Businesswoman finds the time in busy life to be savior of ferrets

NEIGHBORS

July 13, 2000|By Joni Guhne | Joni Guhne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WHEN IT COMES to ferrets, Donna Austin of Cape St. Claire has a pet peeve: Don't use the word "own." Ferrets are to "have" - and to hold. And as long as you're going to have a ferret, why stop there?

"When I meet someone who says, `I have a ferret,' my only thought is, `How can anyone have just one?' They're like potato chips; you can't have just one," she says.

Over the past seven years, Austin has indulged, caring for as many as 19 formerly homeless ferrets at a time. "I don't know what it is about them that makes them so appealing," she says, "but they are."

It started when one of Austin's grown sons realized he had too many pets and wondered if his mother would like two ferrets. She had two cats and worked 18-hour days running her computer and craft businesses - the latter involving items with ferret themes.

Still, she agreed to adopt the ferrets. "At that moment," she says, "my life changed completely."

Despite other obligations, Austin says, "My purpose is to take care of homeless ferrets." At last count, Austin's two patient cats are housemothers to 15 ferrets.

The ability to work around the clock enabled Austin to raise three children on her own, first while working in word processing, then as a computer specialist. She taught computer science in Fairfax, Va., schools, and to employees for businesses.

For the past five years, she's been a computer instructor at Anne Arundel Community College.

While animal lovers will tell you that the little bandit-faced comedians are the third most-popular pet in the United States, after dogs and cats, it's illegal to (pardon the expression) own them in Hawaii, California and the District of Columbia. These jurisdictions consider ferrets to be wild animals. And, in ancient times, they were.

Austin shakes her head at this notion. "They've been domesticated longer than cats, and they can't possibly survive outside on their own," she says. "They have to be cared for by a human.

"When I get home [after work], I can guarantee about three hours of chaos. It's fun and chaotic, but it makes me feel that I'm doing something positive."

Her first chore is to clean up after the animals, whose bathroom habits are as uncontrolled as their inquisitiveness. When she's at home, the ferrets have the run of the house. Their favorite games are inspecting shelves, cabinets and boxes, and chasing one another through plastic tubing Austin spreads across the carpet.

While the games are in progress, the foster parent prepares special food for the ferrets on restricted diets and administers medicine to the sick. The rest of the evening is spent playing with the little creatures, whose personalities demand lots of human interaction.

Their medical and dietary needs inspired Austin to start another business - selling Ferrets & Friends, a natural pet food for dogs, cats and ferrets from one of her two Web sites.

"It's not a matter of if they're going to get sick, but when," Austin says.

In their brief lives, which average about four years, ferrets are likely to develop cancer, requiring medicine, special diets and surgery. In seven years, she's buried 12 ferrets. In her back yard, a tiny cemetery is surrounded by a little white fence, each grave marked with a name and verse.

For the ferrets, homelessness ends at Austin's door.

"I don't adopt my ferrets out," she says, "because change is too hard on them. They tend to go into deep depression and can die."

On top of spending most of her spare time catering to their demands, it's safe to say that most of her income goes to ferret care and maintenance. She recently took two to the veterinarian, where each required surgery, one major, one minor. "The bill was more than $800," she says.

But Austin is not complaining. Like the dedicated parent of a troublesome youngster, she loves her pets and doesn't begrudge them the time or expense.

Even with her computer business, called A Better Choice, and her craft and pet-care endeavors, the indefatigable Austin began to wonder last year what she would do for the rest of her life. "I'm 55 years old," she says she said to herself, "and if I'm going to do something, I'd better do it now."

The something turned out to be the fulfillment of a 30-year-old dream - to own a deli or pizza shop, something small enough to operate by herself. Since she also wanted to be outdoors, she turned to the Internet for manufacturers of mobile kitchens.

She selected an Ohio company, Fibrecore Trailers, and ordered a custom 15-foot portable kitchen. Referring to herself as a "mobile caterer," Austin prepares everything from hot dogs to bourbon chicken in the kitchen, equipped with a cook top, griddle, deep fryer, refrigerator and freezer.

As much as she enjoys this new venture, she won't take catering jobs that are more than an hour and a half's drive from home. Why? "Who is going to pet-sit for you when you have 17 pets?" she says.

She suggests that people with questions or those interested in adopting a ferret call All About Bandit Ferret Rescue and Shelter in Crownsville at 410-923-2417. The director is Carol Scott.

Austin is also happy to answer questions about ferrets. Call her at 410-626-7707 or visit her Web site at www.ferretsandfriends.com.

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