Adventures in Ethics and Science

Friday Sprog Blogging: ferrets.

The elder Free-Ride offspring, always a fan of mustelids, has lately taken a particular interest in ferrets.

Given that Casa Free-Ride is located in the great state of California, this interest in ferrets has also spurred an interest in state law. In California, it’s illegal to keep ferrets as pets.

According to the elder Free-Ride offspring, there is much to appreciate about ferrets:

Elder Free-Ride offspring: They’re slinky!

Dr. Free-Ride: OK.

Elder Free-Ride offspring: They’re cute!

Dr. Free-Ride: Sure.

Elder Free-Ride offspring:They’re stinky.

Dr. Free-Ride: Yes, that I can vouch for.

Elder Free-Ride offspring: But you can “de-scent” them and give them baths!

Dr. Free-Ride: I don’t think I’ll be giving any ferrets baths, thanks.

Elder Free-Ride offspring: They’re the only domesticated mustelid!

Dr. Free-Ride: Really?

Elder Free-Ride offspring: Yes, people aren’t raising minks, or martens, or otters as pets … yet.

Dr. Free-Ride: Sheesh, I shudder at the thought of all the people who would run out to buy otters as pets if they could, just on the basis of their cute antics.

Elder Free-Ride offspring: But unless you had otter habitats like at the aquarium, it would probably not be fun for the otters at all.

Dr. Free-Ride: I guess the theory behind ferrets as pets is that their needs can be met in a human household with proper attention and care?

Elder Free-Ride offspring: Yep. Except that they’re not legal as pets in California.

Dr. Free-Ride: What do you know about why that is?

Elder Free-Ride offspring: Not that much, yet. But I know how to use Wikipedia and Google, so I think I’ll be able to find out more.

Dr. Free-Ride: You’ll have to be careful and evaluate how reliable the sources you discover are on the subject.

Elder Free-Ride offspring: Yeah. Sometimes when people really want something a certain way, they don’t look at important reasons why things shouldn’t be that way.

Dr. Free-Ride: What other sources of information do you think you could consult about why it’s illegal to keep ferrets as pets here and whether the law makes sense?

Elder Free-Ride offspring: Maybe a zoologist?

Dr. Free-Ride: OK. Possibly some wildlife biologists or ecologists, too. (I may be able to find you a person or two at work.)

Elder Free-Ride offspring: They’re perfectly fine animals, even though some of them have masks.

Dr. Free-Ride: Which ones have masks?

Elder Free-Ride offspring: The black footed ferret has a mask. Also, black feet.

Dr. Free-Ride: Really?

Elder Free-Ride offspring: Hence the name.

Dr. Free-Ride: Well played, sprog!

Elder Free-Ride offspring: Their main food is prairie dogs, and they live on the prairie. As prairie dogs are wiped out, so are the black footed ferrets. People are trying to protect them. They have breed in release programs at sites like Shirley Basin.

Dr. Free-Ride: Where’s that?

Elder Free-Ride offspring: On a prairie somewhere. Maybe in Kansas or one of the Dakotas?

Dr. Free-Ride: Interesting. So the black footed ferret is wild. Which kind of ferret is the domesticated one?

Elder Free-Ride offspring: The domestic ferret.

Dr. Free-Ride: Ah. Domestic ferret is domestic. Do you know anything about when they were domesticated?

Elder Free-Ride offspring: It happened a long time ago, I think in the 1800s. People domesticated them to use them for flushing out and hunting game.

Dr. Free-Ride: Hmmm. So, they’re domesticated predators.

Elder Free-Ride offspring: But they can be friends with other pets like dogs, cats, or rats.

Dr. Free-Ride: But you could see why this might create a problem if a pet ferret had run of a neighborhood, or escaped, or was released into the wild by someone who got tired of taking care of a ferret, yes?

Elder Free-Ride offspring: Yeah, if they’re released into the wild, they might harm native wildlife.

Dr. Free-Ride: And if I ever succeed in getting hens in the backyard, a ferret might well decide …

Elder Free-Ride offspring: OM NOM NOM NOM!

Dr. Free-Ride: Exactly.

Elder Free-Ride offspring: Well, we could keep the ferret inside.

Dr. Free-Ride: OK, you know, I support your learning everything you can about ferrets, and everything you can about the regulations against keeping ferrets as pets in California. Indeed, if the best information you find suggests that the regulations are wrongheaded, I’ll even support your efforts to change these regulations —

Elder Free-Ride offspring: By writing to the governor, and members of the State Senate and Assembly?

Dr. Free-Ride: Yes. But even if the law changes, that does not automatically mean you get to keep a ferret in my house.

* * * * *

Here’s what the California Department of Fish and Game has to say about ferrets and the law against keeping them as pets.

And here’s a typical page from the pro-pet-ferret folks.


  1. #1 LO
    January 29, 2010

    You did not invoke my other chant? “Ferrets are evil, smelly, cowardly, spastic little its!” That spring break I pet-sat for Michelle’s Sid Vicious was an education. He was descented and bathed and perfumed with Obsession (I think that’s what she used) and he still smelled really bad. Plus he was afraid of Rags, a member of a species he was supposed to hunt. And don’t forget what an escape artist he was. I wonder if she ever got that second one she planned to name Nancy.

  2. #2 Jared
    January 29, 2010

    I used to have a ferret, and before this, as a biology student, I was very interested in them. Black footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes) are actually not very closely related to the domestic ferret (Mustela putorius furo

  3. #3 Amanda
    January 29, 2010

    At least two people have kept otters as “pets”, or as companion animals. One of them was Gavin Maxwell, who wrote several haunting books about the experience, particularly Ring of Bright Water but also the sad The Rocks Remain. Ring of Bright Water was made into a movie in 1969, and the movie is very good about showing the otter, although not very close to the book. Not coincidentally, Gavin Maxwell was one of the last people to observe and write about the marsh dwellers of what is now Iraq before the marshes were destroyed and the indigenous cultures and otters with them.

  4. #4 Barbara Carlson
    January 29, 2010

    I fall under the “ferret-friendly” label. I run a ferret shelter in Pittsburgh, PA. Most ferrets have lost their hunting instincts, and while they might kill a mouse they find, most don’t realize it’s food unless they’ve been raised to eat mice from a kit on up.

    Ferrets are highly intelligent and get into a lot of mischief … but they’re awfully cute while doing so. They’re supposed to be as smart as 2 year old children and have a higher brain-to-body ration than dogs and cats. “Two-year-olds with fur” is how I describe them.

  5. #5 Jassmine
    January 29, 2010

    Barbara, I describe my 2 ferrets the same way:)

  6. #6 anna
    January 29, 2010

    Ferrets must be vaccinated for rabies in the states they are legal, and are also extremely prone to adrenal disorders.

  7. #7 Jared
    January 29, 2010

    Barbara, you are correct in that they don’t recognize animals (such as mice) as prey, but they do recognize them as toys. As for them getting into trouble, I can only say that mine had a tendency to steal cell phones…

  8. #8 wrpd
    January 29, 2010

    My ferret had a rubber fetish. He would steal anything in the house made of rubber and hide them under our kitchen sink. Sink stoppers, latex gloves, condoms, latex masks. We caught him with the large stopper from the tub and followed him into the kitchen where we discovered the cache.
    He would nap in the afternoon and then come downstairs where we were sitting and he would greet all three of us in totally different ways. He would rub noses with my younger son, bite on the ear of my older son, and then come and scratch my armpit.

  9. #9 OleanderTea
    February 1, 2010

    I had a ferret right out of college. Came with a boyfriend. Weirdly, the ferret was far more domesticated than the boyfriend. Ferret liked to be bathed (Finesse shampoo made him shiny, smell-free, and fluffy!), so smell was not a problem. Ferret was house-trained, and I taught him to walk on a leash. Ferret also liked my cat, they played together (admittedly in weird ways — cat would open cabinets, ferret would steal things) and were generally entertaining.

    Boyfriend was none of these things. Well, he did bathe, but otherwise…not terribly housebroken or good with others.

    Guess which one I’d take back in a heartbeat? 🙂

    Of course, the ferret had been socialized and saw the vet on a regular basis. And we did have to ferret-proof the apartment. That said, even my landlord didn’t mind the ferret.

    Animal ownership comes with a price, and in many ways it’s a question of what your “ewww!” limits are for your own home. I know any number of cat and dog owners with gross homes, and I truly am revolted by iguanas, mice, hamsters, and snakes as pets.

  10. #10 RM
    February 3, 2010

    Dr. Free-Ride: Hmmm. So, they’re domesticated predators.

    … and what are dogs and cats? Closet autotrophs?

    But you could see why this might create a problem if a pet ferret had run of a neighborhood, or escaped, or was released into the wild by someone who got tired of taking care of a ferret, yes?

    Yeah, unlike all those feral cats and dogs. (Or heck, the non-feral “outside” cats.)

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