Ferret Love

You're a reporter. Your editor wants someone on the staff to do a story about ferrets and the people who love them. Amazingly, there are no takers.

So she leans on you, no doubt because she knows damn well that you don't particularly like pets. Dogs, cats, gerbils, even ferrets if you had ever given them a thought, which you certainly hadn't.

You're a team player. You suck it up and take the assignment.

But the idea of talking to people who really, really like ferrets is...if not exactly daunting, it's not something you eagerly anticipate.

You meet some ferret folks, and they seem like nice enough people, but still you put off, for as long as humanly possible, picking up the phone to talk ferrets. Finally deadline pressures force you to make the call.

And you hear this voice message: "Hello, you've reached the house of Prince Vladimir Poopin. I'm not in, and neither are my minions Noni and Dave. Please leave a message."

Good Lord, you think. Is it too late to switch to a feature story on sewage-line cost overruns?

A fellow reporter hears your groans, asks what's up and then says, "Dude, you've got to record that message and put it in your story."

He's right, of course. So you call back, inexpressibly happy that you won't have to actually talk ferrets right now. And that's when things go horribly, horribly wrong.

Noni answers the phone.

"Oh, umm, hi," you say. ("Can you hang up so I can record that crazy voice message?" you don't say.)

You take a deep breath, put on a happy face and steel yourself to talk about the cheery, happy, wonderful world of ferrets.

"So, how's ol' Prince Vladimir Poopin doing?" you ask, managing to work up a friendly chuckle.

"Oh...Well, he died this morning." ("Good CHRIST, can I catch a break with this story?" you somehow manage not to scream.)

"Geez, I'm sorry to hear that." (Please, please, make it not be a sad, drawn-out, depressing death.)

"Yes, he had bone-marrow cancer." (So much for that wish.) "He slipped into a coma, and now he's gone."

By now you realize that the gods are toying with you here, so there's nothing to do but plunge in and get the whole thing over with. Luckily Noni Clark, like almost all ferret owners, is used to them dying — or at least as used to it as you can get when it concerns a pet you truly love.

She, like other Houston ferret people, thinks so much of her critters, and so wants to spread the word about them, that she's able to put aside her sadness and speak about what great pets ferrets make.

She also e-mails some pictures of Prince Vladimir Poopin. By then you've told your wife the story of the disastrous introduction, so you forward the pictures to her.

And she, instantly smitten, starts making ominous rumblings about getting a ferret.

Freaking ferrets. They're insidious. Their cuteness conquers all. It makes people forget the high price of keeping them, measured in both vets' bills and time spent entertaining them. It trumps the fact that you're going to be spending a lot of time cleaning up ferret shit. It blinds you to the realization that you're loving a weasel.

"I call them the 'Thief of Hearts,'" Clark says. "They will steal your heart, but they will also break it pretty bad when they go. Next year I'll have to get another to replace Vladi."

So be it. There are some hard-core ferret lovers in Houston, and you just have to get used to it. They rhapsodize over how ferrets are playful, affectionate, funny and intelligent. They know their hobby isn't for everyone, but it'll be a cold day in hell before you take away their cuties.

Ferrets have long been a big thing in the Northeast, where thousands of fans will attend conventions that include costume shows and the ferret equivalent of beauty pageants. Here in Texas, the ferret love has been a little slow in coming.

"We got our first in 1985, and we were one of the rarities," says Jimi Hummel. "In Houston, it didn't really hit the general market until about 1988 or so."

The online meet-up site for Houston ferret owners has about 150 members; about 50 are truly active in attending events and trading news and tips, says Jack Murray, president of the Houston Area Ferret Association.

Hummel and her husband Gail are maybe the biggest ferret lovers in town — for many years they've been rescuing strays (and keeping them, if they can't find someone to adopt). They've probably had more than 600 ferrets pass through their League City house in the past 22 years, Jimi says. They've had as many as 25 at a time.