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“I used to sponsor sick ferrets that got dumped.”
Wendy Smith (not her real name) and her boyfriend have agreed to meet me at the Starbucks in Grossmont Center. “I’d send them,” she says, referring to an out-of-state ferret shelter, “ferret food, hammocks, blankets, bedding, and detergent, whatever they could use. There were times I’d get down to the last of my paycheck, and that would go to them, too.
“When you think about ferrets getting kicked, or getting stepped on…” Her eyes redden and tear up. The year 2011 was not good to Smith. A couple of her dogs and cats died of old age, illness, or both. She also lost a pet fish and a cage lizard to the grim reaper of pets. And her ferrets, all six of them, were confiscated.
Smith and her boyfriend are still shaken up, they say, from the whole experience. Smith and her boyfriend insist I use aliases. I’m not to mention the names of their former ferrets or their other pets, where in San Diego they live, or where they work. Smith has just come from work. Her dark hair is pulled back, and for eye shadow she wears two thin stripes of royal-blue glitter. Smith’s boyfriend is reed-thin and tense. “I’m terrified of retribution,” he says. But with no more ferrets to take, what is the problem? “Vindictiveness.” He doesn’t want to say any more. I drop it.
“They’re my babies.” Smith refers to the confiscated ferrets as her children in the present tense, even though they now live far away at a shelter in a ferret-legal state, the very shelter, in fact, that she had supported previously with her donations. “I had two groups of ferrets.” They did not mix, she says, because of dominance issues among the competing males. “Fights would break out, and I would feel really sad.
“They’d pull the clothes out of dresser drawers,” she says, “and make little beds and sleep.” Everybody loved them. “I miss them every day.”
Animal Control took Smith’s ferrets after receiving a complaint from a mother stating that her child had been bitten during a play date at Smith’s home. “But there was no readable bite on the child when it was seen by a physician,” says the boyfriend. Yes, he admits, one of the ferrets had nipped the child’s finger, but it left no mark. “This is how ferrets sometimes play. The child said something to the mother, who turned it into a witch hunt against the ferrets. She demanded that her child be treated for rabies.” The animals were quarantined, but the rabies virus was not present.
“It is almost unheard of that a person gets rabies from a ferret,” he says.
“I knew enough that I had rights to ensure that my ferrets were safely placed in a facility in a ferret-friendly state,” says Smith. “And, let’s face it, you’re gonna go get your ferrets back. Fish and Game aren’t gonna come knocking a second time. The only reason I won’t go and get them back is because of the person that made the complaint.”
Yes, she knew the ferrets were illegal when she got them. No, she was not afraid that she would be caught. “In California, you’ve gotta be safe. If you’ve got ferrets in the car, you drive 65. My sister is an attorney. She told me to lose the ‘I Love Ferrets’ license bracket, because it gave police probable cause to search the car on a traffic stop.”
Fish and Game, Smith says, doesn’t understand why people would want ferrets. Would she consider moving to a ferret-legal state? “That’s kind of a hard question. I don’t know if, after all this, I’d want the ferrets again.”
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“The issue is real easy for us,” Andrew Hughan says by phone. “Ferrets are nonnative species. And by the end of a day, no matter how cute and fun they are, they are illegal to possess in California.” Hughan serves as the public information officer for Fish and Game. Based in Sacramento, he also monitors the southern region of the state. “And until the legislature tells us otherwise, that’s our position,” he says.
He explains that the position of Fish and Game is not limited to ferrets and their keepers. “When it comes to anything nonnative, we do anything we can to keep it out of California.” The list of prohibited pets is lengthy and includes flying squirrels, gerbils, sugar gliders, and hedgehogs.
Hughan says that a price tag cannot be put on the amount of damage that nonnative species cost Southern California. He brings up the feral pig problem, for example. In 2006 domestic stock was released into the wild from the Capitan Grande Indian Reservation. The pigs became feral and multiplied and spread throughout the backcountry, creating a host of conservation challenges. “It’s outta control.”
Other introduced species that have wreaked ecological havoc include bullfrogs and both the largemouth bass and the striped bass. The latter, Hughan says, were purposely introduced for sport fishing and were found to be ecologically devastating. “They eat everything in sight.”
But when faced with the argument that domestic ferrets have not caused problems in any of the 48 other states in which they have resided for decades — or even in California, where thousands already reside in secrecy — Hughan says it is trumped by California state law.
“This issue comes up a couple times a year, and it’s very low on the list of priorities. There is not the political will to get it changed.” He says the current ferret climate is “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and that enforcement is also low on the state’s list of priorities.
“We’d look foolish kicking down people’s doors to confiscate their ferrets. And then, what do we do with them? We don’t want to exterminate the things.”
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In 2010, following a request from wildlife officials, the ferret-legalization group commissioned a study that concluded in 177 pages that ferrets actually posed little if any danger to wildlife, to people (the exception being infants and children), or the environment. The study found no feral colonization of escaped pet ferrets anywhere in the U.S., and for good reason.