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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.”

∗ ∗ ∗

“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.”

∗ ∗ ∗

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.

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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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