“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.
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.”