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What is a Chinchilla?

Rabbit-squirrel, fur-ninja, oversized mouse, living cottonball...all more or less valid answers to an important question. What is a chinchilla?

Chinchillas are not a common household pet. For the average person, chinchillas are one of those obscure animals whose existence they may or may not be aware of until they pass one in a pet store, a friend purchases one, or a stray video pops up featuring an adorable fluff ball holding a treat. One of the first things we are asked when we mention our business is “what are they?”

The chinchillas we know are the domesticated descendant of a rodent from South America, specifically the Andes Mountains. They are in the family Chinchillidae with another chinchilla species, viscachas, and some extinct animals. Chinchilla lanigera or long -tailed chinchillas were first bred in captivity in early 1900’s. It wasn’t until the 1920’s that they began to be commercially bred and their domestication began in earnest.

Matthias F. Chapman was working as a mining engineer for Anaconda Copper in 1918. As the story goes, a native Chilean came to his camp with a wild chinchilla to sell. Chapman purchased this chinchilla and became fascinated with them and the idea of breeding them in captivity. Chapman hired 23 trappers to capture enough chinchillas to begin a captive breeding program. Chinchillas by this time were already endangered due to over harvesting for their fur. It took Chapman’s team 3 years to capture 8 male and 3 female chinchillas and begin their slow journey to California. Chapman, already aware of how sensitive the animals could be, kept the chinchilla shaded, used wet towels draped over the travel cages, and used ice to keep them cool. He had enough native forage collected to last the chinchillas several months so they wouldn’t become ill.

Through his dedication all 11 animals made it down the mountain and were smuggled onto a ship, on which the captain was informed of them after they were underway (unknown if Chapman did not have the proper paperwork yet or if animals were not allowed on this freighter). Chapman and his wife continued to provide ice and wet towels for the chinchillas to keep them cool while on the ship. A female chinchilla had given birth to two kits, of which one survived, and a total of 12 chinchillas were brought to the United States.

Unfortunately the hardships did not end there and the initial location that Chapman chose to start their farm was suspected to have contaminated water, which affected his chinchillas ability to reproduce. Then he had a theft of almost half of his chinchillas. The thieves transported the chinchillas across the desert in a hot car and lost many of them. All the remaining stolen animals boarded a steamer and left for Europe. Despite Mr Chapman’s efforts to have them returned, the chinchillas were granted to a Doctor Muller and they perished with him.

After the rough start, Chapman moved his herd back to Los Angeles and continued to try to emulate their wild environment. He designed large cages, 6 x 6 feet, and tall enough for a person to walk into. Each cage had an insulated nest box, had a ceiling with 6” of soil on top of it and another roof covering all of them to insulate the chinchillas against the heat. Chapman’s hard work and diligence paid off and his herd increased in number. One of his original chinchillas actually outlived him! Old Hoff (named after the blacksmith that had built the transport cages for him) lived 22 years after his original capturing.

‘Pete’ would ride on Chapman’s shoulder while the rest of the herd was tended.

Chinchillas were imported at least one other time and added to the captive population that Mr. Chapman began. Through selective breeding, domestic chinchillas became larger, more diverse in colors, and more approachable than their wild counterparts. Though it is an arduous domestic history, we wouldn’t have the chinchillas we know and love today without the dedication of Matthias F. Chapman.

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