The Fight to Legalize Ferrets in California

Advocates push to overturn state ferret ban, argue pets don't pose threat to wildlife

Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park was packed, gray-haired hippies in tie-dye swaying to a Grateful Dead tribute band, the scent of marijuana heavy in the air. Tents around the perimeter peddled food, jewelry and the like — but one tent was a little different.

Photo of FerretPhoto by LynahePossession of ferrets has been illegal in California since 1933.

Three women stood gathering signatures, selling t-shirts and buttons with slogans like “Occupy California” and “Enemy of the State.” Each item featured a small weasel-like creature, the furry emblems of their cause: to quote from another button, “Free the fucking ferrets.”

Importation and possession of Mustela putorius furo has been illegal in California since 1933, though ferrets are allowed in zoos and research labs. This ban is driven primarily by fear that escaped ferrets would prey on native birds and other small animals. After years of unsuccessful government lobbying, these three activists and others like them are petitioning to put ferrets on the November 2016 ballot.

Perhaps the closest to success the legalization movement has come in three decades of advocacy was Senate Bill 89, which made it through the legislature onto then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk in 2004. The bill proposed amnesty to ferrets already in the state — no small number, estimates ranging wildly from 30,000 to one million — on the condition they were vaccinated for rabies and sterilized. SB 89 would also have allocated funds towards an environmental impact report (EIR) to determine the ecological consequences of legalization.

Schwarzenegger terminated the bill. “I love ferrets,” he wrote in his official veto message. “I co-starred with a ferret in ‘Kindergarten Cop.’” But he found the bill “too bureaucratic,” and believed such action should not be taken without conducting an EIR first.

No EIR is required to put a ferret measure in front of California voters, but a spot on the ballot must be earned through other means: 365,880 signatures. (A quarter of that number would at least guarantee a hearing in the state legislature). The ferret legalization initiative estimates it has collected around 10,000 signatures so far, and campaigners say they have until February 9 to close the gap. While they admitted that’s a long shot, advocates said their primary goal has been to build awareness.

The Golden State Ferret Society, which meets monthly in Hayward, is the movement’s Bay Area wing. The group pushes for legalization at petition booths outside of pet stores and, apparently, at Grateful Dead tribute concerts. They will be rallying outside of state assemblyman Marc Levine’s San Rafael office on February 19, pressuring him to meet with them.

When not advocating policy change, the society also rescues ferrets in need. Often the original guardians of these animals can no longer care for them, or they fear their pets have been reported to the government. On occasion, the group works with Animal Control to relocate captured ferrets out of state. They do not keep official membership records, and many members are hesitant to give out their full names for fear that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife might confiscate their pets.

“I don’t want the department to be seen like the bad guy,” said Jordan Traverso, deputy director of communications, education and outreach for Fish and Wildlife. “We do understand that these are a group of people that don’t want to be breaking the law and also we respect that, but we’ve got our job to do.”

Ferrets fall under the Fish and Wildlife department’s purview because, as a non-native species, they are a potential threat to indigenous fauna. For the domesticated ferret, Traverso says, “the likelihood of that risk is not really very significant,” and ferrets “aren’t a top priority” for the department.

Still, the risk to birds in particular has led the department to oppose past legalization efforts, sometimes joined by environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and Audubon Society. (Fish and Wildlife has not taken an official stance on the current petition campaign.)

While ferrets are occasionally confiscated by Fish and Wildlife, Traverso stressed that this is uncommon. “I’ve been there eight years and I don’t remember a single ferret, though I’m not saying it doesn’t happen,” she said. Fish and Wildlife would only act on a ferret in the case of a complaint, or if the keeper had more concerning illegal animals as well. Multiple Golden State Ferret Society members say they or people they know have had close encounters with the law.

Once, when advocates threatened to bring their pets to a Fish and Wildlife meeting — to “show the commission, you know, how adorable they were or whatever,” recounted Traverso — the department in turn threatened to seize any ferrets who showed up. The activists ended up leaving their illicit companions home, Traverso recalled.

Donna Hazelwood, vice president of Golden State Ferret Society, has 16 ferrets.  That’s too many, she acknowledged. “You can’t give them the attention and love that they need,” she said. But with no in-state shelter or adoption programs, she said, she often takes them in when people can’t take care of them anymore. “They miss their people” at first, she explained, and can take a while to adjust to their new home. 

“If they were legal,” she added, “other people would take them, but people are afraid.” Golden State Ferret society also transports ferrets  to Nevada, where ferrets are legal, as they are in every state except California and Hawaii. (Some individual cities and counties, including New York City, also have restrictions in place.)

“I’d be devastated if my animal was taken away from me,” Hazelwood said. She fears that, if captured, her ferrets could be put to death.

When animals are confiscated, Traverso said, “euthanasia is never our first choice… Seizing people’s pets and killing them is not our game.” Instead, most are relocated. A recent example: In June, 16 ferrets were confiscated in Santa Ana after local Animal Services received an anonymous tip, according to The Orange County Register. A county animal control official told the Register the animals would not be euthanized, but would likely be moved to a sanctuary out of state.

Hoping to increase support for their cause, pro-ferret groups reached out to Sacramento State University biologist G.O. Graening, and provided funding for him to analyze the potential impact of domesticated ferrets on California ecosystems, domestic chickens, and human health and safety. His findings were released in 2010.

Key to this analysis is an understanding of the ferret itself. Pet ferrets, nicknamed “carpet sharks” or “fuzzies,” are usually classified as a domesticated subspecies of the European polecat (Mustela putorius), although this taxonomy is debated. Graening’s research suggests ferrets have been domesticated for at least two thousand years. Graening was not available to comment for this story.

Fish and Wildlife’s website asserts, “Given the opportunity, free-roaming domestic ferrets are a threat to poultry.” Graening found that, historically, this might have been true, and he wrote that “the literature documents that ferrets may have impacted European poultry production, especially in the late 19th and early 20th century,” But most US chicken production has moved indoors, he added, so Graening doesn’t predict ferret legalization would have a serious impact today.

Rabies is another worry, but due to effective vaccinations, Graening noted this concern has also become less pressing over time. Ferrets can still attack humans, but “the frequency of ferret bites has not been demonstrated to be greater than the rates for dogs or cats,” he wrote. He quoted American hunter, trapper and writer A. R. Harding, who wrote in 1915 that ferrets “are capable only of partial domestication,” and “never cease to be dangerous … especially where infants are within their reach.” But Graening’s report suggested that here the answer might be warnings at points of sale, or, “more radically,” a ban from homes with babies, frail elderly, or handicapped persons vulnerable to being bitten. 

A New York District court in 1995 and a California Appeals Court in 2003 both prominently cited the threat of rabies and attacks on babies in decisions upholding ferret bans, though they also mentioned concern for native wildlife. 

While Graening concluded that human health and agriculture were unlikely to be affected by legalization, he added that the potential threat to wild birds and other wildlife needs further study. There are no confirmed cases of a feral ferret colony in North America, he wrote, though there may once have been one in Washington’s San Juan Islands that has since died out. Feral ferrets did set up a breeding colony in New Zealand, but it is unclear, according to Graening, whether California (or any other place on this continent) has the necessary conditions for feral ferrets to set up a long-running breeding colony that could detrimentally affect native species or ecosystems as a whole.

Advocates say that their pets don’t have the survival skills to establish a feral breeding colony, and thus pose no threat. They also remind that the change in law they are proposing would require ferrets to be spayed and neutered.

Traverso said her department’s mission is wildlife, rather than domestic animals, adding that Fish and Wildlife has no interest in allocating its limited time or funding to an EIR over an issue they see as a distraction. She also notes that dogs and especially cats — despite being domesticated — have managed to form feral colonies and harm wildlife.

Asked what advice she would have for ferret advocates, she said, “I wouldn’t want to give someone political advice. As far as being a ferret owner in this state, I would have to advise against it because it’s illegal.” 

Hazelwood of the Golden State Ferret Society said she has no intention of giving up her “fuzzies.”

“You can be having the worst day of your life, and let them out to play and play with them, and it’ll brighten your day,” she said. “Cats and dogs don’t compare to ferrets. I think they’re more intelligent. Certainly more fun.”

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