NEW YORK CITY––The New York City Board of Health on March 10, 2015 voted 3-2 with three abstentions to retain a 25-year-old ban on possession of ferrets.
The vote left New York City and Washington D.C. as the two largest cities to prohibit ferrets, outside of California, where ferrets have been banned since 1933. The state of Hawaii also prohibits ferrets.
“Ferrets are legal in much of the country, but some board members said the slinky weasel relatives don’t belong in dense, largely apartment-dwelling New York City,” reported Jennifer Peltz of Associated Press.
“The city has long defined ferrets as wild animals and generally prohibited them,” Peltz continued. “The ban became specific in 1999,” despite organized opposition causing then-New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani to remark that, “This excessive concern with little weasels is a sickness.”
Yet, Peltz observed, “New York City pet stores stock ferret food. Health Department staffers said four ferret bites have been reported in New York City from 2008 to 2014.”
Why FoA backed the ferret ban
“We opposed rescinding the New York City ferret ban,” Friends of Animals campaigns director Edita Birnkrant told ANIMALS 24-7. “I spoke directly with officials at the Department of Health about this numerous times and sent in an official position statement from FoA, detailing why we opposed overturning the ban on ferrets.
“We do not want another species to be legally sold in pet shops that come from breeders, and that’s what would happen if the ban had been overturned,” Birnkrant explained. “Pet stores would immediately start selling them throughout NYC. The shelters are overflowing with pets that are already legal—why add another species to the mix? We know ferrets will end up dumped in parks, on the street, at shelters, etcetera, once they become ‘legal’ and are sold in every pet shop. It’s just a terrible idea.
“Some animal groups were supporting overturning the ban on the condition that the NYC Council pass a bill outlawing the sale of ferrets in pets shops,” Birnkrant continued. “But I knew that it was unlikely that such a ban would pass. Luckily, the ban is here to stay.
Humane community flip-flopped
The 1933 California ferret ban, like bans since rescinded in several other states, was practically unanimously supported by the humane community.
An especially influential endorsement came from the American Humane Association. The only national animal advocacy organization in the U.S. from inception in 1877 until Christine Stevens (1918-2002) founded the Animal Welfare Institute in 1952, the AHA had opposed ferret proliferation almost from inception.
Stevens and AWI opposed commercial ferret breeding chiefly to keep ferrets out of laboratory use; ferrets had briefly come into vogue as laboratory test subjects after scientists learned that they could carry human influenza strains, but were dangerous to handle, and were mostly replaced by rats after rats proved susceptible to the same diseases.
As other national humane organizations formed, they added strong voices in opposition to the efforts of ferret breeders, fanciers, and the exotic pet trade to popularize ferret-keeping. Among those strong voices were the Humane Society of the U.S. (1954), Friends of Animals (1957), and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (1981).
“They’re feisty little animals,” HSUS vice president for wildlife John Grandy told media in 1987. “They’re very quick, they dart when they move, and they have strong jaws meant to kill. I’ve watched them bite. It doesn’t appear to be angry, but then it opens its mouth and you’re bit.”
Other influential opponents of ferret proliferation included syndicated advice columnist Ann Landers, whose columns were distributed from 1955 until her death in 2002; the American Veterinary Medical Association; and Faith Schottenfeld, author of Environmental Risk Communication as an Educational Process (2008), who as a New York State Health Department risk communicator in the 1980s reportedly collected details of 45 disfiguring ferret attacks on infants and small children, and more than 50 ferret bite incidents occurring in New York state alone.
But humane opposition to ferret proliferation and ferret bans have eroded over the past quarter century, under increasingly well-organized pressure from breeders and fanciers, some of whom share affiliations with entities representing breeders of other species, including the Bluegrass American Pit Bull Terrier Association, Endangered Breeds Association, and Responsible Dog Owners of the Eastern States.
Even HSUS and PETA now have web pages giving instructions on ferret care, with scant mention of the reasons why they formerly opposed legalizing ferret possession.
The turnabout on ferrets may have begun with the 1981 re-discovery of black-footed ferrets, a non-domesticated species with a voracious appetite for prairie dogs, which had been considered extinct. Once found wherever prairie dogs occurred, from New Mexico and Texas into the Canadian prairie provinces, black-footed ferrets were collateral casualties of ranchers who aggressively poisoned prairie dogs until they occupied less than 10% of their 19th century range. Until 18 black-footed ferrets were trapped near Meeteetse, Wyoming, in 1981, the last one reported had been seen in 1931 between Flagstaff and Williams, Arizona.
Arriving at the National Zoo in 1980 as a paid intern, JoGayle Howard, DVM (1951-2011) bred the 18 black-footed ferrets trapped in 1981 up to a population big enough to permit reintroduction to the wild in 1991. At Howard’s death the 18 black-footed ferrets she began with had more than 6,500 known descendants, many of whom had become charismatic stars of nature documentaries and news coverage.
Black-footed ferrets, a North American native species, are only distantly related to the Old World ferrets and ferret cousins including fitches, stoats, and weasels, who have been semi-domesticated for perhaps as long as 3,000 years, and were introduced to the New World in 1690.
In the early U.S., as in Europe, ferrets and their close kin were used chiefly for hunting, ratting, and fighting, except for fitches, who were and occasionally still are bred for their pelts.
The first statewide ferret bans appear to have been instituted as part and parcel of the first statewide hunting regulations, adopted in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Allied with clergy who saw sport hunting as a threat to church attendance, and with conservationists alarmed at loss of wildlife, early humane societies lobbied to ban recreational hunting altogether. Hunters responded by forming associations of “sportsmen” and “hunter-conservationists,” who made common cause with the clergy and humane societies to prohibit some of the most egregiously cruel and destructive hunting practices.
“Ferreting,” unlike hunting with dogs, had few influential defenders. Editorialized the Janesville (Wisconsin) Daily Gazette in 1906, “The squeal of a rabbit when it catches sight of the ferret’s two glowing eyes advancing toward it is pitiful, and this alone prevents many sportsmen from using the animal.”
“Bad sportsmanship & inhumane”
Agreed the Fort Wayne News & Sentinel in 1921, praising the introduction of a ban on ferreting in Indiana, “The ferret law, which prohibits the possession of a ferret without the permission of the Fish & Game Commission, will help to reduce the wastage of game through a practice which is bad sportsmanship at best and in many cases inhumane.”
Yet ferreting persisted, especially among some of the same elements as dogfighting, despite strong legislation against it. Ohio, for example, banned ferreting in 1885, but setting ferrets on rabbits remained common in Ohio at least until 1920, when the Democrat & Times, of Philadelphia, Ohio, credited the Tuscarawas County Fish & Game Association with cutting “use of ferrets this season down to the minimum.
“A great restraining factor,” the Democrat & Times continued, “is the penalty staring violators in the face. The lowest fine that can be imposed for even having a ferret in one’s possession while going to or returning from a hunt, or while hunting, is $25. The greatest fine that can be imposed is $200,” about a third of the price of a new car at the time, “and magistrates have shown a disposition to enforce the maximum fine rather than the trivial $25 for such an un-sportsman-like offense.”
The legal loophole that allowed ferret breeding and selling to continue in many jurisdictions was an exemption frequently granted for ferret use in rat control. But even this was considered problematic.
Advised the Tampico Tornado, of Tampico, Illinois, in 1892:
“Everybody knows that a ferret will drive away rats, but everybody does not know how to manage a ferret, which must be done carefully, for should the ferret get away, he will be more destructive than a hundred rats.”
This was more-or-less the experience of Australia, New Zealand, and other island nations after ferrets, stoats, and weasels were introduced in the 19th century as an attempted brake on feral rat and rabbit populations. While ferrets, stoats, and weasels all prey mostly on introduced rodent species and rabbits, as intended, they hunt rare native species as well, as opportunity presents, and hit the native species especially hard if the non-native species decline abruptly––as in the wake of poisoning campaigns and the introduction of diseases such as rabbit calicivirus and mixomiatosis.
The notion of keeping ferrets as “pocket pets” appears to have been a late 20th century invention. Documented introductions of ferrets into homes with children present tended to involve gruesome consequences.
The Blackheath Gazette, of London, England, for instance reported on September 24, 1897 that a ferret bought by one Frederick William Vinall to catch rats instead killed his four-month-old daughter.
The Alden Times, of Alden, Iowa, in 1924 described how a ferret brought indoors by 15-year-old Philip Greenbaum, of Sioux City, escaped and disfigured his nine-year-old sister.
Inescapable are parallels to the evolution of reportage about pit bulls. From the first appearance of mass media reporting daily events to the mid-1980s, both ferrets and pit bulls were frequently and forthrightly identified as dangerous animals, inappropriate as human companion animals, and associated primarily with human misuse of animals in sadistic “sport.”
Then organized efforts emerged to re-invent both ferrets and pit bulls as “pocket pets” and “nanny dogs,” oblivious to the weight of historical evidence that neither animal had ever been any such thing.
From Arnold Schwarzenegger to Paris Hilton
While sympathetic depictions of black-footed ferrets eroded opposition to proliferation of domesticated ferrets somewhat, humane perspectives and relevant legislation disintegrated––as with legislation to discourage pit bull proliferation––after Hollywood became involved.
“Ferret owners are rejoicing,” American Ferret Association founder Freddie Ann Hoffman said of the October 7, 2003 election of actor Arnold Schwarzenegger to replace recalled California Governor Gray Davis. Hoffman credited Schwarzenegger with helping to popularize ferrets in his 1990 film Kindergarten Cop, while blasting Davis for pledging to veto any bill to legalize the possession of ferrets that might clear the state legislature.
Post-Kindergarten Cop, which was apparently the first successful Hollywood film to mix ferrets with children, ferrets appeared in the Jim Carrey vehicle Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994) and in The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), the first installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
In The Fellowship of the Ring one of the rough characters at the Inn of the Prancing Pony briefly feeds the ferret as the hobbits Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin enter and look anxiously around for the inexplicably absent wizard Gandalf.
The Fellowship of the Ring appearance contextually reprised the historical use of ferrets in ferret fighting and rat-catching contests, often held on tavern pool tables.
Ferrets since then have appeared on screen mainly as “pocket pets,” including in cameo roles as “familiars” in the Harry Potter films The Goblet of Fire (2005) and Deathly Hallows, part 2 (2011).
Ferrets as “pocket pets” also got a boost in 2004 from socialite Paris Hilton, whose two ferrets were confiscated by the California Department of Fish & Game after Hilton showed them off in an interview.
While the American Ferret Association claims that there are now about 12 million domesticated ferrets in the U.S., a number for which there appears to be no credible substance, the AVMA estimated in 2012 that about 334,000 households nationwide have ferrets––about 10% of the number of households that keep pit bulls.
The record of mayhem involving ferrets is nowhere close to the record involving pit bulls, who at this writing have killed 312 of the 586 people killed by dogs in the U.S. and Canada since September 1982, including one person today, and have disfigured 2,326 of the 3,243 people who have been disfigured by dogs.
But among animals of comparable size commonly kept as pets, only venomous snakes inflict as many serious injuries relative to the numbers in homes.
A reminder of this reality came in Darby Borough, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, on January 23, 2015.
Reported Cindy Scharr of the Delaware County Daily Times, “Police have charged the parents of the 1-month-old infant whose face was eaten by ferrets with child endangerment. A warrant was filed charging Burnie James Fraim, 42, and Jessica Lynne Benales, 24, with five counts of endangering the welfare of children. The infant girl was attacked as she sat strapped into a car seat in the living room of the couple’s home.
Continued Scharr, “The couple has five children, all under the age of five…The house was reportedly infested with fleas and mites. The family also had six cats and two dogs. The ferrets were destroyed after being tested for rabies. The older children were removed from the house and are being cared for by relatives. The infant remains at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Surgeons are attempting to reconstruct the child’s face and placed stents in her nose to allow her to breathe.”
Bossier City, Louisiana
The Fraim/Benales case recalled the December 2006 plea bargain settlement of similar charges brought against Mary and Christopher Hansche, of Bossier City, Louisiana. The Hansches pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of improper supervision of their child, and surrendered possession of a pit bull and a ferret.
Explained Associated Press, “The Hansches were arrested on December 7 after they woke up and saw that one of their pets had gnawed off four of their month-old daughter’s toes. Mary Hansche, 22, said the ferret did it; police said Christopher Hansche, 26, thought the dog was responsible.”
The humane movement of the 19th and most of the 20th century understood itself to be a movement to prevent cruel and negligent treatment of both animals and children.
From that perspective, keeping, breeding, selling, and promoting the possession of either ferrets or pit bulls would have been unthinkable; encouraging either ferrets or pit bulls to be kept around children should have been a prosecutable offense in itself.