by Kat Richardson
Here at KRL we are big fans of Kat Richardson’s Greywalker paranormal detective series. Her main character has a ferret and Kat is an advocate for legalizing Ferrets.
Whether you call them “California stretch kittens,” “tube rats,” or “furry knee socks,” the domestic ferret is a charming little creature, welcomed as a pet in forty-eight states of the United States and every country in Europe. Current estimates place the number of pet ferrets in the U.S. at between seven million and ten million with no negative impact on the economies, agriculture, health, or welfare of any state where they are legal. And yet, they are illegal–except as specially-permitted laboratory, zoo, or research specimens–in the state of California. (The only other U.S. state with an outright ban on ferrets is Hawaii and the closed ecology of the island state is plagued with a unique situation with respect to introduced species.)
While the playful little furballs are restricted in a few places in the U.S., only California continues to maintain a ban while surrounded by ferret-loving neighbors. Since ferrets are banned, it’s hard to get an accurate count of how many are living illegally in the state, but even the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (formerly the Department of Fish and Game) admits the number is probably near 100,000 of the popular pet (see: www.dfg.ca.gov/wildlife/nongame/nuis_exo/ferret/ferret.html) And in spite of the frequent claim that ferrets are wild animals, the California DFW refers to them in their own official papers and on their website as domestic animals.
So what’s the big deal? The California ferret ban goes back a little over 80 years to the introduction of commercial pesticides for control of mice, rats, rabbits, prairie dogs, and other rodent pests that can deal a lot of damage to crops and grain storage that provide a major source of tax income to the state of California, which is still one of the largest agricultural states in the world, producing grain, fruit, and vegetables that are shipped worldwide as well as domestically.
So it’s understandable that a state so dependent on agriculture is nervous about critters that may damage it. But ferrets aren’t rodents and they aren’t interested in chowing down on crops or grain in silos. The fact that they were once widely used in this country, and continue to be used throughout the UK and Europe, for eradication of pests seems to have been forgotten in California while the state clings to the idea that ferrets are a threat to the ecology. But the ban continues and no one seems to have any good argument as to why beyond “that’s just the way it is.”
It’s hard to get a straight answer out of anyone about why ferrets continue to be illegal. During my own 30-year residency in California I’d been told everything from “they spread rabies,” to “they eat babies.” Neither of these are true (unless you happen to be a baby mouse, in which case you may have more to worry about than if the neighbor has a pet ferret.) An effective vaccine for rabies in ferrets has been approved by the FDA and in use for more than 20 years in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control; no one in the U.S. has ever contracted rabies from the bite of a healthy-appearing ferret.
Ferrets can be vaccinated against canine distemper as well and aren’t known to be carriers of other serious diseases communicable to humans, though they can catch colds and flu from humans. Fears about feral populations establishing in the wild and threatening the ecology of the state are about the only explanations that make any sense, on the surface. But that doesn’t hold much water when you look at it harder. The problem with theorizing feral populations of domestic animals is that there have to be enough of them in one place and capable of breeding and supporting offspring to create a stable population.
What’s a stable population? According to the genetic information page of Stanford University at The Tech online it takes between 20 and 160 individuals, evenly divided by sex, to establish and maintain a genetically viable and healthy population in an area. Ferrets, being small animals, have a fairly limited ranging area, so even if you assume that they can cover a couple of miles to find a mate and survive the various problems of predators and disease as well as starvation, a reasonable range would be nor more than two square miles at the outside.
So, a viable feral ferret population would require a density of between 10 and 80 healthy, unneutered, adult ferrets per square mile, equally divided into male and female individuals, who also happen to find each other, and be ready to breed when they do (Hello, sailor!) The land area of California is about 160,000 square miles and while ferrets are more likely to be found in high concentrations in urban and suburban areas, they also face much greater threats to life—such as cars and other feral populations of cats and dogs—than in rural areas where their concentrations are lower due to differences in human population density. Since ferrets are currently kept only as pets and not as livestock in California, there are no large populations on farms, fur ranches, or breeding kennels for them to escape from.
Abandoned and escaped ferrets enter the wild from ordinary domestic homes one or two at a time and all commercial ferret breeders in the U.S. and Canada neuter their pet ferret stock before shipment. While it’s not impossible that a breeding pair might get loose and have a healthy litter in the wild, the odds are against them and their survival rate without human intervention is horrifyingly low.
Establishment of a functioning feral population is statistically unlikely, since the likelihood of 10 to 80 healthy, breeding stock, ferrets all getting out in the same area in a reasonable time frame is plainly pretty small. The lack of any population, feral or domestic, is actually a pity for California, since properly managed legal ferrets could destroy a lot of crop-nibbling pests without the need for poisonous traps and pesticides near our food supply.
All right, so establishment of feral populations doesn’t sound very likely, though there’s still a remote statistical chance of it in an ideal condition and area. But ideal areas with potential for such a large number of ideal domestic ferrets to run wild aren’t common enough for the theory to hold water. The fact that there have never been any recorded instances of domestic ferrets establishing feral populations in any state or country—even those where unneutered ferrets are still commonly used for pest eradication or where there is a high population density as pets—without deliberate human intervention should put an end to that argument.
Rumors about feral populations in New Zealand and other places are just that–rumors that have never had any basis in fact. It takes two generations for similar animals to become feral–throwing off their domesticated habits and breeding to the degree that they can survive and thrive without human intervention and ferrets breed only once a year, so in addition to the population, health, “breedability,” and survival issues, there’s also a time problem in that the theoretical population has to be of significant size and survive for two years beyond their establishment in the wild to attain stability.
So, ferrets aren’t likely to establish colonies in the wild and upset the ecology of California. And they aren’t risks for spreading rabies or other diseases to humans or livestock. Nor do they bite at any greater rate than domestic dogs, cats, birds, or horses according to the American Veterinary Association, and they don’t, in fact “eat babies,” no matter what any hysterical news stories from the 1990s claimed, and you notice you haven’t heard any of those in a while!
Meanwhile, all the other continental states of the United States allow ferrets as pets and have none of the problems California claims will transpire if the pets who already reside there illegally were suddenly made legal. The situation already exists, and no problem has evolved. Changing the legal status of ferrets won’t change the environment.
But it would allow for better control of the ferrets that already live in the state and any new ones that are brought in. There are several groups working to try and legalize the animals in California: Legalize Ferrets, and Ferrets Anonymous, but in spite of efforts that go back to the 1970s, they’re meeting a lot of resistance.
One of the claims of those opposed to legalization of ferrets in California is that legal sales will lead to increased numbers and a concomitant rise in abandonment of the animals as well as abuse and cruelty. But when things are illegal, no safeguards or controls can be placed on them. There is no recourse for restricting the abuse of animals, or people who are already flying under the legal radar, and as with the prohibition of alcohol in the early twentieth century, crime and abuse rise, rather than fall under such a ban.
Ferrets in California would be much better off, healthier, safer, and easier to regulate if they had legal status as pets. They’d also be a source of tax and licensing income that the state currently does not receive. The domestic ferret is in California in significant numbers and it would be in the state’s best interest to make them legal pets, subject to proper and reasonable protection and regulation for the good of citizens at large, ferret owners and their pets, and the state.
You can find more animal rescue, therapy animal, and other pet related articles in our pet section. You can find reviews of Kat’s books in our fantasy section. Watch for a review of Kat’s new book here in August.