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The Chinchilla by Harold Medow

The History of the Chinchilla

The following information is pulled directly from "Chinchilla: History • Husbandry • Marketing" by Edwin G. Bowen and Ross W. Jenkins, released and published by Shoots Chinchilla Ranch in March, 1988.

Copyright, 1969, By Bowen and Jenkins.


History     Husbandry   Marketing

Origin and Early History

Chinchillas are native to four South American countries - - Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. Although today they are produced domestically in many countries throughout the world, it is interesting to note that, in their wild state, they never wandered to other locales. This becomes significant when we learn from scientific data that their origin is placed sometime during the prehistoric ages. 

Recorded information tells us that a thousand years ago chinchilla was used by the powerful and great Incas, who established an empire in Peru prior to the Spanish conquest. They used the skins for all kinds of adornment and even wove blankets with thread made from the fur. The softness and the distinctiveness of the fur was valued highly and provided them with clothes and blankets, as well as a "badge of distinction". Subsequently, chinchillas were used by a tribe of Indians known as Chinchas, and it was this particular group whom the Spaniards first met and conquered. So the animal was named after them, and it means Little Chincha. This was during the 1500's and, although chinchilla fur did reach Europe shortly after that, it did not become popular until the 1700's. The quantities at that time were relatively small, however, and it wasn't until the 1800's that a real volume of pelts began satisfying a hungry market for this prized fur, which was so elegant and so unlike anything they had previously known.

In its natural habitat the chinchilla was found on the western slopes of the mighty Andes Mountains, which ranged the full length of the continent. They lived at all altitudes, which varied from sea level to 15,000 feet. Although the terrain is generally mountainous, there are numerous plateaus and broad valleys of desertlike areas. It appears to be a veritable wasteland but nestled here and there are large rock formations which provided protection for the chinchilla and served as its home. Though we may speak of the wild chinchilla in the past tense, it stills exists in very limited numbers today, as will be discussed in the next subject. The overall conditions were extremely arid, with limited vegetation. It seldom rained and, when it did, the hot sun would soon dry up any wet areas. In spite of all this, the animals had a surprisingly varied diet from which they were also able to obtain sufficient liquid. Here is a partial list of what they ate: (1) Roots, bark and berries from small shrubs, (2) Roots, skin and fruit of various cacti, (3) Grass and hay from small plants, (4) Herbs. Incidentally the habitat of today's wild chinchilla differs in one respect from that of the wild chinchilla of yesteryear. In days gone by, they existed in such large quantities that they naturally spread out to occupy flat areas as well as rocky areas. Those using the former would set up housekeeping in small caves found in the earth or sand and, though somewhat more exposed to their natural enemies than those staying in the rock formations, apparently felt a certain "safety in numbers." However, as the chinchilla population dwindled, they confined their habitat entirely to large rock formations located in spots containing vegetation. Thus, they had the dual protection of the rock caves and the growth of shrubs and cacti. Also, they had their food supply close at had.

There are several natural enemies of the wild chinchilla. Man used to be number one, but that changed with the advent of government regulations protecting the animal. Others still exist, however, which create a constant danger to their continued existence. Principal among these are owls, eagles, foxes and certain small carnivorous animals resembling a weasel. Chinchillas have little means of defending themselves, but the grey rocks and the grey coloring to their fur provide some measure of protection through camouflage.

Since mother nature saw fit to place this animal in such desolate surroundings, she provided it with instincts and habits which made possible its existence. The strong rays of the sun created intense heat during the day and it would turn quite cold at night. So, the chinchilla is a nocturnal animal, sleeping in the cool confines of the rock cave during the day and covorting around outside at night, with a thick coat of fur to keep it warm. The bulk of its water supply came from the outcropping of granite rock. This rock became hot during the day; and the condensation, which resulted from the cool night air, caused rivulets of water to creep into the facets of the rocks. This, in turn, formed little basins around which moss grew. Though it evaporated during the following day, the same process was repeated the following evening. Since the vegetation and moisture were limited, the animal's needs were simple and the basic instincts of the wild chinchilla are relatively unchanged after several decades of domestication.

Modern History

In spite of the fact that chinchilla fur became known to the world at large several hundred years ago, it was not exported from South America in substantial quantities until the latter 1800's. By that time several million skins were being shipped out of the country, and the peak was reached in 1899. The biggest chinchilla operator of the day (or, for that matter, up to the present) was a German fur dealer, Richard Gloek of Leipzig, known as the "Chinchilla King." In 1899 he recorded a turnover of 78,500 chinchilla pelts; and the following year this was increased to more than 300,000 in 1901; but the quantities fell off after that to 111,000 in 1904, and down to 4,000 some time later. In those days, Leipzig was considered the fur capital of the world; and chinchilla was the toast of royalty throughout Europe. Also during that same period, quantities of pelts gathered in South America were sent to New York fur markets.

In one sense chinchilla is new, and perhaps this accounts for the mistaken impression of so many people. It is new in that chinchilla very nearly became extinct in its wild state and was then revived as a ranch-raised animal years later. Greedy trappers invaded regions of South America and killed the little animals indiscriminately in order to feed the ever-hungry fur markets and put a few dollars into their own pockets. Regulated trapping would have been satisfactory and the exporting could have gone on indefinitely. However, wholesale slaughter was bound to devastate the species. As in the tragic case of the American Bison and the carrier pigeon, so great were the numbers of chinchilla destroyed that they were unable to adequately repopulate themselves. Accordingly, they become so scarce that is was no longer profitable to trap them; and this exquisite fur gradually disappeared from the world markets. So, despite the fact that chinchilla is presently being hailed as new luxury, the domestic animals which are supplying the pelts now being presented on the world markets are not the fairly recent innovation many people take them to be but, actually, the direct descendants of the animals so nearly exterminated in the wild state.

After the turn of the century, it become increasingly apparent that the wanton destruction of this animal could not go on indefinitely without completely drying up the supply of pelts. The governments in South America finally realizes this, and in the early 1900's placed an export duty on all skins leaving the country in an effort to slow down the drain on one of their natural resources. Such action would have been effective had it been properly policed; but as it was handled, it only incurred smuggling. Therefore, the traffic in chinchilla fur remained completely open for all practical purposes until around 1910 when the governments of the four South American countries involved came to agreement in setting up regulations which prohibited the trapping and killing of the animal. In conjunction with this move, the governments did permit, even encouraged, trapping of the animal provided it was for the purpose of raising them in captivity. Thus, some ranches were set up which were under direct supervision of the government. Later, a few private ranches were also set up; but the industry, as we know it today, was started by a man named Mathias F. Chapman.

Mr. Chapman was an American mining engineer, stationed in Chile on an assignment with the Anaconda Copper Company. This assignment kept him in South America for several years and was due to end in 1922, at which time he was to return to the United States. During the course of his work down there, he learned of chinchilla and became intensely interested in the animal. He acquired his first chinchillas that latter part of 1921; and this served to further sharpen his interest in this little creature with lustrous, soft fur. He decided to enlist the help of some of the natives in trapping as many as could be found. Because of their scarcity, few were located. In fact, he spent well over a year gathering just a handful. He was fond of animals and his initial purpose in obtaining a few chinchillas was to make pets of them. As time went on, though, he envisioned the possibility of taking them back to his home in California to see if he could raise them successfully. And, as he kept accumulating one here and there, his dream became increasingly real. Had he not possessed great vision and the perseverance to succeed, there would be no industry today to provide material for the subsequent chapters of this book.

When Chapman's tour of duty ended in 1922, he was faced with the task of getting a permit to take the animals out of the country (against the law by that time) and of also transporting them from his location at 10,000 feet, down to sea level. Though much persuasion was required, he did obtain the necessary permit. Also, with the help of others, he made the tedious journey down the Andes to the seaport where he was to board a Japanese freighter bound for San Pedro harbor in California. He had previously made a large cage with various compartments in which the chinchillas could remain. Knowing he would be faced with a heat problem in crossing the equator, he provided for a section in the center of the cage which could hold ice and, thus, help to cool the temperature for his valuable cargo. He ran into one problem, however, before boarding the ship. He requested permission to keep his animals in his stateroom, but was refused. He realized they would suffocate if placed in the cargo section of the ship, so he enlisted the help of some friends to smuggle them aboard and into his stateroom. This bit of ingenuity paid off; and he was successful in getting all of his chinchillas, eleven of them, safely stowed away in the quarters which they were to share with him and his wife on their long voyage to a foreign land.

Once the ship was under way Chapman went to the Captain and advised him that the chinchillas were in his stateroom, that they were very valuable, and that he would sue the steamship line for a large sum of money if they were removed to the ship's hold. The frustrated Captain had little choice but to cooperate from that point on. Having surmounted the first major hurdle, Chapman was now faced with the next test of his determination - - that of keeping the animals alive. Heat was the big problem; and, adaptable as the animals were, this was one factor that had to be controlled. Ice was kept in the center compartment of the large cage most of the time, and this provided the difference between success and failure of the venture. Actually, there were occasions where he and Mrs. Chapman would stay up all night, constantly replacing the melting ice. It's a tribute to their firmness of purpose that they reached California having lost but one chinchilla, and this loss was compensated for by the addition of one baby, born en route!

Domestic Chinchilla Industry - Initial Period

The Chapmans reached San Pedro harbor in February, 1923; and this marked the beginning of ranch-raised chinchilla on a commercial basis. They were met by a Los Angeles furrier names Willard H. George who was destined to become the industry's greatest benefactor during its early years of struggle for survival. During those years he became an inspiration to all chinchilla ranchers - - educating them on the quality characteristics of the animal, encouraging them to persevere in the face of many adversities, and, in general, providing help and guidance wherever and whenever it was needed. His death in 1956 cut short a dream to see chinchilla reach its rightful place in the fur industry; but, by this time, his impact on chinchilla ranchers was sufficient to sustain the momentum that had been generated.

The first few years of raising this animal in captivity were trying indeed. There was absolutely to go by, so it became a matter of trial and error. In fact, it took the first couple of years just to establish some sketchy idea as to how they should be housed and fed. They did not breed during this time, but it is amazing that they were sufficiently flexible to even survive the change. Finally, they did start breeding, and it wasn't until this time (two or three years after their arrival to this country) that it could be determined whether or not they would breed outside their natural habitat. Progress was painfully slow, however; and Chapman experienced so many setbacks that the average person would have been completely disheartened and would have eventually given up, but not this man.

The first decade saw efforts by several people to acquire some of his chinchillas, because news of this great venture had spread and interest began to develop. He resisted all attempts, however, because there was still too much to learn about the animal before any could be turned over to others. Besides, they remained in limited numbers even though they were, by now, multiplying to some extent. Then, aside from these and other factors, the great depression set in which precluded any possible expansion for the time being. Mathias Chapman died in 1934, eleven years after starting the industry we now know today. It seems ironic that he should have suffered so many heartbreaks, never to have been exposed to even the slightest glimpse of what was to emerge from the dream he had nourished all those years. Fortunate it was, though, that he had a son who could carry on the work he had started; otherwise, the budding industry might well have died with him.

Reginald Chapman (or Reg as everyone knows him) took over his father's project at a time when things were beginning to change. The herd had finally increased rather substantially and the demands to purchase breeding stock were steadily mounting. Reg felt that now the time had come to begin dispersing a few animals to others so that chinchilla raising could transform from a one-man operation to an agricultural industry consisting of many ranchers producing pelts for the fur market. Breeding stock was necessarily sold in limited quantities in the mid-1930's, but it increased in volume as the herd grew. In those days breeding stock was sold on a much different basis that today, due in part to the very limited quantity available. In the beginning, several people would purchase a percentage of one pair of chinchillas. When that pair multiplied to the number of pairs equal to the number of purchasers, the "pool" would be disbursed; and each individual would have a start with one pair of chinchillas. Naturally, as breeding stock became more readily available, this method was replaced by the outright sale of a full pair at a time.

The increase in breeding-stock sales obviously created a growing number of chinchilla owners. This, in turn, created a need for some sort of organization to which the ranchers could belong and obtain education and services. Such an association was formed in the early part of 1938 and was named National Chinchilla Breeders of America, Inc. (NCBA). Its growth was interrupted by the United States' entry into World War II; and, during the period 1941-1945, little activity was experienced in the chinchilla industry. By 1946 interest was revived, and sales of breeding stock began to take on proportions hitherto unknown in this infant industry. Ranchers everywhere began selling some of their stock; and by the late 1940's, promotion of live animal sales had spread nation-wide. The chinchilla market at this time consisted of selling pairs of animals for breeding stock. Most would-be ranchers knew very little about the quality of the chinchillas they were purchasing but proceeded on the theory that they had only to acquire a pair of chinchillas, purchase or make a cage for them, and they were immediately in the chinchilla business. Little, if any, thought was given by the majority of ranchers to improving the quality of their animals or of developing pelts for the market. It was turning into a mad whirl of "buy breeding stock for the purpose of selling breeding stock"; and many outsiders, with justification, began looking upon the chinchilla industry as a breeding stock promotion only.

In view of the foregoing, let's reflect for a moment on the situation, past and present. Because of massive promotion of breeding stock during the late 1940's and early 1950's without the existence of an established pelt market for the fur, the chinchilla industry incurred rightful criticism. Though a few uninformed people may, today, still harbor some of the views of the past, the majority do realize that a market for chinchilla fur does now exist. Further, it can be said that many breeding-stock sales today are on a basis that provides real potential for the buyer whose main purpose is the production of quality pelts. This is not to say, however, that unethical promotion and livestock sales no longer exist. They still do, somewhat, and always will - - to the extent that the gullible and uninformed remain easy prey for liars and cheats. It goes without saying that the person who is interested in entering the chinchilla industry should investigate before he invests, and then do business with the one in whom he can place his complete confidence.

We had previously said that the sale of breeding stock spread throughout the United States beginning in 1946. This, too, included Canada. So, as in the U.S., they also developed the need for an association. Therefore, during the latter 1940's, the National Chinchilla Breeders of Canada (NCBC) was formed and is still in operation today. During this period, numerous American ranchers felt the need to establish a new association in addition to the one already in existence (NCBA). Therefore, in 1949, the Chinchilla Association of America (CAA) was set up. It functioned pretty much on the same basis as NCBA but subsequently discontinued operation about eleven years later.

Mention of these various chinchilla associations may seem confusing and irrelevant. However, they are reffered to because it serves to illustrate the magnitude of interest and activity that had been generated during this brief period immediately following the end of World War II. So great had been the excitement over raising this furry, friendly little animal that not much attention had been given to the basic purpose of its domestication - - pelt production. Nevertheless, there were a few ranchers who looked beyond the current merry-go-round. Because it was felt that the original association, NCBA, was not structured to handle pelt marketing activities, a sister organization was established in 1950 for this sole purpose; it was called Farmers Chinchilla Cooperative of America, Inc. (FCCA). So, with this newly formed marketing facility, plus the Canadian association (NCBC), which had already been incorporated on a basis that included pelt marketing, the young industry now had the mechanics with which it could market its skins in an orderly manner. The problem confronting the associations, however, was to educate their members regarding the main purpose at hand. This was not easy because breeding stock sales were, by now, in full swing; and who wanted to pelt chinchillas when they could be sold live?

The early 1950's saw extensive efforts to bring together a representative collection of marketable pelts. As time went by, pressure mounted from sources outside the industry to "put up or shut up" - - prove the chinchilla industry something more than just a breeding stock scheme or eventually disappear from the community of fashion furs. In view of this, the first organized offering of chinchilla skins (approximately ten thousand) took place at the New York Auction Company on June 21, 1954. Seasonally, it was the longest day of the year; and it proved to be just that for anxious ranchers who eagerly awaited the results. Because anticipation had run so high, anything less than complete success would have been viewed as failure; and since the results did fall way below anticipation, there was many a disheartened rancher. Less that 30 per cent of the offering was purchased, and prices ranged from very good (for a limited quantity) to very poor. This set off a reaction within the chinchilla industry that saw ranchers by the thousands erroneously conclude that the "bottom and dropped out" and that they should, therefore, dispose of their animals. So strong was the feeling that this marked the end of an era - - a period which we have referred to as the early phase of the domestic chinchilla industry. This, then, brings us to the start of a new era - a period in which chinchilla discarded its cloak of fantasy and became an item of commerce. 

Domestic Chinchilla Industry - Current Period

Shortly after the 1954 pelt sale, several things began to happen. Many ranchers who had purchased chinchilla on a completely unrealistic basis, thinking they were going to become wealthy overnight, abruptly recognized the cold, hard facts and left the industry. Ranchers who maintained their equilibrium realized the need to improve the breed and, therefore, proceeded to establish a long-range program of herd improvement. Many who had been active in breeding stock sales throughout the United States and Canada suddenly found that the market for livestock had all but vanished. Consequently, they began exporting chinchillas to many countries in Western Europe and Africa, where interest in raising the animal was beginning to develop, as it had in the U.S. twenty years earlier. In addition to all this, an objective survey was made regarding the pelt sale results to see what basic information could be learned that might prove helpful in future marketing efforts. The following are a few of the facts and some conclusions that were drawn.

The initial sale was by public auction. This means that the pelts were auctioned off to the highest bidder and the procedure is as follows. Matched bundles are placed on display a few days in advance of a publicized sale. Prospective buyers have the opportunity to examine the merchandise and make appropriate notations in a catalogue provided to them. On the day of the sale, they bid on the various bundles as each one, individually, is "placed on the block" by the auctioneer. As in the case of tobacco sales and other similar auctions, he knows the signs indicated by the different bidders and keeps pushing the bundle until the highest bid has been established. This is the way a majority of mink skins are sold - - many other furs as well. However, this first experience demonstrated something as far as the chinchilla industry was concerned. When the pelts are in limited quantity and too high a percentage is mediocre quality, there is too little incentive to cause the buyers to bid against each other. Accordingly, until volume and quality show dramatic improvement, this method of sale should be avoided, leaving the alternative of private treaty selling. This method calls for the private sale of merchandise in which the sales agent discusses the matter with a potential buyer; and, hopefully, an agreement is reached. A "floor" has been placed on each bundle through mutual agreement, made in advance, between the sales agent and the rancher, or his representative. This means that the pelts will not sell below the predetermined minimum; but, of course, every effort will be made to sell them above the floor. In light of the experience with their first sale, the chinchilla industry changed their method of selling pelts to private treaty sales and has maintained that method up to the time of this writing.

In further reviewing the results of the first sale, another thing became very clear. The furrier did not share the rancher's emotional response to the word "chinchilla". To him it was nothing more than a fur with which to make a profit; and to do so, it had to be good. And besides, ranch-raised chinchilla was an unknown entity to him; so he, naturally, approached it with caution. This, of course, dictated a massive readjustment in the thinking of chinchilla ranchers. No longer could they stay up in the clouds, dreaming of success simply because they raised chinchillas. Rewarding as the venture might be in many ways, they had to develop quality in order to realize a financial return. So, the message was clear. Develop an understanding of what the fur trade wanted in fur, and then set about to produce it.

Actually, there was a wife difference of opinion as to whether the first sale was really a failure or success. The unrealistic labeled it for what it meant for them - - failure. They lacked the capacity and the desire to meet the challenge of the future. All they could see was the dissipation of a "gravy train" they thought was going to go on forever. The realistic labeled it for what is meant to them - - success. They regarded the first effort as a sort of trial balloon and were not unhappy with the results. It did enlighten them, and it did indicate the future course that must be taken.

As time passed after that eventful day in 1954, the chinchilla industry slowly settled down to the business of pelt production. Furriers, too, began to purchase more pelts; and they also began to create more styles with the fur. Skepticism about the long-range motives of the ranchers began to disappear somewhat; and little by little, chinchilla became an accepted member of the fur world. Incidentally, the character of the fur itself was never on trial - - just the people who were producing it. However, it must be realized that, in spite of the obvious purpose for raising chinchillas, circumstances had evolved during the first three decades of this animal's domestication that simply clouded reality. But now, the curtain had separated and certain facts began to manifest themselves. The resulting adjustment from breeding-stock sales as the major activity to pelt production as the major activity created massive changes in the make-up of the industry. Also, the awakening did not come easily nor did it take place overnight.

During the first few years of adjustment following the initial pelt sale, numerous ranchers began to take issue with the policies and methods of operation of FCCA, the association which, at that time, was serving as the pelt marketing arm of all producers. Dissention spread and, by the end of 1959, the Canadian association (NCBC) decided to market their pelts through a sales agent other than the one used by FCCA. A year later a new organization was formed for the sole purpose of marketing pelts and was named United Chinchilla Associates (UCA). They subsequently expanded their membership services to include education and related matters. At about this same time, organizations were forming in England and parts of Europe; and FCCA was designated as the channel through which they would market their limited quantities of pelts.

By the early 1960's, consideration was given to the merger of NCBA and FCCA. Inasmuch as they were companion organizations, one the educational group and one the pelt marketing group, it was felt that it would be advantageous to combine the operations of both into one association. After considerable debate, the merger plans were abandoned. Then, shortly following, the chinchilla industry across the Atlantic began growing rapidly; and FCCA felt there should be some type of international control placed over what was fast becoming a worldwide chinchilla industry. Though opposition was expressed in some quarters, an International Alliance was finally agreed upon and the unofficial sponsor. A year later discussion on the merger of NCBA and FCCA was renewed, and this time the plan was ratified. So, in January, 1965, the two associations became one and selected the name, Empress Chinchilla Breeders Cooperative, Inc. (ECBC).

As can be realized from the aforementioned, the chinchilla industry did indeed experience adjustments and expansion during the 1950's and 1960's. Many people bought chinchillas and subsequently left the industry, while many others bought chinchillas and are still raising them today. In addition, many people continue to enter the industry as newcomers.

Sources Cited:

Bowen, Edwin G. and Ross W. Jenkins. Chinchilla: History, Husbandry, Marketing. 1969, pp. 1-12.

Image Sources Cited:

Bowen, Edwin G. and Ross W. Jenkins. Chinchilla: History, Husbandry, Marketing. 1969, pp. 1-8.

Medow, Harold. The Chinchilla. 1969, pp. 7-9.

**Sunshine Chinchillas does not nor claim to own any of the above information**

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