

At this stage, we are guilty of getting ahead of our story. We will leave Dr A. H. Kennedy and his appointment to the College staff and go back eleven years to when Anthony Augustus Kingscote V.S., B.V.Sc., D.V.Sc., was appointed the head of Parasitology at the Ontario Veterinary College in 1930. As Dr Kingscote had just completed three years in private fox practice, it was natural that the local fox ranchers turned to him for advice and assistance. He organized short courses at the College for fox ranchers in the beginning and later for mink ranchers as well. Dr Ronald Gwatkin and other staff people helped in these educational programs.

In the early thirties a new problem surfaced. The flesh fly, Wohlfahrt vigil, deposited its living larvae on young helpless mink with sometimes disastrous effects. This fly wasn't partial to mink, any helpless warm-blooded animal would do. It attacked babies, rabbits, rats, to name a few. I recall a few years later removing larvae from one of W. H. C. (Bill) Ruthven's foxes in Alliston. This problem was right down Dr Kingscote's alley. He spent two years in exhaustive research on the lifestyle and habits of this parasite and came up with practical answers for its control. The mink industry followed his directions and the flesh fly ceased to be a problem.

In 1932, Edward Rendle Bowness V.S., B.V.Sc., graduated into a world so depressed that it would trade a brace of college degrees for a square meal. Older established veterinarians were accepting butter, eggs and other farm produce for their fees. As I couldn't find a veterinary supply company or a care agency that would accept butter and eggs I had to give up the idea of private practice and seek a position that provided food, lodging and hopefully, a few dollars. I got food and lodging from one of our professors who had a private practice; instead of dollars, I got the privilege of babysitting his young son. I should have drowned him in his diaper pail when I had the chance because later when he became an eminent professor on the vet campus, he knocked me out of the championships in more than one curling bonspiel.

Later that summer, I was hired by Tarnedge Foxes, Sabattis, New York to be the ranch manager. It was the oldest fox ranch in the United States, having started in 1910. The owner Charles M. Daniels, a most decent man, gave me a free hand to experiment. I had begun to suspect that our approach to the parasite problem was wrong and also began to realize our abysmal lack of nutritional knowledge.

Fox pens were ground-floored enclosures large in area and seeded down by generations of foxes, with hookworm, roundworm and lungworm eggs. In the warm months, these eggs hatched and re-infested the foxes. Pills and pilling were, at best, a desperate rear guard action against hookworm and roundworm. We had nothing to combat lungworm and it was a real threat to end the fox business.

We built a small number of all-wire cages 12' x 8' x 6' high and put a male and female, worm-infested, fox in each. They were raised two feet above the ground to prevent reinfestation.

We did fecal tests once a month and in a relatively short time, they were parasite-free. The foxes bred and reproduced as well as the ones in the ground pens. We were convinced, but how do you sell an industry on a radical new idea? One old rancher summed it up when shown the pens and the results, saying "Doc, it looks fine but remember we are not raising canaries."

In as far as nutrition went the fox ranchers were adrift in a sea of troubles. Rickets both advanced and incipient were common. Hysteria characterized by convulsions and death under the stress of catching and handling took its toll. A fatal paralysis, later to be called Chastek paralysis, wiped out some ranches and affected many. White scours in pups and all the aspects of food poisoning due to improper handling and lack of refrigeration for spoilable were a daily warm weather threat.

The method of feeding foxes had changed little from Sir Charles Dalton's day. On most ranches, adults were fed chunk meat and fish the year-round. Pups might be fed a slop diet for two months and then fed chunk food like the adults. The only time the diet could be supplemented with vitamins, minerals and other valuable ingredients was during this two-month puppyhood period.

I spent two interesting years at Tarnedge working on the basic diet requirements of foxes. It was the realization of my inadequacy as a nutritionist that led me to give up this pleasant life and return to city living where further nutritional education was available. Two years in dog and cat practice in Chicago gave me the opportunity of nutritional studies at nearby institutions. In those days, there were several fox and mink ranches in neighbouring communities and I was able to continue my fur animal veterinary work.

Back in Ontario, things were stirring. In the February 1936, issue of the Canadian Silver Fox and Fur, on the same editorial page that announced Dr. R. G. Law's resignation, the editor notes under the title of "What of the Farm" the following: "On receiving word of Dr Law's resignation, Canadian Silver Fox and Fur interviewed Mr D. J. Taylor, Deputy Minister of Game and Fisheries, to ascertain what arrangements would be made for carrying on the work so well started by Dr Law. Mr Taylor stated that, in his opinion, it would be a difficult selection to choose a man to fill Dr Law's place. Further, as Ontario fur farmers have been agitating for some time to have fur farming placed under the Department of Agriculture, now would be an opportune time for the change to be effected The Hon. Duncan Marshall, Minister of Agriculture, has already been consulted and has, we understand, tentatively agreed to add this branch to provincial agricultural activities. Further conferences will be held when Mr. Marshall returns from the Old Country and decisions are reached as to the new setup. In the event of the switch being made, the new location of the Government fur ranching unit will likely be Guelph.

" Mr. Taylor pointed out some of the advantages of the change. It would give the Ontario fur farmers what they had asked for. Biochemists and other scientists are available at Guelph for research work. The more central location would mean a quicker service for fur ranchers; Guelph is more accessible than Kirkfield, the train service is better and the roads are open year-round. This would work to the advantage of our farmers, especially when such things as quick post-mortems and reports are desired.

"There is the situation as it stands at the date of writing, February 10th. When the proposed plans are consummated and the details available, fur farmers will receive full information through the columns of the Canadian Silver Fox and Fur."

In September 1936, J. B. Fairbairn, Deputy Minister of Agriculture, phoned me at the Beverly Veterinary Hospital in Chicago and offered me the job. The Kirkfield operation was to be moved to Guelph and I would finish out the fiscal year (until March 31st, 1937) as an employee of Game and Fisheries. At that time I would be transferred to the Department of Agriculture. My enthusiasm for fur animal research was such that I ignored the fact that I would take a considerable reduction in earnings and joyfully accepted the position. Because of my hospital commitments, I was unable to come to Guelph until January 1, 1937.

In January 1937, as Head of the Department of Fur-Bearing Animals, I journeyed to Kirkfield with Dr C. D. McGilvray, Principal of the Ontario Veterinary College to check on the materials and equipment to be moved to Guelph. We met Charles Brotherston, the ranch manager, who had stayed on as caretaker after the research work was terminated. Charlie rented the premises from Game and Fisheries afterwards and raised game birds. In the late 1940s, the farm was sold and the houses were used as summer cottages.

In the March 1937, issue of the Canadian Silver Fox and Fur under the heading of "Proposed Organization of Service to Fur Farmers in the Province of Ontario" were the terms of reference for my job. It was truly a monumental list, taking over two full pages in the magazine. But as is usual in such matters, it boiled down to veterinary educational projects such as short courses, field days, bulletins on fur problems and magazine articles. Not mentioned was the fact that I was to teach veterinary students the rudiments of fur animal practice and to be a supply teacher when any of the staff was absent. These requirements were reasonable and acceptable but my sorrow came in the specific ruling against having live mink and foxes on the premises for research purposes. As this was the principal reason that led me to accept the position, I felt very much like the girl in the nursery rhyme:

Mother, may I go out to swim?
Yes, my darling daughter,
Hang your clothes on a hickory limb
But don't go near the water.

Thus in August, when Fred W. Presant manager of Master Feeds, a division of Toronto Elevators Ltd. asked me to recommend a nutritionist for fur and other small animals, I was bored and restless. Fred must have sensed this because, when I told him I didn't know anyone I could recommend, he offered me the job. I was flattered but not interested and told him my next job if there was one, would be on a fox and mink experimental ranch. In September, Fred Presant visited again and asked if I had changed my mind. When I said I hadn't, he invited me to visit Toronto Elevators Ltd. to meet their President Gordon C. Leitch and see their operation. I liked the people I met and was impressed with their feed operation and their concern about the quality of their products. Mr Leitch again offered me the position of a nutritionist and I again refused and explained that the expertise they had with poultry, cattle and hog feed just didn't exist in fur animals. A week later, Mr Leitch agreed to a fox and mink experimental ranch on his private farm near Thornhill.

The story of Leitchcroft Farm will be dealt with later. Right now we want to continue with the contributions to the fur industry by the Ontario Veterinary College. My resignation took effect on the last day of 1937. For the next 8 years, no one was designated as Head of the Department of Fur-Bearing Animals. Dr Trevor Lloyd Jones for a time did the diagnostic and ranch service work until he went to Alberta as a Provincial Veterinarian.

The Provincial Zoologist, Dr Lionel Stevenson who was on staff at the Ontario Veterinary College took on the fur animal veterinary duties until his retirement. Dr A. H. Kennedy, who had been on staff as parasitologist since 1941 was made Head of the Department of Fur-Bearing Animals in July 1945. With characteristic energy, Dr Kennedy began a course on Fur Animal Diseases for the students and expanded the work of the department to include chinchillas, rabbits and nutria. In 1951, he published a 310-page book entitled "The Mink in Health and Disease." In 1955, he resigned his position to take up the veterinary supervision of the mink industry in Newfoundland.

Joan Budd (Belcher), D.V.M., was Head of the Department of Fur-Bearing Animals on two occasions. First, she succeeded Dr Kennedy from 1955 until 1957. Then she left the college for a period. In 1962, she again took over Fur-Bearing Animals when Dr Pridham was granted leave of absence for postgraduate study at an American university. In 1964 Dr Budd was made Assistant Professor in Pathology and devoted the rest of her career to the investigation of fish diseases. Her research work on mink distemper and P.C.B. toxicity was of great importance as was her method of cooking smelts to make them a safe feed for mink.

Thomas J. Pridham, D.V.M. succeeded Dr. Budd in 1957. His contributions were many, but the best-remembered was his scientific detective work that identified diethylstilbestrol poisoning in an outbreak involving seventeen Ontario mink ranches. He was one of the early workers on Aleutian disease and took a leave of absence to do intensive research on this problem at an American university. This led to his being granted a Master of Veterinary Science degree in 1963. His book "Successful Mink Ranching" was published in 1968, after he had left the college staff to join a veterinary products company as a field veterinarian. Later he joined the Ontario Department of Agriculture and Food and finished his career in charge of a veterinary diagnostic laboratory.

Renardiere Experimentale Provinciale, The Provincial Experimental Fox Farm, at St. Louis de Courville on the outskirts of Quebec City has left us little information on its work and accomplishments. We know it was started in 1937 with silver foxes under the direction of Dr Rosaire Rajotte. A Dr Michaud took over in 1939. In 1940, the farm was listed as having mink. We believe that Lionel Baudette brought in the first dark mink from Carl C. McClay and Major L. D. McClintock of Knowlton.

Stephen Poliquin records "In 1941, the Quebec Government instituted the Fur-Bearing Animal Division with Mr. L. J. Simard as director. "In 1946, he was named director of the Quebec Fur Farm School to improve the mink production to the benefit of the ranchers."

We know that L. J. Simard brought in top-quality pastels and conducted what we know as a demonstration farm. Good quality mink was made available to Quebec ranchers at pelt prices and generally, this project helped upgrade their stock. In 1966, the Experimental Farm at St. Louis de Courville was closed.

Connaught Laboratories, in those days the commercial aspect of the University of Toronto, came into the mink ranching picture when John F. Crawley, D.V.M., Ph.D., began to work on a live distemper vaccine for mink. Distemper was the great scourge of the mink business. When it occurred on a ranch it ran its fatal course despite autogenous bacterins (made from the first cases on a ranch) and antibiotic preparations. It was painfully obvious that preventative vaccination with a live virus vaccine was the only way. But first, the virus had to be gentled down to where it would cause an immune reaction but not cause distemper.

Dr. John Crawley, fresh from his successful attenuation of several poultry viruses, undertook the taming of the mink distemper virus. This was done by drilling a small hole in the shell of an incubating hen's egg and placing the distemper virus on the membranes. The hole was sealed and later the diseased membranes were harvested and another group of incubating eggs were inoculated from these membranes. This is known as serial passage. It took a great many series to blunt the enthusiasm of the virus for mink. Eventually, it lost its disease-producing ability, but when injected into a mink it scared the living lights out of the defence department which promptly manufactured immune bodies to combat the virus. These immune bodies remained in the mink's system for a long time and would repel any invasion by the normal mink distemper virus.

This work began in 1949 and by 1952, Dr Crawley and his assistant, V. C. Rowan Walker, D.V.M., were ready to try out the attenuated distemper vaccine on mink ranches. Our experimental ranch, Leitchcroft, was one of five chosen and what happened on our ranch would be a fair example of the five. The mink were divided into several groups and different concentrations of vaccine were administered hypodermically. One group was inoculated by drops of vaccine placed in the eye and nose with an eyedropper. In due course, some of these mink were challenged with normal distemper virus to test their protection. They proved immune whether it was hypodermic injection or eye and nose drops. The next thing was to decide the concentration of the vaccine they would offer commercially. To have a sure safety margin it was set at twenty times the known protective dose and was for hypodermic administration.

The next year, as an extension of the eye and nose drop method, Connaught asked us to provide mink for spray vaccine trials. This method was to prove extraordinarily interesting and to hold great promise in reducing the costs and problems of vaccination. It was early in July and the kits were still together as litters, the mothers having been taken away two or three weeks earlier. The procedure was simple, a spray pump such as you find on a bottle of window cleaner was placed on a 250 cc bottle of mink distemper vaccine. The kits were locked in the nest boxes which had wire screen tops, the vaccine was calibrated so that one squirt did one mink. In practice, if there were six mink in the box, you fogged in six squirts and threw a jute bag over the top to keep the vaccine mist in contact with the mink for a few minutes. In one hour, we were able to vaccinate as many mink as would have taken two days with the needle and the only expertise we needed was to be able to count mink and squirts. No problems with dirty needles and syringes, no emotional upsets with the mink or the handlers; it was a sort of religious ceremony in which the mink were baptized in an atmosphere free of sacred words, used in a secular situation.

Connaught challenged these mink with normal distemper virus and found their level of immunity satisfactory. We carried this testing one step further. Distemper vaccination was catching on, but there were a fairly large number of unprotected ranches, these provided us with several wicked outbreaks. In two years, we placed groups of these spray-vaccinated mink on five ranches that had severe outbreaks. The mink were left for a year and then returned to us. Mortality was in the normal range and none had died of distemper, the owners kept the offspring of these mink as pay for their part in the experiment. Unfortunately, Connaught discontinued the production of the spray vaccine. The injectable vaccine continued to be produced and today only the foolhardy fail to vaccinate their mink against distemper.

In June 1947, a new mink disease made its first recorded appearance in the Fort William area of northwestern Ontario. Unlike distemper, which under quarantine conditions tended to remain on the original ranch, this new disease, and enteritis, spread in a short period to most nearby ranches. Whether this transfer was by birds, rodents or other wildlife was never satisfactorily established.

In that first year in Fort William, the disease seemed to be more virulent than in later outbreaks. Three days after the initial symptoms the mink died. The weather was warm to hot and dehydration seemed to be a critical factor. The administration of fluid nutrients and enteric medicines by stomach tube beginning the first day of symptoms resulted in a fifty percent recovery. This was not a practical procedure and was soon abandoned. By late summer, the disease faded out leaving fairly good numbers of apparently immune mink on those ranches.

Dr. Frank W. Schofield, the eminent pathologist at the Ontario Veterinary College, post-mortemed many of these mink and expressed the opinion that the causative agent was a virus. This was eventually proved correct and the name virus enteritis replaced Fort William disease to everyone's satisfaction including the Fort William Chamber of Commerce.

Several of the affected ranches pelted out that fall, but the ones that remained found to their dismay that enteritis broke out again in the kits about mid-June. The adults seemed unaffected but some of them probably were carriers of the virus from the previous year. As long as the kits were nursing they partook of the mother's immunity. Shortly after weaning that immunity disappeared and the kits came down with enteritis. It was of small comfort that enteritis did not seem as virulent as the first year. It just took the kits longer to die.

In the next five years pleas for help were made to Ottawa and Guelph for Veterinary research into methods to halt the disease. They met with great sympathy, some action and no practical results until virus enteritis broke out in Southern Ontario. It was a much different proposition for the Pathology department of the Ontario Veterinary College to have the outbreak a few miles away rather than the 900 miles to Fort William.

Dr. Gordon Wills and his confreres, Drs. J. W. (Jim) Schroder and D. L. T. (Larry) Smith began an intensive on-ranch and in-laboratory study of virus enteritis. They produced a killed tissue vaccine from the early cases of the effective disease. A week after injection new cases ceased to occur and if there was sufficient vaccine for the whole ranch population, that ended the outbreak. This method of controlling outbreaks was continued for the rest of the year, but it was realized that there was no opportunity to build up quantities of the vaccine under this system. The College was not equipped for nor intended to be a commercial producer of vaccines.

The whole project was turned over to Connaught Laboratories who had the commercial capacity and expertise to do the job. It was realized that if they produced sufficient killed tissue enteritis vaccine we could inoculate the kits shortly after weaning on ranches that had the disease the year before and hopefully prevent its recurrence.

In late June 1958, the first large field trial of virus enteritis vaccine was conducted by Connaught Laboratories in the St. Marys area. 35,000 doses of killed tissue enteritis vaccine had been produced from mink contributed by this area's ranchers. A team of seven veterinarians each with a technician were assigned the various ranches in the area. In two days over 30,000 mink were vaccinated. Much credit goes to the ranchers and their assistants for the speed with which the mink were handled. The veterinarians, of which I was one, had no trouble sleeping those two nights. The field trial was a success. Virus enteritis did not reappear. Connaught Laboratories began producing commercial quantities of virus enteritis vaccine and have done so ever since.

The third feared mink killer was foodborne botulism. It occurred rarely but when it did it was a tragedy. A ranch could be wiped out overnight. Botulinus organisms are widespread and do not cause trouble in the ordinary bacterial way. They are harmless in themselves but when they find a proper medium for reproduction, they produce a fantastically poisonous toxin. Fortunately for the mink rancher much was known about this organism and toxoids for prevention of the several types had been evolved. Type C was found to be the villain and Connaught Laboratories prepared this toxoid for preventative inoculation in two ways. Either as straight Type C toxoid or in combination with virus enteritis vaccine so the rancher got protection from both killers with the one dose.

This completes the story of the various research and veterinary service organizations. We can now return to 1937 and examine a rare phenomenon, an experimental farm financed by private funds.

Leitchcroft Experimental Fur Farm just north of Toronto, near Thornhill came into being in the fall of 1937. Pens and buildings were built and silver fox breeding stock was secured from W. H. C. Ruthven of Alliston. The bred female mink for April delivery was purchased from J. C. McLeod of Owen Sound. On January 1st, 1938, having completed my year at the Ontario Veterinary College, I began my career in private industry which lasted until my retirement, thirty-four years later.

While the primary purpose of Leitchcroft was to do nutritional research to develop and improve Master Feeds for furbearers, we were aware of the larger need to establish sound ranch management practices.

The mink ranching industry was particularly chaotic. Long years of selling live mink from a few breeders in a backyard didn't prepare these people for the perplexing problems of raising numbers of mink for the pelt market. Many of these people could not adjust and didn't survive. It wasn't for lack of advice, self-styled experts, usually in violent disagreement, offered opposed opinions. Advertisements in the magazines offered products designed to increase reproduction, growth and fur quality as well as cures for known diseases and cures for which we had no diseases! It was a time of great confusion when few seemed to know anything for certain.

Most ranchers sold their mink pelts at the back door to our buyers at prices below their true market value. There was a world-class general fur auction in Montreal, but it did a poor job of encouraging ranchers to use it. Their published sales reports gave only the top prices in a few categories. The rancher who shipped his mink pelts to the auction got good prices but when the sales report came out, he was confused and suspicious of the difference between his receipts and the published returns.

We knew and trusted the auction people, but we didn't admire their lack of good public relations. Leitchcroft's first major effort in rancher education was the compiling of an understandable market report. We attended the January fur auction sales, noted down all the prices and on our return home sorted them out to the number of pelts that sold at each bid level. We published them in a bulletin called the Master Rancher which was sent out to all ranchers in Eastern Canada. Now ranchers could consult their pelt receipts and see where they fit in the market picture. We continued to produce this Master Rancher on January sales of fox and mink pelts for fifteen years.

At this time it is difficult to realize the lack of sound information in 1938, regarding the mink reproduction season. There was plenty of the other kind. Some ranchers started mating mink early in February, others in March and there were always a few trying to get matings the first week in April. Some believed in mating the females once, others twice and many three or more times. A few kept accurate records, some no records at all, and most kept casual, often perishable records that usually were useless. Mink has a variable pregnancy period but not as variable as gossip would lead you to believe. But the biggest confusion of all was when you asked their kit average per female ranched. These people must have been taught to count differently. We started with one but they seem to have started with four.

Years later, one of these new type mathematicians asked me to vaccinate his ranch against distemper. I knew the number of females he had wintered and when I asked the number of kits he said: "Just multiply the figure by four". I did and he agreed that was the number. When I vaccinated a week later I realized he must have had fiendish mortality that week as there were only 60% of the kits left. However, he didn't seem to have noticed as he paid the bill based on the number of kits he said he had.

Our second major effort at Leitchcroft was to survey to establish a sound factual basis for these varying opinions on reproduction. This was done in the 1940 crop year and the results were published in the February 1942 issue of the Canadian Silver Fox and Fur. It gave us some interesting and useful information. The average pregnancy period was almost 51 (50.95) days. The shortest pregnancy was 39 days and the longest was 76 days. The average litter was 4.25 kits but the average per female, with 19% of them being blanks, was 3.44 kits. The later mink were mated the shorter the pregnancy period. There were fewer blanks in the shorter pregnancy periods and thus a better kit average per female wintered.

For several years we began mating dark mink on the 15th of March. It saved us a lot of work as the mink only mated once but beyond the initial response, no further progress in improving reproduction occurred. We believed that the increasing hours of light in late winter brought on the breeding season and now we began to suspect that it influenced the length of pregnancy as well. To test this theory we moved the start of the mating season to March 1st, and exposed all mated females to 14 ½ hours of light, the normal length of the day at the end of April. It worked. Pregnancy averaged forty-six days. Litter size increased to 4.6. Blanks were cut in half. We had made a significant breakthrough. The work on light is extensive and is fully described in our book "Make Mine Mink" published by Canada Mink Breeders in 1974.

On Leitchcroft Experimental Fur Farm, we looked into every facet of mink ranch procedure from pins to pens. In the process, we invented a few things but mostly our work was to collect the ideas and inventions of others that I saw in my travels. Stan Clarkson, who was ranch manager for fifteen years, was one of those geniuses who could invent what he needed and could usually improve the other fellow's inventions. All he required was a photograph or a good verbal description and he would build the item better than the one you saw. As many ranchers visited us during these years, looking for ways for improvement, Stan's ideas in equipment design spread across the country.

Geoff Lowe, a young Englishman from Shropshire adapted our trough watering system to a tube one that was much more efficient. He continued the work begun by his predecessor, Leon Schlicter, on producing the first plastic-coated mink netting which we used for years before the commercial product appeared on the market. We developed a sanitary, comfortable drop-in nest box using this wire as an inner liner.

Rene Comeau came up from Nova Scotia in the late sixties and did an excellent job in designing self-feeders for dry mink feed. On my retirement, he and Elgin Sherman continued to operate the ranch until it was abandoned in 1976.

Thirty-four years of research gave birth to more discoveries than we can comfortably list. More important in our mind is the contributions of the many people involved.

Gordon C. Leitch, president of the company that produced Master Feeds, allowed a not-too-fragrant fur ranch on his tidy farm and saw to its proper funding. His son, John D. Leitch continued this stout support when he became president. The farm livestock men who pitched in when we needed help - George Mills, Jamie Sabiston and Guy Fraser to name a few.

The Sherman family - Doug, presently the farm manager, who ran the fur ranch for a year and a half to allow Geoff Lowe to take an agricultural course at Guelph. His father Elgin, retired as head of our hog breeding program and joined us at the mink ranch for the final years. Elgin's brother Milton was cheerfully available when needed.

The Company people who did more than cheer us on - Walter J. Watson, a bookkeeper, whose excellent mink photography added a whole new dimension to our educational material. E. C. (Ted) Roberts, our head chemist, who made an annual pilgrimage to the farm at the pelting time and became very adept at the smelly job of unfrocking mink.

Lastly, our three able Ph.D.s in nutrition, who weren't above doing manual work when it was needed - Doctors W. D. (Doug) Morrison, A. W. (Arnold) Tremere and James Standish. All these people and many others unnamed made a difference when the chips were down.


Author: Webmaster - jkcc.com
"Date Modified: June 3, 2024."

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