For a few days, the roads were paved with mink. Dead ones mostly. They were mangled by dogs, withered by summer heat and run over by cars and trucks. Their carcasses were reduced to tufts of blue hair on the pavement.
In the early morning darkness on Monday, in what residents call an act of eco-terrorism, animal activists released 10,000 Blue Iris minks from the Roesler Bros. Fur Farm in this former logging town east of Everett. The animals spread like a flash flood. "They were everywhere. They covered the road, they were all up in the brush," said Sultan Police Chief Fred Walser.
For a time, there were more than three roaming minks for every resident of this town of 3,000. Minks by the hundreds were captured by neighbors and friends and returned to the farm. By the end of the week, there were still as many as 2,500 loose animals, and they were, one local said, creating havoc.
The hungry animals invaded chicken coops, raided fish ponds, stole pet cats and ducks and ate salmon fry in streams and rivers. Some feared the local ecosystem would be thrown off by so many new predators in the area.
But a more subtle aftereffect has taken hold of residents: a renewed discussion on the nature of cruelty, the issue at the heart of the debate over fur farming. What is more cruel to the mink: being raised and killed in a cage, or being freed and possibly killed in the wild?
In some ways, it's an urban-versus-rural argument, with the impetus of the animal rights movement tracing back to city dwellers, and the case for factory-farming stemming from rural residents. Sultan, which has transformed in recent years from a logging town to a bedroom community for Seattle and Everett, is made up of a mix of urban and rural ideologies.
The Roesler family, owners of the mink farm, are staunchly old-school agrarian. They say the farm-raised animals don't stand a chance in the wild, and that the activists have inflicted more suffering on them than mink farmers ever could.
"They were fed twice a day since they were born; they had a constant source of water from a spout," said Kate Roesler. "They don't even know how to drink from a stream." She said the released minks were fated to die "slow, painful deaths" by dehydration or from other predators, mainly the human kind.
One town resident, Jeff Weaver, shot 11 minks Friday and trapped four more on his little homestead off Highway 2. Earlier in the week, minks had killed 29 of his prized exotic birds, which he kept in a coop behind his house. Weaver estimated the monetary loss to be around $2,000, but the emotional loss, he said, was immeasurable.
"We raised these birds; my kids played with them," said a visibly angry Weaver. "My girls are in the house right now bawling their eyes out."
The irony, he said, was that he did not oppose the animal-rights agenda on fur. "I mean, c'mon, it's 2003," he said, "no one needs to wear fur coats." On the other hand, he said, the minks released from the Roesler farm "are all going to die terrible deaths."
Kate Roesler said some residents who returned minks to the farm told her outright they opposed fur farming but that releasing them illegally was wrong.
The discussion reached into coffee shops and offices, and even into the inner chambers of City Hall. One exchange outside the city planner's office went this way:
"The people behind this [releasing the minks] have never grown up on a farm. Killing animals is just part of life," said one woman. "You don't think twice about it. Those minks are just farm animals."
Another woman replied: "But these animals aren't domesticated. They're wild. They're not supposed to be in cages. The worst thing you can do to a wild animal is put them in a small cage. And the way they're killed...." The woman shivered at the thought.
Snohomish County is home to five fur farms, which produced 56,000 pelts in 2001 -- nearly half the pelts for the state that year. One pelt is worth about $40. The mink industry in Washington that year generated about $4.5 million in revenue.
Hours after the mink release, local news outlets received an e-mail that read:
"The Animal Liberation Front is claiming responsibility for the liberation of 10,000 mink from a Sultan fur farm." The e-mail ended: "All institutions of animal exploitation -- regardless of any attempts to conceal their bloody operations -- will be located and the animals liberated."
The state's fur farms are on "pins and needles," said Theresa Platt, executive director of Fur Commission USA, which represents fur farms nationwide. Platt said fur farmers are being extra vigilant because these kinds of attacks happen in strings. She said she expects to hear about another attack soon.
The Animal Liberation Front, known as ALF among law enforcement officials, is made up of individual cells with no central authority. The FBI, the lead agency in the investigation, considers it a domestic terrorist group that has committed more than 600 criminal actions. No arrests have been made in the mink case, and area police say there aren't any strong leads.
Although no one from ALF has issued further statements, other animal rights groups have jumped into the debate, if not defending ALF's alleged actions, then at least explaining them. And the gist of the explanation is that there's nothing more cruel to a wild animal than being factory farmed.
"We don't engage in illegal activity, but we do strongly support actions such as the release of minks on that farm," said Andrew Knight, a veterinarian and director of research for the Seattle-based Northwest Animal Rights Network.
Minks are normally solitary animals, indigenous to the region, and live for three to 10 years. To keep them in small cages with numerous other minks for their entire lives is exceptionally cruel, Knight said.
Farm-raised minks are usually born in the spring and slaughtered in the fall, when they are about 6 or 7 months old. The standard killing method for large fur farms is gassing with carbon monoxide. Other methods include neck-breaking, poison-injecting and electrocution. All the methods are designed to keep the pelt undamaged.
"What those ALFers did was goofily, amateurishly, well-meaningly dumb," said Mitchell Fox, an animal rights advocate in Seattle. "What the farmers do is calculatedly, professionally, unremittingly cruel."