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Pop Goes the Weasel

[whitespace] ferrets in hand
Dai Sugano

Three's Company: California ferret owners hope a proposed new law will give their illegal pets amnesty.

The gamboling ferret is still a fugitive in the eyes of California law

By Jessica Lyons

SARAH SPEAKS in code over the phone. Snoopy state officials may have tapped her line. The state says she is a criminal. But activists say she's a '90s freedom fighter. She's leery when it comes to talking about her hobby.

So, who's your supplier? I ask.

Sarah says she smuggles across state lines.

What have you got in your possession right now?

That's a touchy subject. Undercover officers have been infiltrating meetings, she says.

Sarah and husband Gregor, both using pseudonyms, have been underground for about 10 years now. If discovered, the duo could face jail time and be slapped with a fine. Damn the consequences, the two say. They are doing the right thing.

Sarah agrees to meet. We settle on a neutral location: a local school playground at dusk. No cops, no wires. Just me and my notebook. Sarah and Greg will be waiting in the parking lot.

They'll bring the ferrets with them.

Sarah and Gregor are among hundreds of thousands of illegal ferret owners in California.

Dr. Kerrin Hoban, a vet at Harbor Veterinary Hospital in Santa Cruz, estimates that there may be between a half million and a million ferrets in California, with "hundreds or thousands" in Santa Cruz County alone.

"I personally know of dozens," she says.

This is the only state other than Hawaii that bans the animals as pets. A 66-year-old state law says possessing a ferret is a misdemeanor, now punishable by up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. For Sarah and Gregor, that's a chance they are willing to take.

The couple has taken extreme measures to smuggle these pets into their homes--even drugging one and carrying it in a coat sleeve past airport security in Arizona.

Sarah and Gregor's truck sticks out in the elementary school parking lot. It's the one with a "C'mon California, Legalize Ferrets!" sticker on the rear window, and a pet-carrying case in the truck bed. Five pairs of black, beady eyes stare out from behind the metal cage door. The couple only brought part of their brood today. Six more of the little weasel-like critters are waiting at home.

The coast is clear, so Gregor carries the furry fugitives over to the playground. Sarah makes the introductions. "This is Romeo, Sebastian, Kyla, Duke and Pooka," she says, matching ferrets with names, as they bury themselves in bark dust, tangle leashes and climb over Gregor and each other on the playground.

Romeo, a 2-year-old who likes to give kisses, finds my bag and digs his way to the bottom before Sarah can grab him.

"They do get spanked," she says. "But they are all wonderful. They're very curious, they want to explore everything and they love to play. I grew up with dogs and cats, and these guys are the best of both worlds. They are cat-box trained but they are loyal like dogs.

"We want this bill to be passed."

Limited Legislation

SARAH IS TALKING about a proposed state law by Assemblyman Jim Cunneen, R-Cupertino. The bill, which won approval from the state Assembly last month on a vote of 73 to 6, would legalize the possession of ferrets, provided they receive rabies shots and are spayed or neutered, and only if they were already somebody's pet by April 20, 1999. It would also commission a study of the animals to determine whether ferrets are a wild or domesticated animal.

The bill wouldn't allow for full-scale legalization--hopeful owners still wouldn't be able to walk into pet stores and buy a ferret--but supporters say it is a step in the right direction.

"I think this is a modest step," Cunneen says. "It's an important step to take. I don't own a ferret, but my only experiences with them have been positive. I do know a number of people who do, and they ought not live in fear of prosecution when ferrets are legal in 48 other states."

The fact that Cunneen's bill would only legalize ferrets whose owners smuggled them in on or before April 20, 1999, is fine by ferret enthusiasts. They say the general public isn't ready for full-scale legalization. They worry that if the critters were sold in pet stores, every Joe Shmo in California would rush out and buy one just because they're cute.

"I don't promote ferrets as pets, because I think the general public has shown themselves to be incapable of keeping dogs and cats as pets," says Jeanne Carley, co-founder of Californians for Ferret Legalization. "Ferrets are much more delicate than a dog or a cat."

Previous attempts to legalize the domesticated European polecat have failed. The last push--a bill in 1997--ended up as road kill in a Senate committee. Cunneen, however, believes his bill may be the one to decriminalize California's littlest outlaws.

"I'm trying to find some common ground between the extremists at the Department of Fish and Game who label the ferret as a wild animal, and those ferret owners who would like to have ferrets legalized in every way."

In an informal survey of 12 local pet stores, 10--including megastores PETCO, PetsMart and Premium Pet--acknowledged selling ferret food and supplies, ranging from tiny harnesses to fleece-lined sleeping hammocks to ferret deodorizer. And unlike pot paraphernalia sold in shops like Paramount Imports as "tobacco bongs," ferret goods are sold under pictures of cute little ferrets.

Veterinary treatment for the four-legged fugitives is widely and openly available, too. As a group, Hoban says, her fellow vets are perplexed by the controversy.

"They don't understand why this particular domestic animal has been singled out to be discriminated against," Hoban says. "They all know them or someone who has them and they seem to be a fine animal."

While Hoban does not have a large ferret population in her practice, she says she is very familiar with the pet, and with one caveat is very much in favor of its legalization.

"I know a lot of ferret owners, and I've never seen a ferret that posed a threat to human beings," Hoban says.

The caveat, she adds, is that in the vet literature there have been a few documented cases of unprovoked ferret attacks on toddlers.

"I don't think they're appropriate in homes with small children," Hoban says. "But dogs and cats also present a significant risk to children. The only difference is, for example, with a dog you can evaluate the threat more easily by its temperament. The threat a ferret may pose to a kid is less easy to evaluate."

She adds that a large dog can inflict much more damage on a child.

"No animal should be left unsupervised with small children," Hoban says. "With responsible pet ownership, ferret legalization won't make one crumb of a difference to the safety of pet owners in California."


Bump in the Road

THE STATE DOES NOT take such an amiable view of ferrets. Citing dangers to the environment and small children, the California Department of Fish and Game is a long-standing roadblock on the path to legalization.

"We've long been adamantly opposed to ferret legalization because of the risk ferrets pose to wildlife and public safety," says Ronald Jurek, a wildlife biologist in the department.

Fish and Game says the critters are dangerous, and if they are legalized in California, it's only a matter of time before ferrets go feral and become a threat to wild birds and small mammals.

"They're a predator, like a dog or a cat, and as such, they pose a threat to native wildlife," says Jurek.

According to the department's most recent study--a domestic ferret questionnaire sent out to wildlife agencies in the 48 states where ferret ownership is legal--not one has documented a case of ferrets breeding in the wild.

Jurek says the survey's wrong.

"The ferret is on the list of North American breeding animals," he says. "So it's hard for us to understand how they have not existed in the wild." In the wild, he says, these housebroken carpet sharks are nocturnal animals that live alone, making them difficult to track.

"Ferrets live individually. People talk about ferret colonies--there is no such thing as a feral ferret colony. So it would be very difficult to know if there were any ferrets in the wild."

Gabe Parr, a Santa Cruz County animal control officer, offers another argument against legalization.

"It's not a native species," he says. "We have concerns about diseases they carry and there've been concerns about their temperament."

Weaseling Into Sacramento

FERRETS ACTIVISTS INSIST that the feral ferret is a myth.
"There aren't any," says Jeanne Carley. Vet Hoban agrees.
"I don't know of any cases of ferrets going wild," Hoban says. "They don't go feral. There's a far greater threat from feral cats."

In states where ferrets are legal, Carley adds, they must be spayed or neutered before they are sold in pet stores. Carley points out that even without the law, all ferret owners get their pets fixed. If left unaltered, males will emit a strong, skunklike scent. Unaltered female ferrets in heat will typically die within a year if not "spayed or laid," say vets.

Carley also scoffs at the "non-native" argument.

"Where do you think German shepherds came from, or Siamese cats or Arabian horses?" she says. "They came here 200 years ago, roughly about the time the ferret arrived. We apply the non-native criterion to wildlife, not domestic animals."

Carley has dedicated the last five years to fighting what she calls a "misinformation campaign" by the Department of Fish and Game. She organizes a database of 250,000 ferret supporters in the state and lobbies the state Legislature to decriminalize ferret owners, writing letters and sending faxes supporting ferret rights. Her website, www.ferretnews.org, features ferret news updates and links to the ferret-friendly sites. One photo depicts a frowning ferret in prison stripes and a "WANTED" sign.

"The public knows that a domesticated pet doesn't belong in the hands of a wildlife agency," she says. "People know in their hearts and minds that the law is wrong."

Carley herself got trapped in the weasel web after baby-sitting a friend's ferret in 1988.

"I just found them to be delightful, very intelligent, very nice little creatures," she says. "I started asking, 'Why can't I have one?' The more I looked into it, the more I realized that there had been a very serious injustice here in California."

So she took to the streets. Carley also runs rescue operations, housing the animals that have been turned over to Fish and Game or to local animal shelters. More than 40 of these ferret halfway houses exist in California. Ferret rescuers feed the often sick or injured animals, nurse them back to health and find them a good, out-of-state home.

Ferret Fever

FERRET OWNER CHUCK, who gives only his first name, watches his six ferret fuzz balls frolic on the floor, running under cupboards, through a slinky tunnel and over a cat named Bump.

"You get one, and then you watch them playing with each other and you have to get more," he says. "It's kind of addictive."

It's the creatures' rodentlike body and intimidating jaws that give ferrets a bad rap, say supporters. But if there is going to be any fierce to-the-death battle, it's more likely to involve the owners--not the polecats. Among ferret enthusiasts, loyalty to the little outlaws runs very deep.

"They are my babies," says Urma. "You get so emotionally attached to them."

Urma's ferret, Awto Bahn Spawn, named for its "devilish" charm, sleeps with her owner every night. Awto has a mesh bed, too, but usually rubber toy frogs are the only animals resting in it. "She's trained to walk by my side like a dog, she loves to sit on my chest and cuddle, she loves to take showers," she says. "They are the greatest pets in the world."

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From the July 7-14, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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