Bill Dawe's amazing trek to feed his mink

Newfoundland had cheap whalemeat and this rancher had $81,000 worth of hungry mink. All he had to do was move them 4,000 miles. It could kill them all. Here’s as weird a migration as Canada ever saw

Fred Bodsworth October 13 1956

Bill Dawe's amazing trek to feed his mink

Newfoundland had cheap whalemeat and this rancher had $81,000 worth of hungry mink. All he had to do was move them 4,000 miles. It could kill them all. Here’s as weird a migration as Canada ever saw

Fred Bodsworth October 13 1956

Bill Dawe's amazing trek to feed his mink

Newfoundland had cheap whalemeat and this rancher had $81,000 worth of hungry mink. All he had to do was move them 4,000 miles. It could kill them all. Here’s as weird a migration as Canada ever saw

Fred Bodsworth

Bill Dawe is a slight, greying, leather-skinned man with a yen for taking the occasional big and reckless gamble. Early one day in January 1955, Dawe stepped to the door of his home on Lulu Island, near Vancouver, took a look at the ghostly billows of morning fog rolling in off the Strait of Georgia and decided to go ahead with the biggest gamble of his life.

Dawe’s decision had dramatic and far-reaching effects. It set off probably the strangest livestock movement in Canada's history. It created a new and profitable industry for Newfoundland, four thousand miles away. It has also produced a glimmer of hope that price tags on mink, the prima donna of furs, might someday get down a little closer to the average housewife's budget.

For Dawe, one of the w'est coast’s biggest mink ranchers, had decided to transfer his farm to Newfoundland. The decision meant moving by rail 740 live mink w'orth $81,000 across a continent shivering in the grip of midwinter.

Daw'e was too old a mink-raising veteran to have any delusions or false hopes about what he was doing. He knew' that shipping a herd of pernickety and delicate mink across a continent in zero weather had tremendous dangers. He knew the modern ranch mink is vastly different from its tough wild-mink ancestor. The wild mink is one of nature's hardiest creations, the ranch mink one of its most delicate, because for generations the ranch mink have been pampered and bred to produce unusual color phases and a thick - furred, large-bodied, fast - reproducing strain. In the process the ranch mink has retained the savage disposition of its ancestor but has lost the wild mink's hardy constitution. Ranch mink get sick easily, die at the drop of a hat, and are especially susceptible to a form of pneumonia unless they are kept dry.

All this Dawe had learned from bitter experience in the past.

Small numbers of mink had frequently been shipped around the country before, but so far as Dawe knew no one had ever risked a whole herd, the result of years of painstaking breeding, on anything like the 4,000-mile transfer he was planning. Mink have occasionally been so frightened by low-flying aircraft that they have stopped feeding and died. How were his going to fare cooped up for a week in a rumbling, lurching railway car?

But Dawe was a gambler, and the stakes in this case looked well worth the gamble.

Would the mink rebel at travel — refuse to eat and refuse to breed? It was an $80,000 gamble

He had raised mink near Toronto in the 1930s when it was still a new industry, then was wiped out by a distemper epidemic in 1939. He, his wife Olive and son Calvin moved to Steveston, B.C., where Dawe bought a seine boat and began salmon fishing, with the intention ot getting back into the mink business as soon as he could afford to buy good breeding stock. But it was 1952 before Dawe had established a mink farm again, and from the outset he was balked by a food shortage that is now dogging mink ranchers throughout most of the continent.

The two traditional staples of ranchmink diet have been fish and horsemeat—■ a white and a red meat, mixed and ground until it looks like a pale variety of hamburger. But in recent years farm mechanization has almost wiped out the horse, and the meager horsemeat supply that remains is now keenly sought by packers to fill the new and lucrative demand for canned cat and dog foods. Horsemeat, once available for as low as three cents a pound, now costs twelve to fifteen cents a pound when it can be found at all. In many parts of the western U. S. and Canada, fur farmers have been forced to reduce their mink herds because of this growing horsemeat scarcity.

Dawe quickly discovered that the mink business wasn't what it used to be, because the food-supply situation had greatly increased production costs and was limiting expansion. Then, in 1954, the mink ranchers’ grapevine began to hum with tantalizing stories from Newfoundland.

Premier Joe Smallwood had dedicated himself to a program of industrial development that would utilize Newfoundland’s natural resources. Every summer tons of protein-rich whalemeat rotted on Newfoundland’s beaches, a waste product that remained after the exterior layer of whale blubber was peeled off for the island's whale-oil industry. Smallwood knew that a handful of Newfoundland mink ranchers had used whalemeat as a substitute for horsemeat and found it excellent mink food. But the whalemeat was available only briefly in summer and the island’s mink ranchers were too scattered to establish cold-storage facilities so they could have it the year round. Smallwood learned of the food shortage crippling mainland ranchers and in 1954 he began a campaign to entice mink raisers to Newfoundland. The bait was tons of whalemeat and fish scrap available in Newfoundland at sea-bottom prices. For further inducement, Newfoundland agreed to pay shipping charges on mink coming in and offered loans to help ranchers build new farms and a centrally located cold-storage plant to process and store whalemeat.

Four thousand miles away in B. C., Dawe was one of the first to be attracted.

In July 1954. he went to Newfoundland to investigate. In B. C. the food mixture he was feeding his mink averaged out to about ten cents a pound, in Newfoundland he learned a suitably balanced fishwhalemeat ration would cost three to four cents a pound. Food represents about seventy-five percent of the cost of raising mink. To raise one mink from birth to pelting age in B. C. was costing Dawe $14 to $15; he calculated that in Newfoundland the cost would be around $5.

They were seductive statistics, but against them were the tremendous dangers of moving his mink the breadth of the continent. It wasn’t simply a case of getting the animals to Newfoundland alive, they must also arrive without their health or temperament disturbed; otherwise they might refuse to breed when mating time came in March, or they might kill their young when they were born in May. A fifty-percent drop in reproductive rate could be almost as serious as a fifty-percent die-off during the trip.

This was the gamble that confronted Dawe. He decided he’d try it.

Dawe selected a farm site on crown land near Dildo on the eastern side of the island, about fifty miles from Si. John’s. One of the government’s requirements was that the mink ranchers settle in this area to centralize the industry and draw food from one large central coldstorage plant. Dawe cleared the bush from his site, built sheds for his mink and in October started back to B. C.

Only the finest survived

Meanwhile many other mink ranchers throughout western Canada and the U. S. were also looking longingly at Newfoundland. Some had gone there like Dawe to look over the ground themselves. All were dubious about only one thing—the trip itself. Everyone waited, hoping someone else would try the move first.

Dawe. the rancher with the farthest to go, returned lo his Eulu Island ranch anil put the proposition before his wife. Olive Dawe has worked beside her husband for years caring for mink, and she knows the peculiarities and weaknesses of the little animals as well as Dawe himself. She had been in charge of the ranch for three months while Dawe was in Newfoundland and she had been having an increasingly hard time finding the food the mink needed. The prospect of whalemeat by the ton for three cents a pound looked as enticing to her as it did to her husband. An optimist rather than a gambler like her husband, Olive Dawe was sure that il they prepared everything carefully they could get most of their mink to Newfoundland.

So the Dawes began to prepare.

Their first step was to thin out the mink herd. Dawe killed and pelted till but his finest breeding stock and wound up with 740 animals, 600 of them females. Dawc and his wife then began lavishing attention on these selected animals to ensure that they would be in the best health for the trip. They fed them twice a day. instead of the customary once, to fatten them up. because Dawe feared they might eat little while traveling.

Then Dawe began experimenting with shipping crates and nest boxes, testing his mink for a week or so in each design. He settled finally on wire-bottomed pens with trays of aluminum sheeting a few inches beneath, because there would be no opportunity to clean them once they were piled in an express car. And he decided to use wooden partitions instead of wire, because he thought the mink would be less alarmed if they didn’t see each other. “There’s nothing a mink hates more than another mink,” he says.

“Mink crates had to be kept dry ... It was like constantly changing diapers for 740 infants”

MACLBAN’S

In addition to all this the mink had to move across the continent as 740 definitely identifiable individuals, for each animal had its own carefully kept breeding record and pedigree for planning future cross-breedings that would produce valuable color mutations. Yet the mink themselves cannot be marked conveniently without damaging the pelts; only the pens can be numbered, so it was vital that every animal get in and stay in its proper pen. To mix up the breeding records would be almost as serious as letting them all die.

Finally they were ready to move. Dawe contacted the express department of Canadian National Railways. Would they accept a shipment of 740 live mink destined for Newfoundland? He stressed that the mink were valuable and laid down a number of requirements. The car would have to be scrubbed and sterilized before the mink were put aboard. Its temperature would have to be kept between 35 and 40 degrees, and must not go over 40 (to prevent sweating in the nest boxes). Each mink would have to have fresh water every twelve hours and be fed five ounces of minced horsemeat at I 1 a.m. daily. Fresh supplies of lean horsemeat would have to be waiting at Winnipeg and Montreal — 250 pounds frozen and 250 pounds unfrozen at Winnipeg, 500 pounds frozen and 200 pounds unfrozen at Montreal. Lights would have to be kept on at night (to reduce danger from fright).

Dawe was asked: “What are their value?” He replied: "Eighty-one thousand dollars.”

He was surprised when CNR accepted the assignment and said the mink would be insured for their full value. Actually CNR had its misgivings, which were in no way allayed by a search of records for previous railway experiences with smaller mink shipments. One Canadian railway once paid two hundred dollars for a mink that chewed up an expressman’s indelible lead pencil and died of poisoning. And this time they were going to have 740 of them!

The Dawes meanwhile were becoming more nervous as the time for the trip drew near. The $81,000 insurance was little comfort because among his 740 mink Dawe had several that were rare color mutations he hoped to produce in quantity later. “They’re worth much more alive as breeders than their pelts would be worth dead,” he reminded his wife.

Almost daily the Dawes would ask themselves if they were doing the right thing. Finally Dawe knew he could never let the mink out of his sight. He added another shipping requirement—that he and his wife have berths on the same train and have access at all times to the mink car. Express officials hastily agreed. “We felt much better when we heard that Dawe would be taking care of his mink himself,” said Leslie J. Oliver of CN Express head office in Montreal.

So on Jan. 7, 1955, Dawe rose early, took a look at the fog lifting off the Strait of Georgia and decided it was going to be a fine day for moving mink. He awakened his wife.

“It’s now or never,” he said, “but there’s still time to change your mind.”

Olive Dawe replied with an impatient, “Let’s get started.”

That day the mink were transferred into 185 shipping crates that Dawe had made. Each crate had individual compartments for four mink. With the anxious owners hovering over them, the mink were moved by truck to an express car waiting at Vancouver, and that evening the long mink trek began. The 185 crates, piled seven deep along each side, filled the car and left only a walkway down the centre.

Bill and Olive Dawe spent all of every day and much of each night in the cold express car with their mink. To their surprise the mink continued eating normally, but as they crossed the prairies the temperature dropped to sixteen below and the mink mysteriously stopped drinking. The Dawes spent an anxious day and night, for they knew that, when nervous, the mink should drink more, not less. Then Mrs. Dawe wondered if the water they were getting was too cold; she tried warming it and the mink resumed normal drinking.

Now the mink ranchers’ grapevine hummed again as newspaper stories spread the word that the Dawes were on the way. Other ranchers followed the trip anxiously. But the greatest anxiety was in St. John’s where Clarence Badcock, Newfoundland director of agriculture, and his government colleagues knew that this was the test that would decide v/hether Newfoundland was to have a mink industry.

On the CNR’s “mink special” the Dawes had no time for sightseeing even if the frosted express-car windows had permitted it. Olive Dawe was kept busy changing the wood-shaving bedding in the nest boxes so that the mink wouldn’t get damp. “It was like changing diapers for 740 babies,” she says.

Dawe was busy too, for several of the mink began chewing through the sides of their pens and he was constantly patching to prevent escapes. One escape occurred. It was a rare palomino male, a recently developed light-brown color phase with extremely fine fur. Its pelt alone was worth $200, but as a breeder it was worth $500. The train thundered across the prairie w'ith this aristocrat of minkdom scurrying frantically about in the front-end express car. Dawe stayed up all one night to see that the car doors stayed closed and to keep the escaped mink from fighting w'ith other mink through the wire pen fronts. Next day at feeding time he put a pen on the floor with food inside. The palomino's nose twitched as it caught the scent, then it dashed in and Dawe closed the door.

Vital horsemeat was ready when they pulled into Winnipeg. But. soon after leaving Winnipeg, Olive Dawe came excitedly to her husband. Three mink were missing, their pens empty! Dawe laughed ieasingly, then he told her he had met a mink rancher in Winnipeg and sold them.

Four days after leaving Vancouver the mink train pulled in to Track 23 at Montreal's Central Station. And reporters, TV news crews, CN Express officials and 700 pounds of meat were there to meet it. "The meat was the best No. I beef I ever saw,” Dawe says. CNR was taking no chances with its $81,000 on-the-hoof cargo; when they couldn't find horsemeat, Dawe’s mink got prime beef instead.

As TV cameras began to whir, two belligerent male mink chose that moment to finish chewing through the wooden parution between them, precipitating the biggest crisis of the trip. There was a clamor of squealing and thrashing claws from one end of the car. Every other mink in the car immediately joined in. Dawe ran toward the original source of the noise. The hole in the partition was barely large enough for one of the mink to get its head through, but the pair were already locked in vicious combat. A $100 Sapphire (light grey) had a death grip on a $500 palomino’s tongue.

When fighting, mink are lightning fast and when one opens its mouth to snarl the other will often get a tooth-hold on the exposed tongue; then it hangs on for hours until the other mink dies or its tongue is severed.

Only one thing will separate them. “Somebody light a cigarette!” yelled Dawe, a nonsmoker.

In a few seconds half a dozen people were holding out cigarettes to him. Dawe took a long drag from one and blew a jet of cigarette smoke at the fighting mink. The animals separated instantly, sneezing at the smoke.

The TV cameras resumed. An interviewer said to Mrs. Dawe: "1 suppose you have a mink coat for every day of the week?” Olive Dawe replied: “I couldn’t wear one. You get too attached to them when they’re alive. Pelting’s always a sad time and 1 wouldn’t kill one to make a coat for myself.” (It takes eighty pelts to make a full-length coat.)

After an eleven-hour stop the mink special moved on. At Sydney it took a day to transfer the mink pens from the train to the Newfoundland ferry. That night as the ferry began to roll in the Gulf of St. Lawrence swells. Dawe began worrying again. He found a rope on the darkened deck, lowered it into the hold, and slid down to spend the night with his mink. Finally, eight days out of Vancouver, they reached Newfoundland. The Dawes and CNR officials breathed a sigh of relief, for not one mink had died during the trip. Fares, meals and shipping personal belongings cost the Dawes about $1,500, but the main expense—a $3,537 charge for shipping the mink themselves—was paid by the Newfoundland government.

Other ranchers were encouraged by Dawe’s success and thousands of the continent’s finest mink now began pouring into Newfoundland. Between February and July, 1955, about 2.000 more mink came in by rail from western Canada. Earl Maxham, a Vermont breeder, brought 600 by ship from Boston. A shipment of 1,400 valued at a quarter of a million dollars came from Minot, North Dakota, by plane. Losses during transit were small. In May right on schedule some 12,000 mink kittens were born, and Newfoundland was in the mink business.

Today, around Dildo. Newfoundland has one of the most modern mink-ranch colonies in North America. After two successful whelping seasons, the colony’s mink population hist summer was close to 40,000. The ranchers have their own cold-storage and mixing plant, packed to the roof with two million pounds of fish and whalcmeat-—a food supply that contrasts eheeringly with former days on the mainland when the ranchers gazed covetously at every milkman’s horse.

This winter Newfoundland ranchers will still be concentrating on development of breeding stock, but they expect to market close to 20.000 pelts. The Newfoundland government is confident its supply of fish and whalcmeat will allow production to double every year until the island is producing half a million pelts annually, making mink its fourth most valuable industry, exceeded only by forestry, mining and fishing. Many government officials worked hard to get Newfoundland’s mink industry started. But years hence when the story is viewed through the perspective of time, it will probably be decided that the industry was born not behind government desks in St. John’s, but on the Pacific coast four thousand miles away where Bill Dawe one morning stared out at the Georgia Strait fog, decided he couldn’t resist the biggest and most challenging gamble of his life, and proved that mink, if you pampered them enough, could be good travelers,