SALT LAKE CITY — It was too late for muskrats to be in Mill Creek, or at least in the stretch between a parking lot and a playground near the southern city limits. But there they were, two of them, one big and one small, rowing back and forth like furry boats in the afternoon, apparently unaware that they were being filmed.
“They’re great, like little beavers,” said Maggie Carter, standing on the river bank. She was holding a small video camera and staring at the monitor, which was showing a close-up shot of the larger muskrat.
Her husband, Joseph Carter, 37, short blond hair, dressed in black boots over jeans and a T-shirt, approached with a GoPro camera strapped to his chest and a cage in hand.
“They must be playing with each other, otherwise they wouldn’t come out like this,” he said, gently setting the cage down. Inside, an animal moved its head from side to side, spinning around the small space. It was an American mink, named Boon. Carter, who was now opening the cage door, is among the country’s most unconventional mid-sized pest control specialists, known to his 1.3 million YouTube followers as Mink Man.
Muskrats burrow into riverbanks, creating holes that can pose tripping hazards in a crowded park. But the poison would contaminate the water and the traps can be a safety risk. Plan C: Trained mink. Mr. Carter, who proposed the idea, is one of the few people who has trained minks. Muskrats, rats, raccoons, beavers, groundhogs – if his problem is big and wild enough, Mink Man could fix it for free.
“Let’s settle this dispute with form,” he said, watching Boon, a black-skinned torpedo, glide under the water. With barely a ripple, he sped toward the largest muskrat, which began paddling away desperately. Mr. Carter ran along the riverbank, his face alight with energy. “Blessing!” hey he yelled. “Here here here here here here!”
The mink immediately changed direction, as if it understood, and closed in on its prey. Mrs. Carter, running after her husband, tried to keep the video camera in focus. “Are you getting this?” Mr. Carter yelled at her. “Did you get it?”
Mink Man’s house sits at the end of a cul-de-sac on the outskirts of Salt Lake City. It’s full of life: three daughters, a snake in the basement, a fish tank in the living room, ducklings in the sun room, a rabbit in the girls’ bedroom, and a sheep tied to a shed in the yard. Four dogs roam the premises looking for attention.
In the back is where the minks are kept, two dozen of them. They live in large cages, lined up side by side, with deep buckets of water to swim in and long tree branches on the sides of the enclosures to climb on. One cage per mink; otherwise they will kill each other, Carter said.
American minks are territorial and aggressive predators. They have razor-sharp teeth, button eyes, and a body shape reminiscent of a beefy squirrel. But they are fast and agile, and their prey can include everything from fish and rabbits to birds and muskrats. Mr. Carter builds his cages with two layers of wire to keep children’s fingers from slipping, and has “mink-proofed” his yard with slippery fences and buried wire around the perimeter for when he lets them out.
Mr. Carter grew up training animals. When he was 9 years old, he bottle-fed a squirrel; At 15, he moved out of his parents’ house and moved in near him with his grandfather, who was a famous rodeo cowboy turned show horse trainer. There, he began training raptors. Toward the end of high school, he moved near several mink farms, where the animals are raised for fur. He became curious.
“Almost everyone I asked told me the same thing: ‘They are the most ferocious and horrible animals in the world,'” Carter said. “‘They’re completely untamable, untrainable, and it really doesn’t matter what you do.'”
So, in 2003, he decided that he would start taming minks. She quickly made it.
“He has that kind of effect on animals, even those who don’t know him,” his wife said. “Either they fear it or they respect it.”
In 2014, after a decade of trial and error, Mr. Carter self-published a 242-page book, “The New Minkenry Sport: The Art of Taming, Training, and Hunting with One of the Most Intense Predators on Earth.” nature”. Invoking his experience with falconry, he detailed a number of different techniques for managing and caring for mink: how much to feed them; how to get them to listen to you; how to teach them to hide or bring back their prey.
When asked about his training methods, Mr. Carter offered some science and some insight: Start minks when they are young, be sure to reward them when they are obedient, be patient. More than anything, you must be a good observer. What kinds of things motivate the animal? Do you have a strong “prey drive”? How confident do you walk? What kinds of things scare you?
“You can’t control, you can’t change the genetics of an individual,” he said. “But you can, with the environment, slightly change their outlook on life.”
In 2013, María Díez-León, now a biologist at the Royal Veterinary College in London, was researching captive mink for her doctoral thesis. She and her colleagues had been trying to train the minks to recognize certain patterns, without much success. “I think we weren’t smart enough to understand how the minks perceived the signals we were giving them,” she said. “They are quite curious and their attention span is very short.”
He came across one of the Mink Man videos on YouTube and sent it to his lab group. Mr. Carter was teaching one of his minks, Missy, how to cache, using the magic wand of mink training: a rope tied around a dead animal. He ran around his backyard bouncing a dead pigeon a couple of feet off the ground, and Missy chased after him, leaping into the air until she sank her teeth into the bird and dragged it back into the cage.
“Good girl!” Mr. Carter said, giving the mink a bite of meat. If he hadn’t been able to get the bird into the cage, he would have refused to play for half an hour or so as punishment. He quickly grabbed another rope and, turning to the camera, said, “Now, she gets a second reward. She can chase the rat!
dr Díez-León pointed out to his colleagues that his own training tasks were probably too easy and their rewards too boring for mink, who, he said, “are fast learners.” The Mink Man’s techniques, the group decided, were superior. “We had no doubt that minks are capable of learning, they are intelligent creatures,” he said. “It was great to see that they could.”
The good life of mink
Boon quickly caught the Mill Creek muskrat. He wrapped his body around his prey, and together they formed a ball of wet fur: half black, half brown, yin and yang, life and death.
Mr. Carter dove into the water to pick them up, holding the ball desperately in front of him by the muskrat’s tail. He struggled with the hold of Boon’s jaws and immediately presented her with a wad of ground beef. “Nice job, Mr. Boon,” he said. Mrs. Carter walked over with her camera and approached the dead muskrat, now on its back with its feet in the air.
The minkenry book did not sell well when it was published, but that did not worry Mr. Carter. He was working as a financial advisor at the time and his YouTube account, which he started in 2008 to document his vision, was constantly growing. Around 2017, shortly after the birth of his first daughter, he and his wife decided that he would quit his job and start working full time as Mink Man.
Five years later, the channel serves as a fusion of animal-focused home videos and hunting trips. His most popular videos, which have tens of millions of views, are those with titles like “Mink vs Rat THUNDERDOME!!!” and “eRAtication! PEST CONTROL WORK WITH DOGS! These are mixed with videos that, for example, document Boon’s upbringing, from when the mink was only a couple of hours old. Mr. Carter’s eldest daughter can be seen kissing baby Boon on the head or carrying a teenage Boon into her cage. These have far fewer views.
The number of YouTube views directly correlates to the amount of money Mr. Carter makes, as advertisers pay the company to promote them before their videos. The lucrative potential of interspecies clashes has inspired him to build a small base of farms and public areas where he can go hunting rats and muskrats.
“Their results are incredible,” said Jordan Timothy, who manages a canal for the North Jordan Irrigation Company in Salt Lake City, which Carter regularly patrols. Muskrats, rats, raccoons and beavers erode the banks of the canal, just as they do at Mill Creek, where Mink Man has been used by local park supervisors for nearly a decade. “It could well be a trap that’s already been set,” said Mr. Timothy. “He is so good at what he does.”
For Mr. Carter, the hunt, while popular with onlookers, is also popular with mink. He buys many of his animals from fur farms, which, in the United States, typically produce a few million pelts a year and have been a source of controversy among animal rights advocates. More recently, they drew attention when mink began to contract Covid-19; In Denmark, in 2020, 17 million farmed mink were culled for fear of spreading the disease. The animals on these farms are often kept in small cages and killed before they are a year old, while wild mink typically live for three years. “I give them a new life,” Carter said.
The problem, for scientists, farmers and activists, is that it’s hard to know what makes a mink’s life good. You can’t ask a mink if he’s happy or if he’s fulfilled.
In A study, published in Nature in 2001, animal welfare scientists attempted to establish a metric indirectly by measuring the force with which minks pushed on doors that stood between them and the things they wanted, such as food, water, toys, or more space in the cage. “Our results indicate that fur-reared mink are still motivated to perform the same activities as their wild counterparts, despite having been bred in captivity for 70 generations,” wrote Georgia Mason, who led the research. She also found that minks deprived of water to swim in were just as stressed as those deprived of food.
dr Díez-León, who was Dr. Mason’s student said that much beyond this is a mystery. All in all, he said, because Mr. Carter takes animals from farms, “the welfare of those mink is better.” He added, “It’s like any thoroughbred horse, or performance animal, or bird of prey that goes out hunting. If asked, they would probably prefer to hunt.”
Mr. Carter has his own theories. He prays for visions of him before he goes to sleep (he’s a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) and speaks to them in a way that, he said, makes them feel almost human.
Almost. After the hunt at Mill Creek, leaning against his white Toyota Tundra with two dead rats in his vest pocket, Mr. Carter looked at Boon, huddled in his cage in the truck.
“Animals have no ethics,” he said. “They have sensitivity, they can feel pain, they have the ability to learn, but they have no ethics. That’s a human thing.”