Free the Ferrets

California's banal ban on an innocent pet


Arizona resident Brent Utley ran head on into one of California's most bizarre laws on a sweltering day in June 1995. Utley was heading for summer school in California with his two pet ferrets in tow. He declared them at the Department of Food and Agriculture inspection station in Blythe, California, not realizing that his Arizona pets were contraband in California. The inspectors refused him entrance to the state as long as he had his furry friends.

Facing the unpalatable options of returning home to find a ferret sitter or trying to sneak through, he made an unsuccessful repeat run for the border. He was arrested, and the judge imposed a $500 fine and three years of probation.

"I told them I didn't have the money," Utley said, "so they said that I could go to jail for four days." Utley actually spent only one day behind bars, earning an early release for good behavior–and press coverage that embarrassed the county.

Described by enthusiasts as "cats without the attitude" and "kittens that never grow up," domestic ferrets, members of the weasel family, are furry bundles weighing one to five pounds. Although their cousin, the rare black-footed ferret, is native to America, the kind kept as pets originated in Europe. The consensus among experts everywhere but in California's Department of Fish and Game is that the cage-bound domestic ferret is a basically harmless pet. Elsewhere in the continental United States, having a ferret for a pet is no problem. But the California DFG says ferrets are a wild menace, and it bans ownership of them.

As ferrets have come into favor, the ban has been causing hardship for otherwise law-abiding citizens. According to the DFG, in 1989 there were some 500,000 ferrets in California. Ferrets Anonymous, a clandestine group of ferret owners, claims a membership of 2,200 Californians. The California Domestic Ferret Association mails its newsletter to nearly 5,000 California households. As testimony to the pets' popularity, large California pet stores routinely carry ferret food, ferret cages, and ferret toys, despite the ban.

Largely because of the work of Ferrets Anonymous and the California Domestic Ferret Association, a three-year effort to overturn the DFG's ferret prohibition is on the verge of success. On May 16, the California Assembly passed by a margin of 60-7 a nonbinding resolution calling on the Fish and Game Commission to legalize the ferret. The only thing standing in the way of legalization is an Environmental Impact Report the DFG claims it must conduct under the California Environmental Quality Act before the commission can change the regulation. This seemingly routine step has ferret enthusiasts on edge because the DFG remains resolutely opposed to ferret legalization and has relied on faulty information in the past.

The DFG's main professed concern is the possible threat that ferrets could pose to endangered species if they escape and establish feral populations. Ancillary excuses for the ban include ferrets' supposed ferocious attacks on infants, the possibility they could carry diseases, and the critters' supposed threat to the state's poultry industry. But the DFG has few facts to support its position.

The heart of the government's case against the ferret is in a 1988 report, "Pet European Ferrets: A Hazard to Public Health, Small Livestock and Wildlife," conducted at the request of the DFG by the California Department of Health Services. The report's tone is reminiscent of nothing so much as the cult classic film Reefer Madness, a piece of government propaganda that so exaggerated the threats of marijuana smoking that it single-handedly discredited government information on drugs for at least a generation.

Working itself into a rhetorical lather, the report claims that "ferrets sometimes unleash frenzied, rapid-fire bite and slash attacks on infants….The animals have then been reported to drink the victim's blood and eat the shredded tissue." The report stopped short of investigating whether ferrets were implicated in satanic cults. It did, however, spread some other falsehoods that have given politicians and bureaucrats justification for the ferret ban. The report claims that "feral ferrets abound in other states"–which is demonstrably false–and that ferrets "have contributed to the extinction of 20 species of endemic New Zealand birds," a fact that is as near and dear to the DFG's concerns about ferrets as it is wrong. The book the authors cite to support this claim, Immigrant Killers, by Carolyn King, states, "There is not a single known extinction or diminution [of native species] in New Zealand…due to any of the mustelids [ferrets, weasels and stoats]."

The allegedly ferocious ferret seems a lot less scary when you compare them to dogs, something the report fails to do. According to data from the Journal of Veterinary Medicine, dogs are more than 200 times more likely to inflict a serious bite than ferrets.

It's hard to raise the ferret issue without eliciting a chuckle. But for ferret owners seeking legitimacy–and for the DFG, which seeks to protect the status quo–the issue is serious business. And it is often the pettiest bureaucratic tyrannies that do the most both to discredit the administrative state and to undermine the proper role of government in a free society.

Just ask Ilona T. Maggard, who also ran afoul of California's unique ferret law. On November 26, 1995, after she placed an ad in The Fresno Bee–"Found: Exotic Animal"–five law enforcement officers visited Maggard. They discovered that Maggard, in addition to having found an escaped ferret, owned two of her own. Although her ferrets surrendered uneventfully, the officers proceeded to ransack her home, opening sealed boxes, examining photo albums, and rummaging through her children's dressers.

Maggard was arrested and sentenced to two years of probation, during which DFG officials can search her house with neither prior announcement nor warrant. The judge forced Maggard to pay the DFG an Orwellian $500 "donation" on top of the $800 it supposedly cost the DFG to deprive her of her pets.

Although the DFG claims not to actively focus on ferret enforcement, one of the wardens in the Maggard case openly claimed that she had conducted an 11-month investigation for one ferret bust. If the Fish and Game Commission reclassifies ferrets, as expected, Maggard hopes to have her ferrets back home by the time she has paid her debt to society.

Michael Lynch (huskiemike@aol.com) is a public policy fellow at the Pacific Research Institute, a San Francisco-based think tank.