The Matthias F. Chapman Story
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Those of us who own chinchillas have Mr. M. F. Chapman to thank for our enjoyment of these gentle animals. Nearly every pet chinchilla alive today is a descendent of Mr. Chapman's original herd. This is the story of the man who domesticated the chinchilla.
The chinchilla was not known outside of its natural range in the South American Andes until the 1500's when the Spanish conquered the Chincha Indians. Chinchilla furs were shipped to Europe as gifts to royalty. Chinchilla fur gained popularity in Europe during the 1700's and, by the 1800's, trappers were managing to decimate the wild chinchilla colonies that remained. In 1899, the "Chinchilla King" Richard Glick, of Leipzig, Germany, handled 78,500 pelts, and more than 300,000 pelts in 1900 and 1901. It is estimated that over a million chinchillas were trapped and their pelts shipped to Europe during this time. Finally, with the chinchilla nearly extinct, the South American governments passed laws outlawing the trapping and killing of chinchillas.
Mathias F. Chapman was working as a mining engineer for Anaconda Copper in Chile in 1918. One day a local native Chilean Indian brought a chinchilla he had captured to Chapman's camp in a tin can to sell. Chapman bought the chinchilla and became more and more interested in this little animal. From his experiences with this chinchilla he developed a plan to obtain more of these animals and transport them to the United States. Originally, his thought was to breed chinchillas as pets, but later he conceived the idea of raising chinchillas for the fur market. In 1919, Mr. Chapman set about capturing as many chinchillas as possible so that he could establish a breeding population.
There were several different "types" of chinchillas in the Andes. The smaller Costina type was found at lower elevations and the larger Lanigera type was found in the higher altitudes. M. F. Chapman's home at Potrerillos, Chile, was at an elevation of 10,400 feet which is estimated to be about the demarcation elevation of the smaller Costina and the larger Lanigera types. Since most all of the lowland chinchillas had already been trapped out by the time Chapman began his collection, it is thought that most of his animals were of the Lanigera type.
This is one of the Costina type chinchillas captured by M. F. Chapman
The search for chinchillas was not an easy one. When his 23 trappers brought in fewer chinchillas than expected, Chapman stepped up his plans and many field trips were taken. Living conditions were primitive. Supplies had to be transported long distances. The search which took from 1919 to 1922, covered immense areas including trips into Peru.
The picture on the left is of Matthias F. Chapman, high in the Andes.
One trapper who captured a chinchilla reported that it had taken four weeks to return from where the chinchilla was captured. The chinchilla was carried by donkey in a container made of a five gallon oil can. It had been fed, but had been given no water since the Indians believed that chinchillas did not drink and would die if given water. It is believed that this chinchilla was trapped between an elevation of 14,000 and 18,000 feet
It took three years for Chapman to acquire just eleven chinchillas worthy of breeding. It is not known how many were of the Costina type and how many were of the Lanigera type, but it is clear that the eleven chinchillas represented different types from different areas. Of these eleven chinchillas, it is known that only three were females.
The picture on the right is of Dona Inez Suez, the finest of the original eleven chinchillas
At this time, in 1922, Chapman began the process of gradually working his way down from the mountains with his precious collection. The trek from his home at over 10,000 feet to sea level was taken in several stages to give the animals a chance to adjust to the change in altitude. The chinchillas traveled in large wooden cages that Chapman had specially built. They were shaded from the direct sun and, when necessary, were cooled with ice. Thanks to Chapman's care, all eleven chinchillas made it down the mountain.
On the right is a picture of Mr. and Mrs. M. F. Chapman with the crate in which all the known captive chinchillas in the world were placed for shipment from Chile in 1923.
Also during this time, Chapman was working on getting permission to bring his chinchillas to the United States. At first, he was denied permission to take the chinchillas out of Chile. However, his persistence paid off and the Chilean government finally granted permission to export the chinchillas in 1923.
Once down the mountain, the chinchillas were transported via railroad to the coast. From there they traveled via the coastal steamer Palena to Callao. In Callao, Chapman and his wife, together with the eleven chinchillas boarded the Japanese freighter, Anyu Maru, for their voyage to San Pedro, California.
Actually, in order to get his chinchillas aboard the ship, Mr. Chapman had his friends bring the chinchillas aboard in their pockets. Only after they were well out to sea did Mr. Chapman inform the captain that he had the animals in his cabin. Chapman had the cages brought up from the hold and threatened to sue if there was any interference with the chinchillas. In order to fight the heat during the trip, both Mr. and Mrs. Chapman took turns stocking the ice compartments built into the cages and draping the cages with cooling wet towels.
When they arrived in San Pedro on February 22, 1923 (Washington's birthday), the Chapmans had twelve chinchillas with them. One chinchilla had died during the voyage and two babies were born.
The twelve chinchillas stayed briefly in Los Angeles until the first US chinchilla farm was built in the high desert area of Tehachapi, California. Mr. Chapman endured several problems at first. From the start he had problems with chemical matter in the spring water. It was thought this contamination may have affected the chinchillas' ability to reproduce. Then he had to deal with the theft of nearly half his herd. The thief's broke the padlocks off the doors of the chinchillas' houses. On the right is the Chapman Farm at Tehachapi, California, where the farm was set up after its first temporary location in Los Angeles, California.
During the escape the animals were taken across hot deserts by car and many perished. The remaining animals left the country on a tramp steamer from Brownsville, Texas, on their way to Europe. Mr. Chapman's efforts to secure the return of these animals ended up with the authorities in Europe ordering that the animals be turned over to a Doctor Muller, where the last of these animals expired.
After so many disappointments and losses, Mr. Chapman moved back to the Los Angeles area. The exact location was 4957 West 104 Street, then a county area, but identified by its post office as Inglewood. At this second location, Chapman endeavored to approximate the conditions in the wild. This was hardly an easy task. The following pictures are of the first, and second series of buildings constructed at 1457 W. 104th Street, Inglewood, California.
Not too long after the construction of the first building was completed, a second set of buildings, even more interesting and imaginative, were built. A large retreat of brick was built, adjoining an open room. The brick room was 6 x 8 feet and high enough to stand up in. There was six inches of soil on the ceiling for insulation. Above the ceiling was an air space of 12 inches, topped by a good roof. The cage area was about 6 x 6 and was also high enough for a man to walk into. Each cage contained an insulated nest box, as seen below, which was developed by M.F. Chapman. The idea was to provide the needed environment to establish this animal in captivity and not to be concerned about the economics. Thanks to Mr. Chapman's concern and ingenuity his chinchillas thrived.
Mr. M. F. Chapman died on December 26, 1934, eleven years after beginning the domestication of the chinchilla. Mr. Chapman's grand experiment literally resulted in the birth of the chinchilla industry. In later years, there were a few Costina type chinchillas and a few Brevicaudata type chinchillas that were imported from South America and crossed into some of the early chinchilla herds. However, the foundation of today's chinchilla herds can all be traced back to Mr. Chapman's eleven original animals.
Pete often rode on Mr. Chapman's shoulder as he tended to the rest of the herd.
Some of M. F. Chapman's original eleven chinchillas survived him. One of his animals (the eighth one caught and for that reason tattooed with the number 8), lived to be about 22 years old. His exact age was not possible to establish since he was born in the wild. He was nicknamed Old Hoff, for the German blacksmith who built the shipping cages used to transport Mr. Chapman's chinchillas to the United States.
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