Ferrets make great pets for hundreds of Californians—on the sly.
Wednesday, November 22, 2006
A thump comes from deep in the kitchen cabinet. Minutes later, there’s a crash from the bathroom. In a mostly empty corner cabinet, a stash of oddities has been accumulated: a plastic bag, an empty Velveeta packet, a blue plastic ice tray, a pen.
These developments involve neither paranormal activity nor trinket-coveting cockroaches. It’s just Raider and Bear, two slinky, clumsy and curious ferrets.
Raider likes to wiggle up through the catacombs of the kitchen cabinets, sometimes to take naps in a drawer filled with miscellaneous items. Both like to flop into the bathtub to have a sniff around. And both hoard treasures in clandestine spots around the house.
Life with ferrets is peculiar, says Adriana Deangelo, a student and three-year ferret owner who lives in Monterey. “We don’t have silverware in the drawers,” she says. “They like to push out the drawers. We have tape on everything so they can’t open it. The garbage has to go on the kitchen counter.
“Pretty much everything in the house is set up for them.”
As she talks, Raider’s grey-and-white length bounces by and disappears into the oven. When Bear happens past, Deangelo scoops him up for a hug. Bear’s long, relaxed torso, caboose and tail dangle from her hand. “They have two centers of gravity,” she says. “They are totally like a slinky.”
Bear receives a quick smooch on the muzzle. “They’re very independent,” Deangelo adds. “They do what they want when they want. It took me years to get him to like to be held.”
This kind of pet affection—“You just want to squish ’em,” says Deangelo lovingly—is adorable. It is also illegal.
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Hildy Langewis has been director of ferret rescue for the California Domestic Ferret Association—and its licensed program known as the Ferrett Underground Railroad (FURR)—for 15 years. She’s got as good an idea as anyone on how many ferrets there are in California.
“I estimate about a million ferrets,” she says. “I suspect so just by the number of people we talk to and the population.”
Some experts say that is more than any other state in the country. But California is also the only continental state where it is against the law to have one. (Ferrets are also illegal in Hawaii.) In California, harboring a ferret is a misdemeanor. Confiscated ferrets are relocated out of state with help from groups like FURR.
Nevertheless, big aisles at pet stores, like Sand City’s PetSmart, are full of ferret supplies. And veterinarians can legally provide treatment.
Veterinarian Shannon Thomas of Avian and Exotic Clinic of Monterey treats ferrets regularly, and finds their legal status curious.
“I’ve never heard any good reasons why they’re illegal,” she says.
“They have personality,” she adds. “They’re always happy and bouncy and generally pretty easy to care for—you don’t need to walk them, you don’t need a lot of space for them.”
Ironically enough, Thomas’ Ryan Ranch office neighbors the Department of Fish and Game, the government branch charged with enforcing illegal species laws. That’s not inspiring an increase in the rate of ferret check-ups.
“I know for a fact that some people don’t bring their ferret because they are illegal,” Thomas says. “And with our new location right next door to Fish and Game, we lost a few clients.”
Thomas does add that Fish and Game doesn’t go out of its way to confiscate ferrets, something that Michael Kirchner, a Fish and Game warden whose territory includes the Central Coast, confirms.
“We’re going to enforce the law,” he says, “but we’re not beating people’s doors down: ‘Where’s the ferret?’ It’s like the family pet, there’s little kids and they’re crying, ‘Why are they taking little Jimmy away?’ I don’t want to do this, but we have to enforce the law.”
Kirchner says California’s law against ferrets, set by the governor-appointed Fish and Game Commission, is primarily intended to protect native species. “There is a fear,” he says, “that if they were to establish a population in the wild, they could affect the native bird population.”
Ferret advocates dispute that, pointing to the fact that it hasn’t happened across the country and that, if feral ferret populations were possible, they would’ve already appeared because of all the ferrets already living in state.
Advocates stay as active as their favorite illegal pets on the legalization front—they have pushed several unsuccessful bills to the state Legislature.
“We’re not trying to get people to own ferrets,” says Jeanne Carley of Californians for Ferret Legalization. “We’re trying to get the state to quit criminalizing owners. Pets are taken, on occasion there are fines, rarely jail, but most of all people fear the loss of their pet. When you love your dog or cat or horse, you fear losing it.”
Adriana Deangelo knows the feeling. She requested a pseudonym for this story out of fear of losing Raider and Bear.
“I love them more than anything,” she says, “but I feel like a fugitive.”