Albion Monitor /Features
 Alien Invaders: Pet or Pest?

Ferrets on the Lam

by Simone Wilson

Ferret owners insist the critter has gotten a bum rap

Mustela furo -- the domestic ferret -- is on the lam in California, banned since 1933 as a dangerous predator. Ferret owners, however, insist the critter has gotten a bum rap. They're pressuring the legislature to let the ferret off the hook, and to let owners come out of the closet and parade their pets in public.

Originally only female ferrets were banned, on the theory that only by rubbing two ferrets together do you get more ferrets. But in 1986 Fish and Game, the state Department of Health Services and the Department of Food and Agriculture joined forces to kick male ferrets out, too, just to make sure the little guys weren't out there breeding anyway,

Small, playful and relentlessly active, the ferret typically weighs about two pounds and has two speeds: overdrive and naptime. It's more affectionate than a cat, say its boosters, and eats less than a dog.

No one knows how many ferrets are in the wild in California, and the number kept as pets is a secret, since people can't legally admit to having them. Estimates put out by ferret aficionados vary from 100,000 to half a million.

If enough pet ferrets escaped or were released, California's situation would mirror that of Florida, says Jurek

Ferret fans have their own websites, support groups and magazines like Modern Ferret. Anyone browsing the Internet can ferret out a dozen or more organizations that offer legal advice and even help in spiriting ferrets away to free zones in the 48 states where the critters are legal. Massachusetts legalized ferret ownership this month, making California and Hawaii the sole hold-outs. (Visit Ferret Central" for an overview of ferret web sites.)

Some municipalities also ban ferrets. They're legal in New York state, but New York City health officials confiscate and destroy them, acting on an ordinance banning animals that are "wild, ferocious, dangerous or naturally inclined to do harm" -- a description that fits a good many New Yorkers.

If California ferret owners are found out -- usually because somebody complains -- the Department of Agriculture or the Humane Society is dispatched to pick up the animal. Since 1994, the California Domestic Ferret Association has been authorized to arrange out-of-state adoptions for confiscated ferrets. But owners don't always know this, say ferret activists, and many of the animals are put down.

California State Senate Bill 55, which died in committee January 9, would have allowed Californians to keep ferrets without a permit provided the animals were vaccinated for rabies and spayed or neutered. While Food and Ag recently shifted to a neutral stance, Fish and Game persists in its opposition, fearing escaped ferrets would survive and proliferate in the wild, given the state's relatively mild winter.

"Most inland states have severe winters, so ferrets there aren't likely to survive a winter in the wild," says Ron Jurek, Fish and Game specialist on endangered species. If enough pet ferrets escaped or were released, California's situation would mirror that of Florida, "a mild climate where exotics do well," says Jurek. "Florida is overrun with exotic wildlife."

FURO -- Ferret Unity and Registration -- argues that the long-domesticated ferret seldom survives in the wild, even in California, and therefore poses little danger. FURO also points to Center for Disease Control statistics showing cats and dogs sink their fangs into people far more often than ferrets do.

Because the state allows animals that are just as destructive, arguments against the beasts run a little thin, at least in the minds of ferret owners. Fish and Game also cites economic concerns, including a fear that ferrets, like native weasels, would go for barnyard chickens. Agricultural interests, which have prodded legislators to sustain the ban, worry about crop damage.

Groups like Ferrets Anonymous argue that the animal is no more destructive or predatory than the domestic cat, though the ferret would occupy a different niche. Cats are tree-climbers, while ferrets prey on animals that burrow -- rodents and snakes -- as well as ground-nesting birds. "Like the weasel, the ferret isn't much of a tree climber," says Jurek.

Ferret ownership emerged as a rights issue when San Diegan Pat Wright of Ferrets Anonymous ran for state assembly in 1992, as a Libertarian with a "fair-play-for-ferrets" platform. She and the ferrets lost.

Despite the recent demise of SB55, California Domestic Ferret Asociation isn't about to let the legislature weasel out of the issue, and hopes to have a similar bill reintroduced before this summer.

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Albion Monitor March 10, 1996 (

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