In California and Hawaii, and in a hodgepodge of municipalities around the nation, ferret fanciers live in fear.
They worry about finding veterinary care in areas where their pets are illegal. They fret that their pets will be confiscated if discovered -- and possibly destroyed. And they wonder why with so many more pressing problems, law-enforcement resources are used to persecute a personable little pet.
In California, where the fight for ferret legalization has become as much a part of spring as allergies, advocacy groups such as the California Domestic Ferret Association say there are more than 100,000 ferret owners and a half million of the playful beasties. It's likely not one of those owners -- or the veterinarians who treat the animals in a gray zone of legality -- understands why a five-pound pet is the focus of so much fuss.
"Ferrets are not really exotic pets, except in the sense of being relatively uncommon," said veterinarian Stuart Turner, head of the Pet Care Forum of America Online and one of a number of California veterinarians listed as "ferret friendly" by Ferrets Anonymous, a group working to legalize ferrets in the state and support ferret owners by providing them with the resources they need to care for their pets until that happens. "Look at other pets we call 'exotic,' such as parrots and reptiles. These are one or two generations removed from the wild, while ferrets have been domesticated for thousands of years."
In California, fish and game officials argue against legalization primarily out of concern that pet ferrets will escape and become wild predators of native birds. There is also concern that ferrets have a propensity to bite, especially around young children.
Ferret advocates disagree, saying no evidence exists that any domesticated ferrets have been able to survive in the wild. As for biting, they argue that ferrets are less dangerous than dogs or cats, pets responsible for hundreds of thousands of injuries to children every year. Common sense dictates that no pet be left unsupervised with a small child, they say, and this is just as true in the case of ferrets.
But common sense doesn't seem that common when it comes to the ferret debate, even though support for the continued banning of the animals has been eroding. Most animal-welfare groups are no longer against legalization, nor are veterinary organizations such as the California Veterinary Medical Association.
It's time to accept that ferrets can be as good a pet as dogs or cats, and let the last of the regulations against them fall, starting with the biggest -- the ban in California. For veterinarians like Turner, legalization won't come a moment too soon.
"Our oath as veterinarians is that we're here to treat animals,' he said. "And we want to do our best to treat them, whether they're legal or not. But when people are worried about seeking out care for their pets because of the law, we can't do this."
"For us not to be able to treat ferrets is crazy."
For responsible pet lovers not to be able to keep one legally is doubly so.
FERRET FACT: Fanciers have specific terms for their pets, starting with "hob," for an unneutered male ferret, and "jill" for an unspayed female. Babies are called "kits," and the correct terms for altered adults are gibs (males) and sprites (females). Most charming of all, a group of these playful pets is called a "business" of ferrets (although some use "busyness" instead).
CYBERLINKS: The most comprehensive site for ferret fanciers is Ferret World (http://ferret-world.clayton.edu, soon moving to http://ferretworld.com), which bills itself as "The Coolest Place on Earth." The site has information on ferret care and legal issues, as well as links to other ferret sites and pictures. The music is a little annoying after the first few seconds, but the "ferret cam" animation loop is cute. Serious ferret fans will want to join the Ferret Mailing List by sending e-mail to ferret-request(at)cunyvm.cuny.edu with the words SUBSCRIBE (your first name) (your last name) in the text field. For more information on the ferret fight in California, visit the sites of the California Domestic Ferret Association (http://www.cdfa.com) and Ferrets Anonymous (www.efn.org/(tilde)csmith/).
Gina Spadafori, the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," is affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international on-line service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or e-mail to Giori(at)aol.com.
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