California Ferret Owners Want Their Pets Legalized

SACRAMENTO (AP) — California’s ferret owners are tired of being criminals.

They live in the only U.S. state besides Hawaii that bans residents from keeping ferrets as pets, forcing an untold number of Californians to keep their beloved weasels hidden from the public.

But these renegade ferret lovers have no plans to abandon their long, furry friends. Instead, they’re ramping up their campaign to persuade lawmakers, wildlife regulators and the public that it’s time to overturn a ban that’s been in place for nearly 80 years.

“There is no reason the ownership of the domesticated ferret should be illegal in California,” said Pat Wright, who heads the Legalize Ferrets campaign, told the California Fish and Game Commission in February. “These guys are part of our family. The pet-human bond is a strong one, and you’re stepping on it.”

State wildlife regulators say escaped or discarded ferrets could establish feral populations and threaten native wildlife, such as nesting birds, rabbits and squirrels.

“We are already overrun with nonnative species in the state of California,” said Jim Kellogg, the commission’s president. “There’s no reason for us to legalize one more animal that could come into California and do damage to our native species.”

Wildlife officials say ferrets also pose a threat to small children, pointing to reports that a four-month-old baby in Missouri had several fingers chewed off by his family’s pet ferret in January.

Despite the ban, California is believed to have more ferrets than any other state. The pet industry estimates that about a quarter of the nation’s ferret care supplies are sold in California, where ferret owners can have their pets confiscated and be prosecuted for a criminal misdemeanor.

Kellogg says the state should enforce the ban on ferrets and even the sale of ferret supplies, but the Department of Fish and Game just doesn’t have the resources for strong enforcement.

“We know they’re here,” Kellogg said, but the state’s overstretched game wardens “have way more important issues than cracking down on ferrets.”

A member of the weasel family, ferrets are playful carnivores that are believed to have been domesticated more than 2,000 years ago. Until recently, they were mainly used for hunting and pest control.

Many U.S. states used to prohibit ferrets, but most of those bans were lifted over the past 25 years as the slinky-like creatures became increasingly popular pets.

California’s community of underground ferret owners is fighting to changing that. They say they’re tired of having to keep their pets secret and live with the constant fear that their weasels could be taken away.

Many owners have had their ferrets confiscated by law enforcement after an angry neighbor, co-worker or family member reported them to state authorities, said Debby Greatbanks, a member of Sacramento-based West Coast Ferrets.

“All it takes is one phone call to ruin a ferret owner’s day,” said Greatbanks, who has a permit to house confiscated or discarded ferrets and transport them out of state. “Just going through your routine day, you have to keep your ferrets underground. You don’t know who to tell.”

California ferret owners have been pushing for legalization for more than 20 years, but so far have failed to convince state wildlife regulators and lawmakers to take ferrets off the list of prohibited wild animals.

In 2004, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed legislation that would have decriminalized ferret ownership in California.

At the request of wildlife officials, the legalization campaign commissioned a recent California State University, Sacramento study, which concluded ferrets pose little danger to the state’s wildlife, environment or people, except infants and small children. The 177-page report found that domesticated ferrets can only survive in the wild a few days, no feral colony has been found in the U.S. and ferrets are much less dangerous that dogs.

But the fish and game commission said the study did not meet the standards for triggering a formal review of legalization.

Advocates are arguing that legalizing ferrets could give an economic boost to cash-strapped California by providing tax revenues from sales of ferrets, which cost about $150 each. They say the vast majority of ferrets sold in neighboring states end up in California, which loses out on those sales.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that the sale of pet ferrets would generate an economic benefit for the state,” said Michael Maddox, vice president of government affairs for the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council.

But even if they can’t overturn the ban, California ferret owners say they have no plans to give up their beloved pets.

Jeremy Trimm said he’s been fascinated with ferrets since he saw the 1982 film “The Beastmaster” as a kid. He got his first ones when he lived in Indiana several years ago and couldn’t give them up when he moved back to his native California. He currently keeps six of them at his home near Sacramento.

“They come into your life and you can’t get rid of them,” Trimm said. “They are the most incredible, happy creatures that you’ll ever meet.”

(© Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

  • TT

    I had a ferret and a rotweiler that used to play together – with my children…. And for our family, its was awsome and had no issues… That Ferret lived tilabout 6 years old – which i believe their lifespan is only 4 or so?

  • bruce

    Ferrets should be leagalized before illegal aliens! At least ferrets don’t bring down property values or quality of life.

  • Caroline

    I am shocked that Arnold Schwarzenegger of all people would veto the bill. A ferret was his co-star in Kindergarten Cop! Unless he has something against them from the filming, I don’t get it. He knows they can be trained and valuable pet family members. Those who have birds of prey (via the proper licensing and permits of course) also utilize them in hunting, as were their intention. How utterly unbelievable.

  • CaliEmsLuvr

    I had a ferret for 8years until he died. He was the most sweet And gentle animal!! Like any animal it’s how you raise them and interact with them, like dogs and cats how ever domesticated they are still animals! Yea how sad it chewed off a 4month olds fingers, BUT WHERE ARE THE PARENTS!!!! Dogs bite people more then ferrets!! A recent study showed that 1,000 Americans per day are treated in emergency rooms as a result of dog bites. In 2010 there were 34 fatal dog attacks in the USA. As a Emergency Medicine Professional we see more dog,cat and human bites then any other bites! California doesn’t have money for this and that but has money to fight this? They can pull officers off of the messed up streets to take someones ferret? is this a joke?

  • Genevieve

    I completely agree, but he vetoed the bill I believe because Ferrets Anon. had not done an environmental impact report yet and he wanted one before he approved the bill. Ferrets Anon. did one and they pose /no threat/ to the environment.
    Its crazy, I mean there are hundreds of dog attacks a year and thirty or more are fatal and theres maybe one..two ferret attacks? Dogs pose a much greater impact on the environmental, should we make them illegal?

  • chimp

    Who the fok cares about ferrets, normal people don’t have ferrets as pets…

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