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.

That's a lot of ferrets.

Why so many rescues? Because as cute and cuddly as they may be, owning a ferret does have some drawbacks.

To begin with, it's illegal. Not in Houston, where they are considered "caged animals," but in several other towns such as Pasadena.

The main drawback, however, is that loving a ferret takes a lot of work. Before we get to how adorable they are and how much they're worth it, let's take a look at the downside of ferret ownership.

• They smell.

"They do have an odor to them — it's a little musty, but it's not bad," says ­Hummel.

Well, maybe. Let's just say when you enter a ferret owner's house, you know you're in a ferret owner's house.

Susan Brown, a vet who's a leading expert on ferrets, doesn't understand the fuss. "I have had a number of people that have complained about ferret odor and I have personally 'smelled' the pet and noticed nothing offensive," she writes on a popular ferret Web site. "Personally, I find the 'odor' of the ferret to be quite warm, earthy and friendly and not at all offensive, and I know many people who would agree with me."

And you, reader, know many people who would disagree with her. Take our word for it.

• They're expensive.

A new ferret, if you decide to buy rather than adopt, can cost anywhere from $99 to $300, says HAFA president Murray. (Rare ferrets can cost much more.) But that's not where the big expense comes in.

"I tell everyone who asks me that they need to have at least $1,000 in an emergency fund," he says. "And that's beyond the $100 or so you're spending annually on shots and examinations. These guys are so curious and get into everything, and they are going to end up seeing a vet more than once a year."

Ferrets also have a disturbing tendency to get sick. Adrenal surgery is commonly needed at some point, and it can run up to $600.

"About five years ago, I spent in one year $12,000 in ferret rescue medical funds," says Noni Clark, who for years took in strays and ferrets whose owners decided to get rid of them.

Ferret owners really hate people who get a ferret without realizing how much it will cost them.

Hummel rescued one ferret that she saw being tossed from a truck. "This guy didn't want to keep it anymore and he thought he had someone who would take it off his hands, but when he went to the house there was no one there, so he just threw it out the window," she says.

• They demand attention.

Ferrets may sleep up to 20 hours a day, but when they're up, they want you playing with them. And if you're not playing with them, they are getting into every hole, crevice or dark spot in the house.

Ferret owners love this aspect of them. They call it playfulness. Others, experiencing torn-up carpet, lost car keys, endless searches for a ferret who has somehow gotten into some impossible-to-reach place, may find it more frustrating.

"People think they're like hamsters and can just be left running around in a cage," Clark says. "But they need to be entertained or they can get depressed and die."

Oh, and ferrets tend to bite, especially when they're young and not yet used to their owners.

• They can't really be house-trained.

"There's a lot of cleaning up poop," Murray says. "If there was a way to make money off ferret poop, we'd really be set."

Generally, it's a 50-50 chance whether or not a ferret will hit the litter box. So there are a lot of laminated floors in the homes of ferret owners.

Clark says her ferrets are pretty well trained ("If they miss, they'll go on the tile next to the litter box"), but that doesn't mean she's safe. "Especially if I go out of town, they'll mess right by the toilet as a protest of my leaving," she says. "They know the first thing I hit when I get home is the toilet, so they take revenge."

• They'll die on you.

A ferret's lifespan is only six to nine years. "They can be the best of pets," Clark says, "but they can be the worst of pets, too, because they don't live so long."

Murray says lifespans are getting shorter — "the diseases seem to be kicking in a little quicker" — but there's not a lot of research into why.

"If the drug companies or the vaccine companies felt they could get a return on their investment, they'd do something, but they don't think it's worth it," he says.

All right, already — enough with the ferret problems. With all the negatives, why do people put up with them?

"The main things I dig about ferrets are their cleverness and laziness, which combine to make for interesting personalities," says D.A. Smith of Houston, owner of Tim Finnegan (Dr. Oliver Long Ghost, his other ferret, recently passed away). "A beast that can spend approximately 18 hours a day sleeping in weird places (desk drawers, under the couch, kitchen cabinets), then wake up to do things ranging from stealing and hiding your TV remote to having a good time playing with a plastic bag to eating the nuts out of a bag of Almond Joys they stashed under your couch without being noticed to simply stretching out on the floor and doing nothing, strikes me as a pretty fun animal to hang around with."

"You can't have a bad day once you get home," Clark says. "They're playing and giggling, and then they go off and do their own thing."

"I love 'em, I wouldn't trade them for the world," says Emily Price, who, along with her roommate Ellen McNamee, owns Widget, Xeno and Zep.

Let's face it — ferrets can be pretty damn cute. They have long, stretchy bodies, expressive faces, they don't bark or make loud noises, they put up with their owners dressing them in silly costumes.

They are, as animals go, intelligent. They can learn to unzip purses, they can stack boxes to help them climb to areas you wish they wouldn't, they can respond to their names.

They have different personalities. Some are feisty, some laid-back; some play well with other pets, some are strictly ­territorial.

But it's the bonding that draws in the owners, the playtime and antics that help to deepen the connection that ferret people rave about.

As animals go, ferrets aren't all that productive in the great scheme of things. They are pretty helpless out in the wild, with limited homing instincts, absolutely no predatory skills and a constant need for water and food.

"Never, ever let your ferret loose and think it's going to come back," says Sheila Fudge. "Because if you do, you've just lost an expensive animal."

If you haven't found your ferret in 72 hours, he's pretty much lost forever. (A helpful hint from the official HAFA information packet: "Call the animal control officer. If ferrets are illegal in your area, be very careful when you contact animal control. You might even tell them you are ferret-sitting for a friend. We would back you up. So would many ferret guardians.")

Their domesticated ways — which go back, some say, to the ancient Egyptians — don't mean ferrets are completely ­useless.

In England they're used to control rabbits. Ferrets will gladly run down a rabbit hole, and when the rabbit — not knowing it has nothing to fear from a ferret — runs to the other opening of the tunnel, it's nabbed by nets. Ferrets have been placed on ships to keep rats from straying from the bilge.

And ferrets have helped society in other ways. Builders of big aircraft, like World War II bombers, couldn't figure out a way to string wires and cables down long, tiny stretches of tubes. So they attached a cable to a ferret and sent him running.

Not to mention the alleged sport of "ferret-legging." There's some controversy as to whether it exists at all, but in the north of England men are said to compete by putting two ferrets in their pants, tying up the legs so they can't escape, and then seeing who can last the longest.

Try that with a Great Dane.

From the outside, the far westside home of Jack and Sherry Murray looks pretty much like any other on the block. Once you get inside, though, things are different.

The stuffed toy animals, for instance. As in hundreds of stuffed toy animals. Bears in costume, a four-foot-high giraffe and a bald eagle grasping a snake, its five-foot wingspan hanging from the ceiling.

There are cages for lizards. There's a display case with stuffed animals and the ashes of five (former) family pets.

And then there are the ferret rooms. Blocked off with 30-inch barriers at the doorway, the three rooms feature floors lined with easy-to-clean laminated material, vast arrays of cages, tubes winding around everywhere, toys, and lots of ferrets climbing, jumping, exploring, playing, getting into every and any space.

And one of these ferret rooms is the main bedroom, where Jack and Sherry sleep. They dutifully climb over the barrier and keep an eye out so they don't step on or roll over onto any random ferrets. They don't keep any clothes in the drawers because the ferrets will get into them, so they have to go elsewhere to get dressed. And the room, of course, gives off that notable ferret smell.

They do not find any of this unusual.

"My wife grew up on a farm, so she's always been around animals," Jack says.

Their first ferret was Bandit, who was abandoned and sick when they took him in. "I probably spent a couple grand on Bandit trying to save him," Jack says. "He died last year."

Like many ferret owners, they find that their collection grows. "This time of year you get some where the kid is going away to college and the parents don't want to take care of it," he says. "As long as I can financially deal with it, I'm not in a rush to find homes for them after they get here."

He's got 15 ferrets in the house right now. A $50, 14-pound bag of food lasts two weeks.

When it comes to deciding whether to get rid of them, though, he says "Money's pretty much not the obstacle. It's just that you get so attached to these guys. You're always playing with them, picking them up, just always interacting with them. They're like kids, like two-year-olds."

Murray has built a five-foot long-boat for the ferrets to play in. He's taken it to the animal parade in Galveston that's held in conjunction with Mardi Gras. It's one of the times where Houston ferret owners dress up their pets and put them on ­display.

So far, there haven't been any large-scale ferret shows in the area.

"I've talked to the American Ferret Association and they'd like us to put together a show here, but you need 7,000-10,000 square feet and a year in advance to put it on," he says. "They'd love for us to do it, but I'm not sure we could pull it off yet."

Instead, HAFA spreads the ferret word by giving talks at the SPCA and local libraries. As many as 150 kids and parents show up to hear Jimi Hummel talk about ferrets.

On a recent weekday, 50 or so packed a room at the Spring Branch library to see Cimarron, Hot Dog, Gizmo, Lil Pal and a handful of others. Including Cici, who's deaf. (Deaf ferrets are a specialty for some owners.)

Ferrets are not rodents, Hummel tells the kids, and they are not mean.

(She doesn't tell them about ferret depression. In addition to being kept too long in a cage, any change, or the loss of a ferret they've bonded with, can make them stop eating and become lethargic.)

She tries to emphasize the need to ferret-proof your house before you bring home your pet. One of the leading causes of ferret death, according to the Ferret Lovers' Club of Texas, is the recliner. It may look like a comfy chair to you, but to a ferret it's a death trap.

"Ferrets love to crawl inside them, and once opened or closed by a human, the ferret will get crushed," the club warns. "Recliners should always be in the upright position when ferrets are running loose!"

"I won't have a recliner in the house," Hummel says.

It's just another sacrifice ferret owners gladly make to keep their pets from going to the Rainbow Bridge, which is ferret-speak for being dead.

The library presentations aren't aimed strictly at urging people to adopt or buy ferrets. Ferret owners know that not everyone is cut out to handle the demands. But they want acceptance for their hobby.

They're appalled that ferrets are still banned as pets in places. Don't mention Rudy Giuliani to them, whatever you do.

In 1999 some members of the New York City Council began talking about lifting the ban on ferret ownership. Giuliani, then mayor of the city, was opposed to the move, because of concerns of ferrets biting humans, spreading rabies or colonizing in the wild and affecting other animal ­populations.

Ferret activist David Guthartz called Giuliani's weekly radio show to complain. He'd been bugging the mayor's office for a while, apparently, and Rudy was no longer going to take it.

"The excessive concern you have for ferrets is something you should examine with a therapist, not with me," he said on the radio.

He then cut Guthartz off, but continued the lecture: "There is something really, really, very sad about you. You need help. You need somebody to help you. I know you feel insulted by that, but I'm being honest with you. This excessive concern with little weasels is a sickness."

He's not the only politician to disappoint ferret owners. The animals are also banned in California, but hopes were high when Arnold Schwarzenegger, who shared scenes with a ferret in Kindergarten Cop, won the governorship.

"We really thought he would do something, but so far he hasn't," Murray says sadly.

To be disappointed, though, is part of being a ferret owner. The little guys are going to worm their way into your heart, you're going to spend endless hours playing with them and then they're headed for the Rainbow Bridge.

But ferret owners don't look at it as a sad thing. They enjoy the time together, deal with the inevitable end and keep the memories alive.

Any sadness is worth it, to them, for the moments of mischief and cuteness, for those looks from those adorable eyes, for the endless surprises that come from ferret ingenuity.

Sure, some people will find it odd that anyone has 25 weasels in their house, all of them demanding attention, most of them missing the litter box, some of them tearing up or knocking over some valued item thought to be safe.

But these ferret owners are, in the main, normal people. They just like ferrets. (A lot.) And who is anyone to judge, even a pet-disliking reporter forced into an assignment?

The time has come to take the formal-looking pictures that accompany the feature. A half-dozen or so ferret owners, true to their friendly nature, agree to come downtown to the Houston Press offices to get photographed.

The ferrets are extremely well-behaved. A couple of them run off and hide in the nooks and crannies of the office, but are quickly found.

Staffers gather round to check out the commotion; some decide they want to hold one of the ferrets.

In the two hours of shooting, there are no untoward incidents save one.

One of the ferrets decides to take a nip out of one of the bystanders. The victim? The editor who assigned you the story.

Karma is, indeed, a bitch.

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Richard Connelly
Contact: Richard Connelly