Ferret factor

California’s smallest illegal aliens still can’t get respect in the state Capitol

Group therapy: Ferret lovers hate California’s law, though the animals themselves seem mostly unaware of it.

Group therapy: Ferret lovers hate California’s law, though the animals themselves seem mostly unaware of it.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Mary Jo prepares for her trip like a seasoned smuggler.

She loads Pecan, Baby and Mack into two pet carriers, adding towels to both comfort and conceal them. She then peers out a window, making sure her Oak Park street is clear before ferrying the four-legged members of her family from her home to her car.

For more than a decade, Mary Jo hid her pets from her neighbors. Still, most of them don’t know.

That’s because these pets are illegal in California. They’re ferrets. Mary Jo calls them her “kids” and currently houses 11 of them. And if anyone reported her to animal control or to the state Department of Fish and Game, the ferrets would be confiscated and sent to Nevada or another of the 48 states where the weasel-like animals are considered domesticated and legal. (Hawaii is the only other state to ban ferrets, due to unique island issues.)

Today, Mary Jo takes three of them to a South Sacramento “safe house”—a place where no ferrets live and, therefore, with an address invulnerable to animal authorities. She hurries them into the residence and then into a room where ferret enthusiasts and visitors are seated. Another woman walks in a few moments later, unzips a canvas shoulder bag and pulls two ferrets from it.

“I’m Christine,” says the woman with the canvas bag as she fits harnesses and leashes onto her two pets. “And this is Zephyr, and this is Donner.”

The small, slinky animals begin examining the room, sticking their needle-shaped noses into every crack and crevice. Only the leashes keep them from disappearing under the sofa or up a pants leg.

These are members of the Capitol City Ferret Club, an underground support group for Sacramento-area ferret fans. When this group gathers, talk often turns to the nearly two-decades-long effort to legalize pet ownership of ferrets in California. A law first was proposed in the Assembly during the 1993-1994 session. Again in 1995. And again in 1999, 2001 and 2003.

The bill received overwhelming support in both houses during the last go-round—26-2 in the Senate and 64-12 in the Assembly—and made its way to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk last year. But Schwarzenegger sent it back, saying that although he is a friend to ferrets—“I love ferrets. I co-starred with a ferret in Kindergarten Cop”—the bill was too bureaucratic.

Ferret enthusiasts responded by writing a stripped-down version of the bill, which was introduced last month by Assemblyman Paul Koretz, the West Hollywood Democrat known for crusading on behalf of critters.

“I’ve wanted to do this bill every year since I’ve been up here,” said Koretz. “I think this is going to be the year.”

And yet, so far, there’s always a roadblock. Inside the Capitol, the effort to domesticate ferrets has become a recurring joke. It’s discussed in the same chuckle-laden conversations as bills to allow condoms in prisons, prevent ice-cream trucks from double-parking and ban X-rated videos from in-car DVD players.

It’s considered by many to be trivial and doomed to fail.

Koretz said that it’s the ridicule that helps stymie ferret domestication.

“Most people don’t care about animal issues at all—at least not in the Legislature,” he said.

The ferrets have become the poster children of so-called bad bills.

“That’s sad,” said Jeanne Carley, a volunteer lobbyist pushing ferret domestication. “The joke, I think, is that it’s taking so long to fix a very simple problem.”

The problem began just over 70 years ago, when the state Department of Fish and Game drew up a list of wild animals deemed illegal to own. The ferret—a descendant of the European polecat—made it onto the list.

“It was an error that it got on that list,” Mary Jo said. “And there’s too much pride and politics to just take it off—that’s what I honestly think. It’s pride and politics.”

Ron Jurek, a wildlife biologist for Fish and Game, sees it differently. He’s convinced that legalizing ferret ownership would have a dramatic effect on the state’s wildlife—namely waterfowl—and its agriculture.

“We have strong restrictions because of the agriculture and the mild climate in California,” he said. “If they were to get free—any species will do well in those conditions.”

He calls the animals “escape artists” that easily could get free from a home. They need only a 1-inch-by-2-inch hole. And if you allow an animal like the ferret—which was once a predator used by humans for hunting—to populate in the wild, it could have severe consequences for the state’s native wildlife, Jurek said.

Debby G., president of the Capitol City Ferret Club, scoffs at the idea of feral ferret colonies, saying that the survival instinct has long been bred out of the ferrets raised as pets in this country.

“They live an average of three days out in the wild,” she said.

Koretz, who said he has never met a ferret, agrees.

“If there were any dangers, something would have gone wrong in one of the other states,” he said.

The truth is that ferrets are already here. Jurek estimated in 1997 that there were 100,000 pet ferrets in California. Surveys conducted by ferret enthusiasts, veterinarians and the pet-supply industry put that number closer to 500,000 now.

Ask about ferret supplies at any chain pet-supply store locally, and you’ll be pointed toward ferret food, ferret enclosures, ferret magazines and ferret toys. People clearly are buying this stuff.

“If anybody thinks the current law is working and workable, they’re in la-la land,” Carley said.

Fish and Game doesn’t actively enforce the law calling ferrets illegal. However, if a ferret is surrendered to an animal-control agency, or if someone reports seeing a ferret in someone’s home, department officers will escort the animals out of the state.

And they routinely oppose domestication efforts, even though the agency normally does not take positions on proposed laws.

“I don’t know why they won’t let go of an animal that clearly doesn’t belong in their jurisdiction,” Carley said of Fish and Game. “It’s nonsensical, unless there’s a deep-seated prejudice there.”

This year’s bill probably won’t be signed by Schwarzenegger if it makes it to his desk as written. When rejecting the law last year, he said a survey of ferrets’ impact on California’s environment needs to be conducted before a decision can be made.

Last year’s proposed law included an environmental-impact report and a way to pay for it. Ferret owners would have been charged licensing fees, which would have been deposited into an account to be used to conduct a report. Jurek called that “putting the cart before the horse.”

Instead of mending that snag, the current bill mentions nothing of an environmental-impact report.

Koretz said he wants to work with Fish and Game and the governor’s administration to make the bill workable. The bill is scheduled to be discussed in the Assembly’s Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee next month.

Meanwhile, back at the South Sacramento gathering, most of the “kids” are sleeping, and their parents are preparing to ferret them back to their homes. Christine slips Zephyr and Donner back into her canvas bag, zipping it closed most of the way. When she gets back to her apartment complex, she’ll walk quickly, hoping not to run into her apartment manager. And if she does, and is forced to linger in the hall for a few seconds, chatting, she’ll pray the ferrets don’t stir inside her bag. She has been told that if she is found with an illegal pet, she could be evicted on the spot.

Sarah, who smuggled her first ferret into the state just six months ago, shakes her head at that notion, wondering how anyone could be so opposed to a ferret.

“I just don’t see how you could not like them,” she says.