The strange NYT article on taming minks

I’m probably waking up late to this but the New York Times has published yet another article in which it creates a false balance by first focusing on the problematic side of a story for an inordinately long time, without any of the requisite qualifications and arguments, before jumping, in the last few paragraphs to one or two rebuttals that reveal, for the first time, that there could in fact be serious problems with all that came before.

The first instance was about a study on the links between one’s genes and facial features. The second is a profile of a man named Joseph Carter who tames minks. The article is headlined ‘How ‘the Most Vicious, Horrible Animal Alive’ Became a YouTube Star’. You’d think minks are “vicious” and “horrible” because they’re aggressive or something like that, but no – you discover the real reason all the way down in paragraph #12:

“Pretty much everyone I asked, they told me the same thing — ‘They’re the most vicious, horrible animal alive,’” Mr. Carter said. “‘They’re completely untamable, untrainable, and it doesn’t really matter what you do.’”

So, in 2003, he decided that he would start taming mink. He quickly succeeded.

Putting such descriptors as “vicious” and “horrible” in single-quotes in the headline doesn’t help if those terms are being used – by unnamed persons, to boot – to mean minks are hard to tame. That just makes them normal. But the headline’s choice of words (and subsequently the refusal by the first 82% (by number of paragraphs) of the piece to engage with the issue) gives the impression that the newspaper is going to ignore that. A similar kind of dangerous ridiculousness emerges further down the piece, with no sense of irony:

“You can’t control, you can’t change the genetics of an individual,” he said. “But you can, with the environment, slightly change their view of life.”

Why do we need to change minks’ view of anything? Right after, the article segues to a group of researchers at a veterinary college in London, whose story appears to supply the only redeeming feature of Carter’s games with minks: the idea that in order to conduct their experiments with minks, the team would have to design more challenging tasks with higher rewards than they were handing out. Other than this, there’s very little to explain why Carter does what he does.

There’s a flicker of an insight when a canal operator says Carter helps them trap the “muskrats, rats, raccoons and beavers” that erode the canal’s banks. There’s another flicker when the article says Carter buys “many of his animals” from fur farms, where the animals are killed before they’re a year old when in fact they could live to three, as they do with Carter. Towards the very end, we learn, Carter also prays for his minks every night.

So he’s saving them in the sort of way the US saves other countries?

It’s hard to say when he’s also setting out to tame these animals to – as the article seems to suggest – see if he can succeed. In fact, the article is so poorly composed and structured that it’s hard to say if the story it narrates is a faithful reflection of Carter’s sensibilities or if it’s just lazy writing. We never find out if Carter has ever considered ‘rescuing’ these animals and releasing them into the wild or if he has considered joining experts and activists fighting to have the animal farms shut. We only have the vacuous claim that is Carter’s belief that he’s giving them a “new life”.

The last 18% of the article also contains a few quotes that I’d call weak for not being sharp enough to poke more holes in Carter’s views, at least as the New York Times seems to relay them. There is one paragraph citing a 2001 study about what makes mink stressed and another about the welfare of Carter’s minks being better than those that are caged in the farms. But the authors appear to have expended no sincere effort to link them together vis-à-vis Carter’s activities.

In fact, there is a quote by a scientist introduced to rationalise Carter’s views: “It’s like any thoroughbred horse, or performance animal — or birds of prey who go out hunting. If asked, they probably would prefer to hunt.” Wouldn’t you think that if they were asked, and if they could provide an answer that we could understand, they would much rather be free of all constraints rather than being part of Carter’s circus?

There is also a dubious presumption here that creates a false choice – between being caged in a farm and being tamed by a human: that the minks ought to be grateful because some humans are choosing to stress them less, instead of not stress them whatsoever. Whether a mink might be killed by predators or have a harder time finding food in the wild, if it is released, is completely irrelevant.

Then comes the most infuriating sentence of the lot, following the scientist’s quote: “Mr. Carter has his own theories.” Not ideas or beliefs but theories. Because scientists’ theories, tested as they need to be against our existing body of knowledge and with experiments designed to eliminate even inadvertent bias, are at least semantically equivalent to Carter’s “own theories”, founded on his individual need for self-justification and harmony with the saviour complex.

And then the last paragraph:

“Animals don’t have ethics,” he said. “They have sensation, they can feel pain, they have the ability to learn, but they don’t have ethics. That’s a human thing.”

I don’t know how to make sense of it, other than with the suspicion that the authors and/or editors grafted these lines to the bottom because they sounded profound.