As sure as ferrets are ferrets, the little devils are catching on as pets

May 04, 1993|By Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Gerald Levinzon clutches a silver bundle of fur to his chest, peers down at his pet with adoring adolescent eyes and pronounces it "the most perfect ferret in the whole world."

"I'm sure she's an angel," he says. "I'm positive of it. . . . Isn't she cute? Isn't she amazing? Isn't she the most perfect, the most beautiful one you've ever seen?"

His mother, who refused to let the animal in the house at first, now is cooking it borscht and telling visitors in her thick Russian accent that this 16-inch creature, a cousin of the otter and the mink, "is absol-l-l-l-utely gorgeous."

And who could argue? At less than 2 pounds, with soft, sleek fur and a face that is pointed and masked like a raccoon's, it's hard to resist Jessie the ferret as she cavorts in the back yard of the Levinzons' home in Kirkland, Wash.

Americans have become so enamored of the domestic ferret that its population has nearly quadrupled in the past six years. On that, most people agree.

The actual number of ferrets, however, is in dispute. Breeders say there are between 1 million and 2 million nationwide. Ferret fanciers say the number is much higher, about 10 million.

Whatever the case, ferret farms and backyard breeders sell thousands of ferrets a year and have trouble keeping the animals in stock.

"We can't keep up with the demand," said Pete Reid, vice president of Marshall Pet Products in upstate New York, which has one of the largest breeding operations in the country.

On average, ferrets sell for about $150, but people have paid as little as $60 for a common sable or albino, and as much as $500 for a top-notch breeder. With ferret food, cages, harnesses and other supplies, the animals have become a $10-million-a-year industry.

"They're very playful, very silly creatures," said Sally Heber, who owns 40 ferrets and is president of the American Ferret Association Inc. in Frederick.

Admirers liken them to kittens that never grow up, and in recent years they have gone all out to promote their pets.

They bring them to schools and display them at county fairs. They stage elaborate shows and expositions. In Washington state, a group called Ferrets Northwest on Mercer Island sponsors a Ferret Olympics, with events like the 50-foot ferret sprint and the Five Flags Flagpole Race. There are awards for the smartest ferret and the ferret that's fastest to pop a balloon.

Owners cite their therapeutic value and have started taking them to nursing homes to cheer elderly residents. "They make you laugh," Mr. Reid said. "They put you in a good mood."

Still, there are people who say ferrets make poor pets. They warn of bites and say the animals can be dangerous around small children.

In 1991, authorities reported that a 2-month-old infant died in suburban Portland, Ore., after she was attacked in her sleep by a pet ferret. The baby was bitten repeatedly and bled to death.

Five years earlier, the Oregon Health Division had warned parents to be cautious when buying ferrets after an 8-month-old baby was bitten while sleeping in a crib.

Ferret aficionados say these instances are rare, that ferrets are gentle, loving creatures, but, like any animal, they should never be left alone with small children.

And they have worked hard to change the law in states where ferrets are prohibited and deemed a threat to native habitat.

The animals are outlawed in California, Hawaii, Massachusetts and Michigan, as well as in Washington, D.C., and Manhattan.

"I hope they stay that way," said Charlene Drennon, director of the West Coast office of the Humane Society of the United States.

"It's a fad," she says. "The people who want these are the same people who want a baby lion or a nice poisonous snake. . . . They want to be different."

The pet ferret, or Mustela putorious furo, has been domesticated for thousands of years and should not be confused with the wild and nearly extinct black-footed ferret.

Domestic ferrets can be trained to use a litter box, and their musky odor, which some find unpleasant, can be diminished by removing their scent glands.

Ancient Egyptians and Romans trained ferrets to hunt snakes and rodents. Pink-eyed albino ferrets were bred by Queen Victoria to give as gifts to noblemen and women.

They were brought to the United States in the late 19th century to keep granaries and farms free of rats.

Today, they are largely kept as pets.

Twelve-year-old Gerald Levinzon is so smitten with his ferret that his parents say he talks of nothing else. He hugs Jessie and smothers her with kisses as his mother clucks her disapproval. ++ Apparently cooking for a ferret is one thing, intimacy quite another.

But how do you argue with a boy in love?

"She has a great smile," Gerald boasts, tickling Jessie's tummy and burying his nose in her fur. "C'mon, sweetheart. Show us your pearly whites."

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