“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.”
∗ ∗ ∗
“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.
“For health reasons, all pet ferrets are spayed or neutered before they are sold,” says Wendy Smith. “Unspayed females can get an excess of estrogen during mating season, which is a cause of aplastic anemia.”
“The slang I’ve heard referred to in the past,” her boyfriend says, “is ‘spay them or lay them.’”
“Spay, neuter, and, de-scent,” Smith says, “no [reproductively] intact ferrets are for sale as pets.” But that can’t be entirely true. Otherwise there would be no baby ferrets, right? “Breeders only sell intact ferrets to other breeders,” she says.
“But you’d have to be crazy,” says her boyfriend, “to be a ferret breeder.”
It turns out that California Fish and Game also conducted a formal study of the domestic ferret. They did this by mailing surveys to agencies across the country. Their “1996–97 Nationwide Ferret Survey of State Wildlife Agencies” reached many of the same conclusions as did the 2010 Cal State Sacramento research paper. But the feds at that time declined to support legalization, based on, among other concerns, the burgeoning numbers of nonnative species that had already taken root and were proliferating in California’s wilds. Those concerns were likewise addressed in the 2010 report, but Fish and Game said the later study did not meet the standards for triggering a formal review of legalization.
∗ ∗ ∗
“I was kinda freaked out, moving to California.” Julie Wilson, 28, (not her real name) also wants to meet up at a Starbucks where she vets me before allowing me to come into the home she shares with her father, her fiancé, her brother, and her pet ferret.
She acquired two of them while living in Washington, a ferret-legal state. When the family moved back to California, she smuggled the ferrets across the state line and into the forbidden zone. “We stayed at a hotel in Redding, and I can’t tell you how freaked out I was. We snuck them from the motorhome into the room at night.”
I meet her pet (the other ferret has since died of old age) while it slumbers in a cloth sarong suspended in a cage in a covered-patio addition. Wilson’s brother sits parked on a sofa a few feet away from a massive widescreen. He is playing a video game, a boxing match made nearly life-size by the magnitude of the television. The fighters punch each other, and blood spatters, while Julie tells me about the time her ferret came home from the vet with a belly full of staples.
“I used to have a really cool picture of it with staples across its belly.” It’d had surgery to correct a problem with its adrenal glands. At what cost? “About $1400, including boarding.”
She doesn’t want to tell me the name of her vet for fear of ferret persecution. “They [Animal Control] could sit in his parking lot and harass his customers. You develop paranoia. I can’t bring my ferrets out in public here, like I could in Seattle. You don’t want Animal Control to take away your little guys.”
She feels relatively safe while living in her father’s Clairemont-area home but says that apartment living with ferrets is a whole new worry. “What if the manager needs to get in when you’re not there?” She describes a time when she and her fiancé returned to find access to their apartment’s parking lot blocked because it was being resurfaced.
“And we’d left without turning on the air-conditioner.” Ferrets, she says, can overheat and die. “Having a ferret takes a lot of careful planning.”
I tell her that not everybody I’ve met thinks ferrets are cute or understands why people would want to keep them as pets. “That’s weird,” she says. “Ferrets are normal. They’re just like any other pets. People are offended by what they don’t know.”
In Seattle, she used to leash-walk her ferrets. “They don’t get to do that anymore. And they love to dig. They love to have play dates with other ferrets.” That action all dried up when she moved south. When her current pet finally meets the end of its days, would she consider getting another ferret? “No. I don’t want to go around sneaking again. I don’t want to break the law.”
∗ ∗ ∗
“The issue has nothing to do with science or with the animals. It’s politics.”
Originally from Salt Lake City, Utah, Dr. Jeff Jenkins has operated the Avian & Exotic Animal Hospital in Mission Valley for 25 years. “When I first started, I had an ad in the Yellow Pages that said I would treat ferrets. Fish and Game called and said I had to take it out. I told them a), you can’t take it out and b), it’s not against the law to treat ferrets, and if they were going to cause trouble to bring a lawyer.”
He treats ferrets and he is open about it. “Rarely does the day go by that one doesn’t show up in my hospital. I did surgery on two of them just yesterday.”
Jenkins doesn’t know how many ferrets there are in San Diego, but he thinks it is a high number. He has empathy for the coalition at Ferrets Anonymous. “It’s frustrating. They keep doing whatever Fish and Game wants them to do to prove their point, and still it’s a no-go. There isn’t an environment in California that is not duplicated somewhere else in the U.S. where ferrets live legally and they haven’t taken over or bit babies.”
Does Jenkins think the law will ever be repealed? “It probably has the best chance right now that it’s ever had. There’s no arguing point to say no.”
As it turns out, that’s not entirely true.
∗ ∗ ∗
“Because we don’t have a big freeze in California, this is a good habitat for nonnative species to get established in.” Robert Fisher is a U.S. Geological Survey research scientist based in San Diego. “There’s a whole set of potentially injurious wildlife that the state has restricted.” Gerbils, for example. He explains why they are banned: “Gerbils are like kangaroo rats, in that they occupy the same ecological niche. They could get a toe-hold and crowd out our native wildlife.” Nonnative species encroachment happens here all the time.
“We’ve seen what happened with red-eared sliders,” Fisher says of a type of turtle commonly sold in pet stores. “People get tired of having them, or they move, or, for whatever reason, they just let them go in our lakes and ponds and they have just taken over.”
San Diego, it turns out, has its own native relative of the domestic ferret. “We have an endemic species of weasel called the long-tail weasel.” He thinks escaped ferrets could possibly occupy the same ecological niche as the weasel. “We do have some amount of pet ferrets that get loose.” He doesn’t think they’d stand much chance against back-country predators. “But in an urban mixed area, even a couple of [escaped] ferrets that live out whatever their life span is will have a pretty big impact on the native population.”
In all of the time he and his coworkers have spent in the wilds of San Diego doing field work, has he ever seen evidence of domestic-ferret colonies? Or, even the bones of escaped ferrets that didn’t make it? Any evidence at all of ferret escapees? “No,” he says.
“But I don’t see a lot of raccoon skulls around, either, and there a lot of them here. I don’t think remains are a good record of what lives here.”
∗ ∗ ∗
Just getting to Carla (not her real name) Thompson’s small apartment in Pacific Beach requires a measure of sure-footed will power and a fine sense of balance. One must circumnavigate a collection of lush old-growth potted plants that occupy both sides and both landings of the long staircase that leads up to her one-bedroom place, and threaten, in some spots, to overtake it.
If the exterior is a potter’s jungle, the interior is likewise given over to pets. On the far wall hangs a large flight cage with two finches and a little lump of feathers pecking at the bottom that Carla says is a quail. Nearby sits a small glass tank in which a plump tarantula hides partially under a slab of bark. “I got it to help me get over the fear of spiders.” A bird trills. The sound is lovely. “It’s that crazy clock.” She points to a bird clock on the wall.
Three ferrets sleep in a cage by the front door, animal guests, she explains; she is ferret-sitting for a friend. Thompson’s own ferret slumbers in the kitchen in an empty drawer. The apartment otherwise has just enough room for a love seat and some small tables, and the lighting inside is dim and indirect. Thompson, in a Chargers T shirt, jeans, and sandals is a grandmother of three. She says she works as a substitute teacher’s assistant for special-needs children. She used to live in Ocean Beach, and she looks it. She has kind eyes and a smoker’s laugh — raspy.
“They can open doors,” she says of her pets, meaning cabinet doors. “I’ve put a kiddie lock on the door. You don’t want him going in there.” She nods at the space under the kitchen sink where she stores toxic cleaning items and pesticides. Ferret-proofed or not, one of her ferrets escaped once and wandered the streets of Pacific Beach unharmed.
“It was gone for a week. I put up posters everywhere. I really took a chance at getting caught.” It paid off. “A guy had found the ferret and had already given it to his girlfriend. But he did the right thing and brought her back to me. I gave him a hundred bucks.”
Thompson’s owned three ferrets, all of which were adopted through Ferrets Anonymous. “I always wanted a ferret, but my daughter lived with me, and, well, she was a handful.” Thompson laughs. “After she moved out, I got my first ferret.” Two of her ferrets have since died, one of old age (the life expectancy is around six years) and the other from some unidentified malady. “One of them got sick and I didn’t have the 500 dollars for testing at the vet’s, so I just brought her home. She didn’t make it.”
Does she feel any sense of irresponsibility, knowing that, as illegal guests of the state, her ferrets could be taken away and sent to live somewhere else? Not really. “You have to make a decision. But then, I’d just go and get them back.” She laughs. She says she doesn’t worry about a random ferret bust by Animal Control.
“I worry more about somebody being vindictive, a friend or a neighbor whose parking space you took, getting revenge by turning you in.” What about the landlord? “He doesn’t know I have a ferret. But if he became suspicious or he saw anything I’d just tell him I was ferret-sitting. Or I’d tell him they were rats.” She smiles. “I had rats when I moved in here.”