The members of Ferrets Anonymous are breakfasting at an IHOP in Laguna Niguel, grumbling about the illegality of their favorite animal and raison d’être. “Chinchillas are legal, why not ferrets?” asks one man, over a bite of pancake.
“You have to be careful who you invite over to your house, because what if your neighbor gets mad at you and turns you in?” says a woman named Anita H., who is known as the Duck Lady because she drives to work with her duck in a laundry hamper in the front seat. This is something she could never do with her ferrets, at least not in California or Hawaii, the only two states where the animals are banned.
“Exactly,” seconds Lance M., the organization’s president. “What’s so special about California anyway? Do you see any devastation in California? No. Just the bedroom in the morning.” It is President M.’s first term and already he is revolutionizing the way Ferrets Anonymous does business, what with the redesigned logo and the pewter keychains, which he now hands out. “They love shiny things,” says Lance. Whether he’s referring to the humans or their ferrets is unclear.
Conversation hops back and forth between two tracks. Track one: People are smitten by their ferrets. People whip out their cell phones to scroll through snapshots of little Koko or Sparky or Riata. They flip through copies of the newsletter called Paw Print, perusing calls for submissions to its photo contest — categories include Sleepy Furkids, Soupie Faces, Best Kisser, Ferret Disguises and Best Interaction With Toys — and lecture announcements. At the upcoming regional meet, one Dr. Freddie-Ann Hoffman will be speaking on “The Fur Beneath Us, a Shared American Ferret Experience.”
In the community, you are either a proud “ferrent” (ferret parent) or on the verge of becoming one. It’s a gusty, drizzly day, the kind of weather that gives ferrets the sniffles. Several members mill around in the parking lot before the meeting, looking wary.
“Do you have a fuzzy?” a woman named Dee asks me. Fuzzy is code for ferret, as is “kid” or “boy” or “girl” or “dookers” or “furrito” or “fuzzbutt.” When I tell her no, she nods and says, sagely, “Ah, you’re waiting.”
Another woman, Dusty J., pulls out her keychain. On it is a photo of her ferret.
“Oh, they get into trouble,” adds Dee. “Turn your back for two seconds, you better be prepared.”
Which leads to conversational track number two: People are worried sick about their ferrets. They are frail little creatures, prone to cancer, hormonal imbalances and being accidentally stepped on by their owners. “I’ve never seen a live one up close yet,” one new member offers.
“Oh, I have one that’s 8 and a half. She’s a bit unsteady on her feet,” a man says.
“Have you checked her blood glucose?” asks Lance. “When in doubt, stab a paw.” Lance is currently obsessed with a dwarf ferret named Trinket. “She’s tiny, tiny, tiny.” He pulls up her photo on his cell phone. “That’s Trinket.”
“That’s actual size,” says Dusty. “You are god to them,” he adds and then clicks off Trinket’s photo. “You decide when it begins and when it ends.”
Ferrets have an average lifespan of nine years. “That’s the part that hurts the most,” Lance sighs. “Just when you get to the point where you can’t live without them, that’s when you have to learn how to. I have a little girl coughing and wheezing at home.”
Many a ferret lover has been jolted awake in a cold sweat in the middle of the night imagining the nightmare scenario of getting popped by law enforcement. You check your wife, you check your kids, you check your ferret, not necessarily in that order.
On this subject, Lance gets fired up: “Maybe the cop sees a toy in the doorway” — a Wiggly Giggly ball or a FerreTrail Fuzz-E-Funnel, perhaps — “and he says, hey, that’s probable cause.”
“How many ferrets do you have?” someone across the table asks Lance.
“I don’t have 14.”
Then Lance says he really admires the way Dusty keeps her animals. To which Dusty says she acknowledges that there are many acceptable ways of keeping pets, but she likes her way best.
She has two fuzzies, one boy and one girl. The boy sits on her chest when she exercises. The girl popped into Dusty’s husband’s home office one night. They live next to a golf course, and someone, they later learned, dropped off the ferret in a backpack. “I don’t know how she survived. There are coyotes, and foxes and owls. Oh, god, owls.”
Still, the California ferret’s most menacing natural predator is the Department of Fish and Game officer. When Ferrets Anonymous members are in a grim mood, they talk, in hushed tones, about the officers at agricultural-inspection stations along state borders who used to strangle ferrets on the spot while horrified owners looked on.
There are, according to Dusty’s estimate, hundreds of thousands of ferrets hiding out in California. One major obstacle to legalization is that no one is willing to come forward to aggressively lobby for it because they’ve got the contraband waiting in their living room. In fact, the entire ferret experience at times seems like one big, hairy Catch-22. The guy who founded Ferrets Anonymous spent 45 days in jail for owning a ferret and brandishing a kitchen knife at the officers who showed up at his apartment with a search warrant.
Says Lance: “He was cooking! Of course he had a knife.”
“You get so disillusioned,” says Dusty. “It’s hard to be proactive.” Afraid to leave her charges alone, she hasn’t been on vacation outside the state for years. When she and her husband travel, they stay in dog-friendly hotels and smuggle their ferrets in at 2 a.m.
Just talking about the stress wears on them so much that half the table gets up to smoke midway through the meal.
Misconceptions abound. Even people who own ferrets think it’s illegal to get them treated by a vet. It’s not. Doctor-ferret confidentiality applies. “The doctor is in no way, shape or form allowed to disclose anything going on between you and your animal,” Lance explains. Rescuing ferrets is illegal. Though in most ferret clubs, there’s an unspoken understanding that you can call someone in the group and she or he will come and help you if you get in trouble.
Before ferrets can enjoy the same rights as cats and dogs and parakeets, an Environmental Impact Report must be conducted. “It’s usually something done when you build a freeway. Now they want this on a freaking ferret?” Lance says. He shakes his head. Doing a report is cost prohibitive. Most enthusiasts spend their money on vet bills. Ironically, some 26 percent of all ferret-merchandise sales in the nation occur in California, which means that not only are people in our state fond of ferrets, they are fond of accessorizing them.
Ferret owners are used to irony. They have fallen for an inherently comical animal, after all, a kielbasa sausage with fur. It has the body of a weasel, the face of a teddy bear, and a cheerful, smiling expression punctuated by tiny vampire fangs. Its main purpose in life is to be cute, get into trouble and catch colds. Its historical purpose has been to serve as a lab animal. The Pepcid AC antacid gobbled by stressed-out ferret owners was developed with the use of ferrets, which are prone to acid reflux.
The reasons why they are illegal in California include the fear that they will form feral packs bent on ravaging crops and livestock. The members of Ferrets Anonymous refute this argument. The original classification of ferrets as wild animals, they insist, is a case of mistaken identity in which the domestic ferret Mustela putorius furo was confused with the black-footed ferret Mustela nigripes.
“There’s got to be someone here who stands in the balance for ferrets,” says Lance when asked what keeps him from just packing the hell up and moving to Nevada.
A few days later, a lanky, bleary-eyed woman, Sue, is giving up her ferrets, Dububba and Whiteboy, to someone she met through the online ferret black market. They are rendezvousing in neutral territory. Namely, the office of an Orange County vet who specializes in exotic animals. As Lance says, “Inside the vet’s office, it’s Switzerland. Outside, it’s Iraq.”
The Yahoo! Groups Web board, where ferrets connect with humans who desire them, opens with a disclaimer: “Enter and post at your own risk. Fish & Game may be lurking.” Nevertheless, it is where you go if you are “looking for a new ‘masked bandit’ to love” or “looking for a carpet-shark or two in Long Beach.” All the posts are poignant. Some read almost like poetry: “Too quiet without little scuffing feet. I grew up with ferrets. Want.”
Sue can’t afford to keep hers. One squishes into her jacket. She kisses its nose, and grudgingly hands the creature to the stranger’s waiting arms. “Goodbye, my loves,” she says, then goes to bawl in the parking lot.
For more on the effort to legalize ferrets in California, go to www.ferretsanonymous.org.