Compromise Offered: Now Up to Governor Arnold

There’s hope for domestic ferrets to finally turn legal in California. Lt. Liz Schwall, who is in the enforcement branch of the California Department of Fish and Game, says that in her own personal opinion the pendulum is shifting in favor of ferrets.

“There’s no doubt about public support,” says Pat Wright of La Mesa, Calif., founder of Of course, the question remains about political support in one of only two states in the union where domestic ferrets are against the law (the other is Hawaii, where there’s never been an organized drive to permit them). Efforts to legalize them in California began in 1987. It seemed last year ferrets had finally wiggled their way into law when at the last moment Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed legislation.

The California ban on domestic ferrets isn’t so much because they’re not appropriate as pets. It’s because of the fear that they somehow could establish feral colonies and impact the environment, according to the California Waterfowl Association and the California Department of Fish and Game. Both organizations have long supported the ban.

But how about this compromise? Domestic ferrets become legally permitted but only if they are spayed or neutered (except ferrets belonging to registered breeders, which there are few of), vaccinated for rabies, and microchipped.

Ferrets live only around six to eight years under optimal conditions. The chances for a lost ferret to last more than a few months are minimal, according to San Diego veterinarian Dr. Jeffrey Jenkins. No matter, if lost ferrets can’t reproduce (since they would now all be spayed or neutered by law), forming any sort of long-lasting colony would be impossible.

Mandatory microchipping offers lost ferrets an opportunity to be returned to their homes. It would also identify problem owners who continually lose ferrets. Those perpetual problem people could be fined significantly for repeatedly misplacing their pet ferrets.

Schwall, from California Department of Fish Game, says she’s not officially speaking for the agency but in her own view, “If ferrets are truly regulated as you describe, any damage (to the environment and to wildlife) could be kept very minimal.”

However, Steve Martarano, the official spokesperson for the California Department of Fish and Game is more careful to plug the party line. “Our mission is to protect wildlife and consider any non-native species a threat. We’d have to analyze any new ferret bill (to legalize them) very carefully.”

Interestingly, even Robert McLandress, president of the California Waterfowl Association, an ardent long-time opponent to the legalization of domestic ferrets pauses. “Well, a part of me feels that ultimately ferrets will be legalized anyway, so we might as well be able to carefully monitor what happens. The suggestions (spay/neuter, rabies vaccines and microchipping) appear reasonable.”

Dr. Eric Weigand, president of the California Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) is far more enthusiastic about these suggestions. He cheers, “It’s a no brainer.” The CVMA has long supported legalization of domestic ferrets, as veterinarians have quietly continued to treat ferrets, despite breaking the law to do so.

A ferret owner in San Diego says, “When I take Tabitha to the vet, I dress her up as a dog so we’re not apprehended by the authorities.” She’s being sarcastic, but only half kidding.

“You’d think I was concealing a nuclear weapon by the way California Fish and Game and Animal Control felt it was necessary to break my door down to confiscate my ferocious, giant man-eating ferrets,” says Wright. Strange stories of California Fish and Game treating owners of a pet ferret equivalent to keeping a tiger aren’t unheard of.

Ferrets are a domestic off-shoot of the polecat, an animal that admittedly does have a disposition that’s likely testier than some tigers. Still, domestic ferrets (different that the wild black-footed ferret found in the western United States) developing from polecats isn’t all too different than domestic dogs deriving from wolves. The ancient Romans were likely the first to domesticate ferrets. Today’s domestic ferrets are about 16 to 20 inches long and weigh from just under 2 lbs. to 3 lbs. They’re legendary for their curiosity and sense of humor.

“They make me laugh,” says a San Francisco, Calif. owner of three ferrets, who asked not to be identified (for fear of having his ferrets taken away). “I live in an apartment, and I think they’re perfect ” they don’t bark, and I don’t have to take them out for walks.”

“We have unique flora and fauna in California, and we’ve always believed legalizing ferrets would lead to them forming colonies, and impacting wildlife,” McLandress explains.

Still, domestic ferrets have never formed feral colonies in any of the 48 states where they are legal. “The reality is that they generally just don’t survive on their own,” says Jenkins, who is known nationally for his ferret expertise. “They don’t do well in either very hot or cold weather, and they’re just too dependent on people. Ask any ferret owner about convincing ferrets to eat when you switch brands, let alone expecting to find their own meals. The reality is that most ferrets that get out quickly starve.” What’s more they don’t especially know how to defend themselves from predators, and they may get hit by cars.

However, McLandress argues that in New Zealand, native bird life has been impacted, particularly the flightless national bird, the kiwi. It’s true. But the guilty animals are a hybrid cross of polecats and ferrets which were purposefully introduced to deal with the mushrooming non-native rabbit population. The hybrids don’t have domestic ferret dispositions, just as dog/ wolf mixes don’t exactly act like cocker spaniels.

McLandress also mentions the public health concern of stray ferrets spreading rabies. Jenkins explains, “Even if there were feral ferrets, the fact is that they tend to be highly resistant to rabies. If they do get the virus, they die before they shed the virus.”

Besides, if mandatory rabies vaccines became law, arguably a far greater percent of ferrets in the state would be vaccinated, as pet ferrets would come out of the closet.

No one knows exactly how many ferrets are being kept underground in California, but the number is likely well into the thousands, according to Weigand. The American Veterinary Medical Association U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourebook reports that nationwide there are about one million pet ferrets.

“Californians like things that are, well, shall I say a little different,” says Weigand. “So, ferrets are probably as popular here as they are in any state, all starting mostly in the 1970’s. We don’t want any pet to impact native wildlife either; you’d figure that by now if there really was a threat ” it would have occurred.”

Wright isn’t especially optimistic about the eventual legalization of domestic ferrets in his state, “Of course, the suggestion (mandatory spay/neutering, rabies vaccines and microchipping) makes common sense ” What a perfect compromise (to legalize domestic ferrets), right? But this issue is about California politics, not common sense.”


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