EBENSBURG - Police said a national animal-rights group weaseled onto a Cambria Township farm along the 500 block of Colver Road Thursday and released more than 500 mink.
Police said an officer first noticed the mink along a road while responding to a separate incident and contacted longtime mink farm owner George Rykola.
Police Chief Mark Westrick said the Animal Liberation Front, an international resistance group that works to remove animals from laboratories and farms, announced in a letter it was responsible for the mass mink release.
Westrick said the letter stated the effort was part of the group's multi-phase "Operation Bite Back" to target and damage fur research facilities, farms and feed suppliers and organize "large liberation's [sic] to rescue the animals themselves from imminent suffering."
The website states that the group has released thousands of mink since the operation began.
Michael Whelan, executive director of Fur Commission USA, the trade organization representing mink farmers, said the group has been targeting fur farms for more than 20 years. Three similar attacks occurred over the summer, with close to 400 minks released in Iowa, 2,000 in Illinois and 3,800 in Idaho, he said.
Most of the time, 90 to 95 percent of the released mink are found because the animals become stressed and don't leave the area, Whelan said, but if they get far enough to escape, dehydration and starvation usually kill them within a day or two. And with three major highways nearby: Routes 219, 422 and 22, it's possible any mink that managed to escape the farm still might not make it far.
"They are going to end up on the road as road kill," he said, because the mink equate the sound of car tires to the sound of a food cart.
Westrick said police cannot yet confirm whether the effort was carried out by local members, but Whelan said in most cases, group members travel in small cells across the country to release animals. They likely were not local to Cambria County, he said.
Rykola's name, address, phone number are listed on multiple animal rights groups' websites under operational fur farms and farms the groups could be on the look out to investigate.
Whelan said while the animal-rights groups see fur farming as cruel, it's an important part of the economy.
Mink prices have tripled in the last four years to around $100 per mink, and with increased demand from China, it's one of the few booming export industries.
Westrick said releasing the mink is a federal crime under the Animal Enterprise Terror Act. He said he has contacted the FBI and a state police officer at Greensburg familiar with these types of crimes to assist with an investigation.
Rykola did not return calls for comment, but Westrick said farm employees had been working to retrieve the mink.
"We're still trying to gather the numbers," Westrick said, and he's unsure how many have been recovered.