EBENSBURG - Longtime mink farmer George Rykola, 92, said when he saw flickering lights at the end of his property along the 500 block of Colver Road in Cambria Township, he thought it was two lovers looking for a secluded spot so they could have some alone time.
The next morning, however, he discovered the light's source likely came from members of an international animal rights group, who had trespassed onto his property and released as many as 500 of his 4,500 mink, setting off a police investigation and news frenzy as he and his relatives scrambled to collect the animals and salvage his livelihood.
Rykola said he first got the idea to go into mink farming while serving in the Army. He said he saw a mink farm while in Oregon and decided he could start his own.
Shortly afterward, he bought the Cambria Township property, he said, where he still does all the pelting work himself and then sends the fur to an outside company for evaluation and processing.
In 54 years of farming, Rykola said he'd never been attacked by groups like the Animal Liberation Front, and he doesn't know why they targeted him.
"How is it any different than taking a chicken and cutting its head off?" he asked. "A lot of people don't want to work for a living. They want to make trouble for a living."
The search for the released mink continues. Several have been found dead along nearby roads, Rykola said.
Michael Whelan, executive director of Fur Commission USA, the trade organization representing mink farmers, said roughly 95 percent of the mink have been recovered, but the stress of being released may still kill some of the ones Rykola's family found.
Rykola stressed that recovery efforts are ongoing.
"We're still doing it," he said, and doesn't know how many more mink he will find alive.
"They're not aggressive at all. You can stand right next to them. They won't bite you," he said. The mink won't be able to survive on their own.
Animal Liberation Front group members acknowledged Thursday in an anonymous letter to Bite Back magazine, a Florida-based publication that tracks illegal animal-rights group activities, that they were responsible for releasing the mink.
"We lost count of the number of wild animals freed into their natural environment, due to the animals being housed in atrocious conditions, four to [sic] tiny cob-webbed cages. Words cannot describe the filth and blinding stench of this farm," the statement read.
The group also said they destroyed breeding cards that listed the animal's data, like birth dates, litter counts and prices, "which ran from $1,000 up to $10,000 per animal."
Cambria Township police officials said the investigation is ongoing.