Political asylum for misunderstand creature?
Tom is careful about who he invites to his home. He doesn’t talk about his private life freely. In fact, Tom isn’t even his real name. Why the cloak-and-dagger routine? It’s all to protect his three illegal roommates – Banshee, Chica and Kia.
For 66 years their kind has been persona non grata in the Golden State. They have been called wild, possibly dangerous and likely to harm small children. Biologists claim that letting them weasel their way across the state line will upset nature’s delicate balance. All this trouble is wrapped in a furry inquisitive package called Mustela furo – more commonly known as ferrets.
Only Hawaii joins California in its ban on the popular pet. Owning a ferret is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Assemblyman Jim Cunneen, D-Los Altos, wants to bring California ferret lovers out of hiding. Cunneen’s bill, which is awaiting approval by the appropriations committee, would legalize the possession of ferrets owned on or before April 20. The critters would be required to have a rabies shot and be spayed or neutered. The bill would also commission a study to determine whether ferrets are a wild or domesticated animal.
Tom scoffs at the idea that his three pets could be considered wild.
“They have been domesticated since the time of ancient Egypt,” he said. “There is no way one of my babies could survive if they got out. They have to eat every three hours and they wouldn’t recognize mice as food. It’s ridiculous to call them a wild animal.”
Supporters of ferret legalization point to the other 48 states that allow the pets and have no wild ferret populations.
Tom said his ferrets play like kittens and follow him around like dogs.
“They are wonderful pets. They can be very fun to watch because they just love to play,” he said.
Tom isn’t the only one to harbor fugitive ferrets in South Lake Tahoe. Pet stores carry ferret specific products. Alpine Animal Hospital’s advertisement reads ferrets welcome.
Veterinarian Kevin Willitts said there is a large underground of ferret owners in California, and several live in South Shore.
“I don’t currently have any ferrets, but I’ve lived in California for 20 years and owned ferrets during most of that time,” he said. “I don’t treat as many ferrets as I would like. I believe the law still inhibits some of that.”
It is not illegal for veterinarians to treat ferrets, just own them. Willitts added that although the pets are illegal several large veterinary hospitals in California not only treat ferrets but also have specialists on staff.
“Fish and Game classified them as a wild animal and they’re not. They are domestic,” he said.
Dave Bezzone, California Fish and Game warden for South Lake Tahoe, said in his 2 1/2 tenure no South Lake Tahoe resident has been fined or prosecuted for ferret ownership.
“If we get a complaint we have to act on it. We try to work with the people and have them send the animal back to a state that allows ferrets. As long as the people comply, we don’t take action,” Bezzone said. “The couple of times I’ve had complaints, people have been more than willing to comply.”
Bezzone said that Fish and Game biologists’ worries that escaped ferrets would start feral colonies doesn’t really apply to the lake.
“Conditions up here would prevent them from ever establishing themselves, but in Southern California I would occasionally come across a ferret in the wild. It was always just one, never an active colony,” he explained.
Regardless of the possible impact, Bezzone said until the law changes there is no real legal option for a ferret to be in California. Bob Hines, chief of staff for Cunneen, said the assemblyman feels the ban on ferrets is “odd and bizarre.”
“The bill is grandfathering in existing ferrets, and in compromise we are also requiring the study. Twenty percent of all ferret pet food is sold in California. Clearly we have a large underground of ferret owners in California already. And it has caused no adverse effect,” Hines said.
– Ferrets live 5 to 10 years. Males range from 3 to 5 pounds and can grow to 16 inches in length. Females weigh in from 1 1/2 to 3 pounds and can reach 14 inches.
– They have color vision, but poor eyesight. They do have acute hearing, smell and touch.
– Their flexible skeletal and muscular structure allows them access to amazingly small, cramped areas. In general, if the ferret can fit its head through, the body can follow.
– Queen Elizabeth often gave Albino ferrets as royal gifts.
– Ferrets are thought to have been brought to America by settlers. They were used aboard ships to keep down the rat populations.
Information provided by the California Domestic Ferret Association.
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