I thought chinchilla ranching was dead, but it's not. Chinchillas are squirrel-like rodents native to the South American Andes.
The international trade in chinchilla fur goes back to the 16th century. Their fur is popular due to its extremely soft feel, and even color. Chinchillas are also often used in researching the auditory system because their range of hearing is close to that of a human and their inner ear is easy to access. They have also been used in the study of many other diseases in humans, especially gastrointestinal diseases.
The wild population of chinchillas had been hunted almost to extinction when, in 1923, eleven of them were brought to the United States, where they were bred successfully by specialized breeders. These eleven were the ancestors of almost all American chinchillas. In 1943, there were an estimated 20,000 chinchillas in the United States; by 1962, there were 750,000.
Chinchillas are small and it takes about 150 of them to make a coat. Because chinchillas and the fur coats made from them are so expensive, people got the idea that breeding chinchillas could be extremely profitable. In the US from about 1953-1955 there was a breeding craze that lead to all kinds of scams.
|$400 in the mid-50's is about $3,500 today|
The problem was that chinchillas are not easy to breed. They are high altitude animals and cannot survive summers in the United States unless their environment is consistently air conditioned. Chinchillas lack the ability to sweat; therefore, if temperatures get above 25°C (80°F), they could get overheated and suffer from heat stroke. Chinchillas dissipate heat by routing blood to their large ears. Plus, they are also subject to a variety of other problems.
In addition to being susceptible to various infectious diseases, they have a very sensitive gastrointestinal tract that can be easily disrupted resulting in disorders like constipation and diarrhea. In this respect, they are worse than an old man. A recommended diet for chinchillas is usually a mixed-food diet including wheat bran, oats, barley, millet, linseed, dietary calcium, salt, fennel, powdered milk, and hay to go with leaves and herbs.
Chinchillas must have access to a dust bath which the animal will use to care for its fur and massage itself and care must be taken to ensure that the dust has no dangerous chemicals. Chinchillas clean their fur by taking dust baths, in which they roll around in special dust made of fine pumice. In the wild, the dust is formed from fine, ground volcanic rocks. The dust gets into their fur and absorbs oil and dirt. These baths are needed a few times a week. Chinchillas do not bathe in water because the dense fur prevents air-drying, retaining moisture close to the skin, which can cause fungus growth or fur rot. A wet chinchilla must be dried immediately with towels and a no-heat hair dryer.
Their teeth need to be worn down, as they grow continuously and can prevent them from eating if they become overgrown. Chinchillas in captivity are prone to problems with their molars if they are not fed an appropriate diet and given access to appropriate chewing tools. Problems with their molars are often misdiagnosed and improperly treated. Also, dental problems can be hereditary.
Chinchillas require extensive exercise so special cages are required. They are active animals and occasionally suffer bone fractures and minor injuries which must receive proper treatment. Fractures are a major problem because chinchillas sit on their hind legs and eat with their front paws, so many injuries may affect their ability to eat.
Let's talk about mental health. Chinchillas are easily distressed and when they are unhappy they may have physical symptoms. Care should be taken not to disturb them, and lots of things disturb them. They don't respond well to sudden changes in their diet and during their breeding season care must be taken not to disturb them in any way.
All of these issues probably weren't discussed in the informercials and ads of the 1950's, hence the scams. Imagine parting with the equivalent of $3,500 or more for a couple of chinchillas with the expectation that you were going to make a tidy profit only to have them croak for any number of reasons mentioned above.
A Collection of Chinchilla Ranching Ads from the '50s
More Chinchilla Information
Breeding Chinchillas for Profit
RDZC Chinchilla Ranch
EDIT: Supposedly you can eat the little critters: Chinchilla Stew Alternate recipe