Freeing California's Ferrets

The tortured politics of illegal pets


Something momentous happened on the floor of the senate Tuesday. I'm not referring to the U.S. Senate, although I guess a mid-term partisan power shift is worth noting. I'm talking about the California State Senate, which kept the lights on long enough to pass a bill providing amnesty to the thousands of Californians who keep ferrets as pets.

Go ahead and snicker, but know that for many, the contraband status of ferrets is no laughing matter. If forced to choose, plenty of people would take their pets over their U.S. senators-they actually know their pets' names, they cost less to keep alive, and they perform their tricks closer to home. And know that as you chuckle, agricultural agents on the state's borders are peering into cars looking for furry fellows. If spotted, the cars will be turned away. In an extreme case in 1995, a young man headed for summer school in California wound up in jail for attempting to bring his pet along. (His four-day sentence was cut down to a single day, when his jailers could no longer keep a straight face.)

Ferrets, slightly smelly slivers of fur, have been domesticated for nearly 2,000 years, and are considered suitable pets in 48 of these United States. The exceptions are Hawaii and California. However, just because something is illegal doesn't mean it's rare. In 1989, the California Department of Fish and Game estimated that 500,000 ferrets called the Golden State home. No one knows the exact number for sure. But the evidence exists: Californians buy more copies of the leading ferret magazine than residents of any other state. The state's pet stores stock plenty of ferret supplies. Californians consume 20 percent of all ferret food sold in the United States. It's sort of like dope: the paraphernalia is easily available, but the active ingredient—the source of hours of joy—is carefully concealed.

Ferret enthusiasts blame the critters' illicit status on a case of mistaken identity with the European polecat, a truly ferocious wild animal. The federal government recognizes the domestic ferret as, well, "domestic," as do most other states, and at least 150 other authorities. The California Department of Fish and Game, however, considers them "wild." This makes sense, since it only exercises authority over wild animals and doesn't want to lose authority over ferrets, fearing they pose a threat to the state's wildlife and agriculture.

The effort to legalize ferrets is one of the great-underreported struggles in California history. A hearty band of activists first started the effort in the early 1990s, figuring that a simple reclassification of the ferret from wild to domestic would solve the problem. They've passed bills in the state assembly, only to have them stalled in the senate. They've convinced the commission that oversees the California Department of Fish and Game to give notice that it was planning to change the ferret's status, only to have department lawyers convince the commission that the status of a ferret is a job properly left to the expertise of the legislature.

They've spent hours defending their pets against state-sponsored slander, including charges that ferrets are disease-ridden beasts prone to attacking babies and claims that sexually promiscuous ferrets will escape captivity and establish feral colonies. (Ferrets have in fact bitten babies. But ferret owners cite statistics showing that dogs are 200 times more likely to bite than are ferrets and maintain that ferrets, unlike cats, are not capable of reproducing in the wild, regardless of how much unprotected sex they have.)

And that's why Tuesday was such a great day in California, at least for those who believe we are only truly free when we are able to freely choose our pets. Ferret activists now face the task of getting the bill through the assembly and on to the desk of Gov. Gray Davis before the legislative session ends in mid-September. Similar bills have passed the assembly before, but California's term limits keep the legislature's cast of characters changing, which makes changing law all the more difficult.

But then, nothing worth having is ever easy in the getting, right? Or as Tom Paine wrote, "Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph."