Loyal pet or dangerous pest?

Legislature considers legalizing ferrets in California

Debby G. and Justin Thomas said ferrets make great pets.

Debby G. and Justin Thomas said ferrets make great pets.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Amid squeaky toys and flying fur, Rob herds Loki back into the living room, turning to his afternoon guests with an air of pinkie-sworn trust. “Yes, we’re all criminals here,” he says, unable to hold back a mischievous grin.

The room bursts into laughter, followed by a brief, nervous silence. Everyone here has a secret to keep, because Loki is a ferret, an illegal pet in California.

Gerri’s ownership of Taz makes her a criminal, too, something that makes her and other ferret owners nervous. Taz’s last visit to the neighbors could have cost Gerri up to $1,500 in fines or even 6 months in jail under the current California law prohibiting ferret possession.

However, Senate Bill 1093, currently under evaluation by the Senate Fiscal Committee, would offer amnesty to the 100,000-500,000 ferrets in California as of May 1, thereby reversing their renegade status.

Ferrets now rank as the third most popular interactive pet in America, given their legality in all states but Hawaii and California. According to Debby G., president of the secretive Capitol City Ferret Club, passage of this bill would lift the cloud of paranoia over Sacramento ferret owners.

“There are many owners in Sacramento that are afraid to even talk about ferrets,” said Debby. “It’s like living in the camp of the enemy because [the California Department of] Fish & Game (DFG) is very prevalent and visible up here.”

But Ron Jurek, a wildlife biologist for DFG, said the prohibition of ferrets stands to protect what’s left of native ground-nesting birds and small mammals from further decimation by invasive exotic species.

After catastrophes such as the exotic red fox, which continues to devastate populations of native birds like the least terns up and down the coastline, DFG holds firmly to its restrictions on alien species.

Interestingly, the department conducted the “Nationwide Ferret Survey of State Wildlife Agencies” in 1996/97. The study showed that of the 48 continental states where ferrets are legal, “no state reported suspected breeding by ferrets in the wild now.” Yet the ferret is still included on the “Wild Animal List,” which identifies species prohibited in California by the Fish & Game Commission.

Rob, who trains wild cats such as cheetahs and Bengal tigers, says the “wild look” that he catches in a big cat’s eyes when it’s stalking prey is something he has never observed in a ferrets’ features throughout his many years as a ferret caretaker.

The Smithsonian Institute recognizes the ferret as a domesticated animal and Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary definition of a ferret is “a domesticated usually albino animal that is descended from the European pole cat.”

According to Debby G., the temperament and the physical traits of the domesticated ferret are strikingly different from those of its ancestor, the black-footed ferret, including differences in the legs and shorter arms which make them less able to survive in a wild environment.

In February 2000, in compliance with a court mandate, the Fish & Game Commission re-evaluated its definition of a ferret as a “wild animal.” The conclusion of the hearing declared that any animal posing a threat or potential threat to the environment could be placed on their most-wanted list—wild or not.

According to Dr. Jyl Rubin, an exotic animal veterinarian working with ferrets for six years, when ferrets escape, most die of dehydration or starvation if not found within a few days: “These are animals that live on kibbles and sleep on hammocks. They are extremely dependent on humans.”

Rubin said that in her experience as a veterinarian, ferret owners have proved to be among the most dedicated and passionately committed caretakers. Because ferrets are very disease-prone, Rubin said ferrets are some of the most demanding pets in terms of care, attention and expense.

Carol, a recently retired senior citizen, compared the challenge of owning ferrets to “having children again.” Seven years ago, she had developed a severe allergy to cats and dogs and grieved giving up a lifelong love of pets.

But one night, a nephew asked her to ferret-sit, and she found her arms didn’t swell up, nor did she need a mask to temper her asthma. Soon thereafter, her newly adopted ferrets had become the celebrities of her senior village.

Debby G. also attests to the fact that, unlike cats and dogs, ferrets often can visit patients who are highly sensitive to infection. Unlike cats, ferrets don’t impose the risk of cat scratch fever that can prove lethal if contracted by somebody with a weakened immune system.

However, while ferrets make ideal hospital companions, they themselves are extremely prone to cancer of the adrenal gland, spleen and ulcers, according to Rubin. Debby G. claims that one out of three ferrets will develop some form of the above medical problems.

Rubin says that current political taboos surrounding ferrets might be weakening their already slim chances of staying healthy. Because ferrets are illegal, many owners rarely expose their ferrets to sunshine. This chronic deprivation of the Vitamin D nutrient could be linked to a high incidence of adrenal disorders in ferrets.

From Debby G.'s experience, not only does ferret secrecy jeopardize the animal’s health, it takes a significant toll on an owners’ mental well-being.

“Ferret owners are not a bunch of thugs, drug addicts or thieves," said Debby, "we are law-abiding citizens in every other way except for our pets."