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“This one bites my elbow when I clean the cage. It doesn’t like surprises.” Pat Wright unravels a ferret from within a small cloth sling in a cage where it has been sleeping. He kisses it on its ferret lips. The ferret does not kiss him back, but it does not bite him, either.

Fausto, Tiger, and Bailey, all ferrets, appear, in fact, to have the run of a fenced-off family room in Wright’s split-level home in the hills overlooking La Mesa. In a window corner of the room sits a large enclosure that resembles a bird cage: ferret central. The enclosure contains food bowls and small cloth hammocks and ferret toys. This is where the animals sleep, which Wright says is much of the time.

“I’ve had ferrets for 25 years.” He bought his first one from a shop called Pets Plus in Yuma. “I lived in a small apartment in North Park. I couldn’t have a dog, but I wanted an interactive pet. Ferrets,” he says, “are doglike in their need for attention, but catlike in that they do what they want to do.”

While we talk, Wright, 53, who has a compact build and silver-gray hair, dangles a green velvety lure on a string. From time to time, a ferret attacks the bait and wrestles the thing. Another one jumps up on the couch where I sit, taking notes. It licks my hand and nibbles at the edges of my notebook. I get a sense that it would very much like to have my pen.

Pat Wright with three of his babies

It didn’t go nearly as well for another writer who visited Wright (and a different ferret) in 1991, when he was still living in North Park: “I picked him up in both hands and we rubbed noses. Flick, flick, flick, flick,” wrote Margot Sheehan in August of that year, in a story published in the Reader called “Ferret Underground.” “Then — snap. His little cat-jaws clamped shut on my nostril.”

Sheehan’s visit took place a decade before Wright’s move to La Mesa and the arrest that would cost Wright his current pet and propel him toward ferret activism. In 2000, after a ferret Wright was handling in Balboa Park scratched a child, the mother filed a complaint. Within days, there were a dozen officers from various law-enforcement agencies gathered on Wright’s front porch. When he refused to let them in, they kicked the door down.

The feds confiscated Wright’s ferret, and Wright was sentenced to 45 days in jail, not so much because ferrets are illegal to own in California, but because he’d grabbed a kitchen knife in what he says was a misguided act of self defense. In the years that followed, he started legalizeferrets.org and now heads the San Diego chapter of Ferrets Anonymous, a statewide coalition formed in 1993 that seeks the legalization of ferret ownership.

Today, more than 20 years after that first Reader story appeared, the issue of ferret legality in California remains virtually unchanged. Ferrets are no more legal to own here than they were in 1933, when the ban first went into place.

Aside from Hawaii, California is the only state in the U.S. in which domestic ferrets are illegal to keep as pets. But no matter — Californians keep ferrets anyway. Ferrets are like drugs; people smuggle them, people keep them hidden away and out of view of their neighbors. Estimates say the statewide ferret population ranges anywhere from 50,000–500,000, a guess based on ferret-supply sales. An odd state of affairs: ferrets are illegal, but local big-box pet retailers stock ferret food and supplies in plain view.

Wright says that what Ferrets Anonymous needs right now is a ferret-neutral congressperson who would be willing to introduce new legislation to legalize ferrets. It wouldn’t be the first time. Consider AB 2497 (Goldsmith), 1994; SB 55 (Kopp), 1995; AB 363 (Goldsmith), 1997; AB 409 (Machado), 1998, and; AB 854 (Cunneen), 1999. All failed. In 2004, SB 89 (Alpert) passed, only to be vetoed by governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who said he liked ferrets and had at one time co-starred with a ferret in the movie Kindergarten Cop.

Recently, Wright and the local group almost had the ear of senator Joel Anderson of El Cajon. A representative in Anderson’s office on Fesler Street had agreed to hear the pitch, but abruptly cancelled the meeting. Wright describes why in a group email sent to Ferrets Anonymous members:

“Eddie Sprecco of Senator Anderson’s office cancelled our meeting with him which was scheduled for tomorrow, Feb 8th at 10 a.m. I emailed Eddie this morning to confirm and said that David Good of the Reader would be joining us. Eddie called me at about 3:30 p.m., saying he wasn’t the one to deal with the press. I said OK, we’ll ask David not to come. But Eddie insisted on canceling the meeting and saying we’d have to reschedule at another time.”

The meeting was never rescheduled.

The larger problem now is what Wright notes as a general tone of apathy among San Diego’s ferret keepers. “Since there’s been no enforcement — the last ferret bust in San Diego was over a year ago — no ferret owners are working for legalization.” Without persecution, he says, the majority of ferret owners here are content to live in secrecy. “We could overturn [the law] this year but ferret people aren’t behind it, and California officials will neither repeal nor enforce the ferret ban.” The reason for this, he says, is that ferrets are not a problem.

But they are perceived as such in some circles. Wright rolls out a couple of the more tabloidesque stories. There’s the one from Missouri about a baby losing some fingers to a pet ferret (he says the story was eventually debunked) and another from Reno in which a baby with milk breath got its lip clawed by a ferret (a verified account) to the extent that it required plastic surgery. Of the wildly false stories that continue to be circulated, Wright, with a tone of mock exasperation says this: “I know. Ferrets eat babies. They shred human tissue. They drink blood.”

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Comments

scottsch May 9, 2012 @ 3:18 p.m.

Good article, except... what hack took a sarcastic comment out of context and decided to use that as the title? I imagine that was an editor and not the author.

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glssmanzgrl May 9, 2012 @ 5:14 p.m.

i like the title, it catches the eye, grabs your attention and therefore, the article is read, just what a headline should do.

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w6pea May 10, 2012 @ 11:28 a.m.

I have to agree with scottsch and pauxii, good article but the title is misleading.

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Javajoe25 May 10, 2012 @ 2:32 p.m.

It's worse than misleading; it completely undermines any good will or sympathy the article might have otherwise created. Whoever made this call really screwed up. I'll bet even the ferret people are sorry they talked to this reporter, now that they've seen the cover.

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SurfPuppy619 May 10, 2012 @ 3:23 p.m.

The title is sarcasm-ferrets are not harmful and anyone with knowledge of them knows that.

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d_dot May 13, 2012 @ 9:28 p.m.

That's EXACTLY why this is so dangerous & unfortunate of a title. You know & I know that that's a simply untrue & unfair statement to make about ferrets. But the whackadoodles out there who don't get it think this is the truth!!

As the president of a ferret rescue in Canada, I can't tell you how many times I'm had to enlighten these people actively approach me to say, "oh, I don't hate ferrets. They're vicious, they bite!" To this, my standard reply is, "so do cats, dogs & children! I don't think it's fair to demonize all cats, dogs & children because of some of them bite." That usually gets them to rethink their stance on the issue.

What this magazine did is completely irresponsible! Imagine for a moment this article's title was in reference not to ferrets, but Blacks or Jews. Even if the article were a compassionate story about one of these groups, do you think anyone would condone a title that claimed that Jews eat babies & drink blood for even a nanosecond? Absolutely not! So why should such an untrue statement be tolerated of any group, even if that group is 'just ferrets'?

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nan shartel May 10, 2012 @ 3:52 p.m.

they are adorable and i've always wanted one or two...i could have had them in Oregon but was 2 busy with the dogs

None

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Javajoe25 May 10, 2012 @ 5:59 p.m.

"The title is sarcasm-ferrets are not harmful and anyone with knowledge of them knows that." Surfpuppy619

Yes, anyone with knowledge of them knows that--but anyone with little knowledge or experience with them will see that cover and think they are horrible, nasty critters, and wonder why anyone would want to have one. Especially when they read the part about reports concerning the danger of having ferrets.

"...and another from Reno in which a baby with milk breath got its lip clawed by a ferret (a verified account) to the extent that it required plastic surgery."

Oh yea; I definitely want one of those little rats running around my house. Seriously?

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ferretzrule May 11, 2012 @ 12:02 a.m.

Same old song and dance by Fish and Game, they have turned this issue into the mother of all pizzing contests because the Commission has been made to look foolish repeatedly, and further, repealing this ban would make the Commission answerable to the eco organizations that they are in bed with. So glad I got out of that ridiculous state, it is a blight on the rest of our country.

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Twister May 11, 2012 @ 9:36 p.m.

When I was a kid in the country, we used to steal all kinds of babies from wild mothers and keep them for "pets," confining them to pens and sometimes "taming" them--to a degree. Fun. I did an awful lot of awful stuff when I was a kid.

Then I grew up. I grew past the need to have animals for toys. I grew to learn that all animals are better off free than captive, but I have fought hard for taking wild things "in" from the wild when it became clear that a captive-breeding program was the only thing that stood between a rapidly-declining wild population and extinction, and got into a lot of trouble with friends who thought I was a traitor to "the cause." I would still support such a program, even well before the population went critical.

Ecosystems are both resilient and delicate; that is, they can stand a lot of abuse, but only so much. It takes more than a nerdy fascination with something novel or weird upon which to build bragging rights around a twisted ego.

There’s a phenomenon anthropologists call “sympathetic magic.” Put simply, that means that one believes that the “magic” possessed by, say a Maserati, a chimp, a boa-constrictor, or some other “exotic” “pet” confers that magic upon the possessor. Like some model with a brace of cheetahs for “chic.” The ultimate in egocentrism. Stuck in adolescence.

Whether or not to enslave a wild animal, or even “keep” a domestic one is sometimes a close call, but usually it’s easy. In a world of freedom, the decision would be left to the enslaved. A hole in the Great Plains or the plaything of a braggart? Or, being part of a breeding program the sole purpose of which is to save a species from extinction and to replenish as soon as possible depleted populations to suitable habitats, wild and free once more.

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Jeni_Clark May 12, 2012 @ 11:55 p.m.

Twister: You are confusing two different species. The Black-footed ferret, who lives in holes in the Great Plains, is Mustela nigripes. They are wild animals. Nobody thinks they should be pets.

The ferrets that people have as pets are Mustela putorius furo and are genetically different. These weasels have been domesticated for thousands of years. If you release one into the wild, it will die within days because it simply does not have the skills to survive. Even the slowest cat or tiniest dog has a better chance than they do. How do I know this? Because the shelter I volunteer for gets the call to pick up stray ferrets, and I have seen the starving, terrified wretches that domestic ferrets turn into when they are abandoned.

So, your whole argument about enslaving a wild animal? Interesting and certainly worth discussion. But completely irrelevant in this context.

Mustela putorious furos need to be kept as pets. They need to be kept in homes with people who know how to treat them, including giving them correct foods, time out of their cage each day to play, and good medical care. Since humans are the ones who bred them to be docile and dependent, we have a responsibility to care for them.

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weaselwardancer May 13, 2012 @ 8:50 p.m.

I agree that the title is very misleading and damaging to the cause of ferret legalization. I owned 6 ferrets when I lived in MN but now that I am in CA, I can't legally own any. Ferrets are not for everyone but they are wonderful pets for those with the time, patience and sense of humor. Ferrets are not mean (unless they have been abused, and will bite in self-defense or out of fear, like any animal would). I have been bitten by cats much worse than any ferret I have known, and then those were just playful nibbles.
Using common sense, you don't put your face up to a tiny animal that you aren't familiar with and not expect to get bit out of self defense! You also don't put babies and small children with ANY animal unsupervised. Ferrets can't spread rabies since they die before the virus ever gets to their saliva glands. They are all neutered/spayed before being sold by breeders, so it would be impossible for them to get loose, find each other, breed, colonized, and kill off native wildlife. (Cats do way more damage to wildlife than a ferret ever could).
These are the facts that need to be taken into consideration for getting ferrets legalized in California, not myths like the ones listed in the headlines of this article.

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NCFerretMom May 14, 2012 @ 1 a.m.

Thank you for the information clarifying the two species, Jeni_Clark.

Unfortunately, this title is misleading and helps to perpetuate the same type of misinformation that is mentioned in the article. There was information about the ferret that "chewed the toes off a child." I had personal experience with a ferret who made national news for the same accusation in 2006. She was vindicated and it was determined that the dog in the home had caused the damage. There were dogs in this other home as well. And, that information and the fact that the ferret was an innocent victim were never given the same publicity that the accusation received.

This approach to make light of a topic about which there is so much information is negligent on the part of the reporter and the publication that approves it.

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MonganD May 14, 2012 @ 3:33 p.m.

As a (former) participant in the California ferret wars I read the article with enthusiasm looking for more Ferrets Anonymous propoganda, and finding it. If it's an election year Pat Wright is playing his decade old martyrdom yet again, looking to legalize vermin and finding more sympathetic ears. In 2000, Mr. Wright went to jail for threatening a law enforcement officer with a knife, not for owning a ferret. Kind of takes the spin off the tale when that little fact is known. In 1998, while showing off his ferret to a cameraman for local tv, the ferret jumped up and bit the unfortunate media membe. Hardly the puff piece Mr. Wright was looking for. In 1996, an escaped ferret in Clairemont bit a young man, and Mr. Wright and Ferrets Anonymous spirited away the animal. Without an animal to test, the boy had to undergo rabies injections. Mr. Wright was unapologetic, offering medical advice to the family and claiming he had a constitutional right to own his ferrets. No responsible pet owner claim he shouldn't be responsible for his pet's misbehavior; except for ferret owners. I'm responsible if my dog gets out and bites a kid. But ferret owners claim they are harassed when their pets escape. It's that lack of responsibility that I find irritating. Vets treat ferrets openly, no one stakes out a parking lot looking for animals to euthanize. Pet stores sell products openly, no one hides in the aisle waiting to take down the name of a customer. Yet the article would not be complete without the conspiratorial "not her real name" interviews. In reality, no one cares if you own a ferret, until the ferret escapes or causes a problem. When that happens, in my experience, the ferret owners deny responsibility for their animial. Until that hypocrisy is cured, irresponsible people should not be allowed to own ferrets.

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Twister May 15, 2012 @ 5:17 p.m.

Mustela putorious furos is an albino phase of M. p., if I understand the literature correctly (please cite your sources if you wish to correct this). Mustela putorious is a European wild species and M. p. furos or the albino form occurs in wild populations. "Domestication" is a euphemism for enslavement.

The introduction of both plant and animal species into habitats under which they did not evolve is problematic for both the introduced species and the ecosystem upon which is is imposed. The only benefit to such introductions is for the vector, in this case humans who want "pets." "Nine-tenths of the hell being raised in the world," is has been said, "is well-intentioned."

PS: It is difficult to tell from the photograph included with this piece, but it appears that the ferret is not an albino. It is difficult to tell whether the animal in the photo is M. putorious or M. nigripes. It is illegal to own the latter species, but that hasn't stopped plant and animal "fanciers" in the past. Perhaps the author can provide photographs of the complete animal. If it is M. nigripes, you can be sure that no such photographs will be posted, as the USFWS would come a-knockin' posthaste.

"The black-footed ferret is roughly the size of a mink, and differs from the European polecat by the greater contrast between its dark limbs and pale body and the shorter length of its black tail-tip. In contrast, differences between the black-footed ferret and the steppe polecat of Asia are slight, to the point where the two species were once thought to be conspecific." --Hillman, Conrad N.; Clark, Tim W (1980). "Mustela nigripes". Mammalian Species 126: 1–3.

"The only noticeable differences between the black-footed ferret and the steppe polecat are the former's much shorter and coarser fur, larger ears, and longer postmolar extension of the palate." --Merriam, Clinton Hart (1896). Synopsis of the weasels of North America. Washington : Govt. Print. Off.

Wolverines are my favorite animal, but I won't enslave one to amuse me and show off to my friends. And, it's illegal for good reasons. I feel much better just knowing that they are free, even if I never see one.

It is true that releasing any animal, wild or domesticated, can be detrimental, not only to the animal, but to other life-forms--unless it is done in a manner that will ensure its survival and persistence in the habitat in which it evolved. This is what "captive breeding" programs are for, and the only reason maintaining animal populations in captivity can be justified. Animals that have suffered permanent injury or are otherwise not in a condition to persist in the wild are sometimes kept for educational purposes.

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ClaireC May 18, 2012 @ 9:39 a.m.

Twister, your information is incorrect. Ferrets (Mustela putorius furo) are related to the European Polecat (Mustela putorius) in the same way that dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) are related to wolves (Canis lupus). They have been domesticated for several thousand years, and have many color variations. Like many domesticated species, they are unsuccessful living in the wild. There are NO wild populations of M. p. furo, though there are some hybrid ferret/polecat colonies. (Wilson & Reeder, Mammals Species of the World, 3rd edition).

Domestication involves genetic changes, and is entirely different from taming a wild animal. For example, ferrets often have a different number of chromosomes than polecats. Albinos (a genetic anomaly) are found in all species, wild or domestic. They occur more frequently in the domestic ferret because people have bred for that trait, but albino polecats are not ferrets, any more than an albino wolf is a dog.

The black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) is native to North America and is an entirely different species. The head has an entirely different shape, so no, it is not hard to tell that the photo in the article is of a domesticated ferret. Your quotes refer to yet a third species, the Steppe polecat (Mustela eversmanii). Some taxonomists have suggested that M. eversmanii is the same species, or at least closely related to M. nigripes, in the same way that taxonomists used to say that the Bonobo and the Chimpanzee are the same species (now we say they are different species). Whether M. nigripes and M. eversmanii are related or not, neither species is M. putorius, much less the domestic ferret M. p. furo.

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Letter to the Editor June 16, 2014 @ 9:38 p.m.

To wit, as to Ferrets eating babies, etc....

I've been an owner of ferrets, both age's of 4 months and up to 6 yrs of age, and none of mine have ever attempted to eat my kids, or chew on any of my family and relatives and nearby friends that have come with their children to visit and play with any of the ferrets of their choice.

I have at least one 6 year old female that is a mouser, when allowed out of the main habitat to exercise about my home....sometimes you'll see her come from the back pantry room with a small mouse in her mouth and she'll take it to her hideaway she has underneath my cedar chest.

When she's finished with her meal of it, she often brings out the last of it within my reach to toss it out. I know when she wants something from me, as she will tap my foot and then dook 3-4x to get my attention...she is the more tamed and behaved of the bunch, and also 1 of 2 that are considered to be the leaders, as they both were acquired together and act as a mated pair, (although neither are breedable,) but they show they care for each other.

Of all of the ferrets that I now share my home with, I just find it very odd, for the article to be of a factual nature...now I could believe it, if the dogs had been starving and they attacked and chewed on the child because of the smell of Milk on the childs' lips, as in the article that happened in Chicago, ILL back in the early '70s...that one story just un-nerved me so much I couldn't stand the sight of a Dob or a Shepard for a long, long time. But I had raised toy poodles at that time and none of those ever showed any signs of aggressive behavior toward, my then baby daughter, instead; they were the best protection a child could ever had, cause my mothers' white poodle, thought the baby belonged to my mother, and barked up a storm when I attempted to pickup my daughter, then age 8 months out of her crib, until my mother woke up to silence the dog, and explain to the white poodle that I was the mother, and she was the 'grandmother'. (After that there was not anymore problems from my mothers' little toy guardian poodle and/or my tiny toy silver poodle, that would also stand guard underneath the crib while my baby was asleep. :)

But back to my current ferrets and their habits, I've taken mine outside on several walks about the neighborhood, and we often take them to one of the local parks, so they can play on and around the dual slide's, that they have there. It's amazing what you find that what can entertain a child, and/or even be used for a child; can also be used for a Ferret too!

*Just a small tip for new owners of baby ferrets that are teething, look in the children's baby accessories for items that have hard plastic ends or a partial stuffed animal with a solid plastic teething hands and feet on it, you're ferret will love it, just like our 4 month old baby 'Meka' loves hers' :)

Jacqueline

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