It was late in the day for muskrats to be in Mill Creek, or at least in the stretch that runs 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 riverbank. 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 leaving the cage. Inside, an animal moved its head from side to side, spinning around the small space. It was an American mink, named Boon. Joseph 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 dig burrows in 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. Joseph 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. Carter ran along the riverbank, his face alight with energy. “Blessing!” the Scream. “Here here here here here here!”
The mink immediately changed direction, as if it understood, and closed in on its prey. Maggie Carter, running after her husband, tried to keep the camcorder in focus. “Are you getting this?” Joseph Carter yelled at him. “Did you get it?”
training your mink
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. Carter builds his cages with two layers of wire to keep children’s fingers from slipping, and has “mink-protected” his yard with slippery fencing and buried wire around the perimeter for when he lets them out.
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 close by with his grandfather, who was a famous rodeo cowboy turned show horse trainer. There, he began training raptors. Toward the end of high school, she moved near several mink farms, where the animals are raised for fur. He became curious.
“Almost everyone I asked told me the same thing: ‘These 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 with 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, Joseph Carter published a 242-page book, “Minkenry’s New Sport: The Art of Taming, Training, and Hunting with One of Nature’s Most Intense Predators.” Invoking his experience with falconry, he detailed a series of 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, Carter offered some science and some insight: Start minks when they’re young, be sure to reward them when they’re 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. Carter was teaching one of his minks, Missy, how to cache, using the magic bullet of mink training: a rope tied around a dead animal. He ran around his backyard bouncing a dead pigeon a few 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!” 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. Addressing the camera, she said, “Now, she gets a second reward. She can chase the rat!
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 were 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.
Carter dove into the water to pick them up, holding the ball desperately in front of him by the muskrat’s tail. He wrestled the hold from Boon’s jaws and presented her with a wad of ground beef. “Good job, Mr. Boon,” he said. Maggie 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 Joseph Carter. At the time he was working as a financial advisor and his YouTube account, which he opened 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! RECORD 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. Carter’s oldest 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 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.
“His results are incredible,” said Jordan Timothy, who manages a canal for North Jordan Irrigation Co. 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 very well be a trap that’s already been set,” Timothy said. “He is so good at what he does.”
For Carter, the hunt, while popular with viewers, is also popular with mink. He buys many of his animals from fur farms, which in the United States typically produce a few million furs a year and have been a source of controversy among animal rights advocates. More recently, they came to the fore 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 one 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.
Díez-León, who was a student of Mason, said that much beyond this is a mystery. All in all, he said, because 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.”
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, 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.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.