SI Vault
Bil Gilbert
December 07, 1964
With the questing instincts of a fox and a build like a wet noodle, the ferret rivaled any hunter. So society passed laws against him, Ferretville, U.S.A. died and the author was left with memories of a wriggly pocket
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December 07, 1964

Pop Goes The Ferret!

With the questing instincts of a fox and a build like a wet noodle, the ferret rivaled any hunter. So society passed laws against him, Ferretville, U.S.A. died and the author was left with memories of a wriggly pocket

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If one does have the patience and money to duly register a ferret, there is still not a lot he can do with his licensed animal. It may not hunt rabbits or be placed in any opening "in which a rabbit might be found." Earlier laws stipulated that ferrets would not be permitted on the highways, in vehicles or "on railroad or railway cars." Though ferrets are reasonably alert little mammals, there is not one in a hundred bright enough to master the code of behavior which the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has expected it to obey.

The forced decline of ferrets and ferreting is admittedly not one of our major national disasters, but I am of the wriggly-pocket set, and since a man can still deplore whatever he wants to, I choose to deplore the ferret ban. It strikes me as silly and unfair. Two groups, the hunting and humane clans, allied themselves for the great antiferret crusade. Gunners, of course, have a long tradition of this sort of meddling. Being the most efficient predators on the face of the earth, they are implacably opposed to anybody who wants to do anything with game other than shoot holes in it. In addition to ferrets, gunners are usually against foxes, mountain lions, hawks, falconers, archers, snare setters, posted lands, game wardens and sanctuaries.

Gunners who agitated for the suppression of ferrets at least acted out of a twisted sense of self-interest, but for the humanitarians (who believe all animals should subscribe to the high ethical standards of humans) it was a moral matter. Their case was that ferrets are bloodthirsty, vicious, bad beasts that should not be permitted to associate with and torment good animals. Overlooking this soap-opera biological system of classifying animals as good guys and bad guys, the argument shows an abysmal ignorance of the actual nature of ferrets.

It is true that ferrets are partly carnivorous, along with such other creatures as dachshunds and ladies attending ASPCA luncheons. Ferrets take a bit of horsemeat tartare or a drop of blood when it is available but, as any old New London mush mixer can certify, their blood lust is mild compared to the rest of us meat eaters. Bread, milk and an occasional egg will keep a ferret happy and healthy for an indefinite period. As to ferrets being vicious, I think this rap grows out of the fact that ferrets have always had a bad press in novels. Innumerable fictional blackmailers, pickpockets, cat burglars and Peeping Toms have been described, from the time of Charles Dickens on, as being "shifty as weasels" or "vicious, ferret-faced creatures." These literary figures of speech are ridiculous. I have known many ferrets, and their normal facial expression is a cross between that of an intelligent squirrel and a perplexed certified public accountant.

The first ferret I knew well was a white one belonging to my grandfather. In theory, this hob lived in the basement and was employed as the family rat chaser. In practice, he was usually found either asleep in a broom closet or sitting up on his hind legs begging for toast and cheese in the kitchen. Occasionally my grandmother, exasperated by this vicious killer, would chase him downstairs with a broom, ordering him to go catch a rat and stop pestering her for cheese sandwiches. As far as I know, this ferret never leaped at her jugular vein. Between then and now I have known other ferrets, all of which were considerably more personable and peaceable companions than myna birds, Pekingese dogs or Siamese fighting fish.

A few years ago I bought my last ferret at black-market prices from a poacher friend. He shall go unidentified and un-located, for if he were caught with his dozen ferrets he would be treated harshly. This ferret was a little brindle female who, when she was brought to my houseful of children, dogs, cats and assorted livestock, took up residence under the refrigerator. She was named Parker (after the famous Nosey) in recognition of a ferret's most notable characteristic, which is not lusting after blood, but insatiable curiosity.

Ferrets are congenitally unable to resist exploring holes, nooks, crannies and cracks. Parker, like all ferrets, had an ideal build for this investigatory work. She weighed about a pound, was 16 inches long and as supple as a serpent. She could get her sharp-pointed little head through a hole two inches in diameter, and anyplace her head could go her shoulderless and hipless body could follow. She squirmed into heating ducts, into the innards of radios and pianos, into boots, into the decapitated corpses of hollow-bodied dolls and under bookcases and rugs. Her only violent act was committed against a clumsy German shepherd who stepped on her one morning as she was emerging from her den beneath the refrigerator. In a chattering rage, Parker twisted around and bit the stumblebum on the nose. Forever after, this boob of a dog treated Parker with great respect. Parker had only two habits that ferret detractors could call depraved. She would run nylon stockings as she tried to climb up the legs they encased, and she would steal dish towels, dragging them into her pad under the refrigerator.

Despite her easy adjustment as a house pet, Parker was, after all, a ferret, whose traditional line of work was supposed to be chasing things out of holes, not dusting under chairs with her tail. So in the spring of her first year we took her to the farm of a friend, Glenn, who had a pasture full of rabbit and woodchuck holes. In the evening Glenn and I, with Parker in my pocket, set out on one of the last great ferret hunts.

One of the advantages of ferreting is that the principal participant, the ferret, does not need much training. All a ferret's instincts urge him to go down any hole he is shown. The man, who is supposedly in charge of the operation, only has to put his ferret on the ground, sit down and wait to see what comes up. The difficulty is that sometimes a ferret gets into a hole he likes too well. He may follow a maze that brings him to the surface a long way from the original entrance; he may decide to curl up and take a nap; or he may, on rare occasions, decide to catch himself a meal, which he will eat in leisurely fashion despite any pressing appointments the man waiting above ground may have. Even love may detain a ferret. One oldtime ferreter tells of dropping a she-ferret in an amorous physiological condition down what he thought was a rabbit hole. Actually, there was a he-mink in the burrow. These two close cousins proved simpatico, and the ferreter claims that whatever went on in the dark was tempestuous and took the devil's own time to accomplish. However, he was never able to prove that his ferret was not all she should have been since, as the saying goes, there was no issue.

To avoid these annoying delays, ferrets are sometimes harnessed and worked on long leashes. In this way they can be dragged back on demand, except when the leash gets tangled on a root or around a stone. When this happens there is nothing for the ferreter to do but get out a pick and shovel and start digging. This kind of thing tends to take the fun out of a hunt, particularly if the ground is frozen. A muzzle is also sometimes used on a ferret. The idea is that the animal can now chase, but cannot dine, on his quarry. The risk of this method is that if the ferret meets up with a hole owner who is ready and willing to dispute a passage, the hunter is likely to become the hunted. Still other ferreters hunt only mated pairs. They send the female underground and keep the male with them, as a sort of hostage. The reasoning is that the little lady will hurry back to her husband. The female is never kept waiting for the male. If nothing else, this procedure ought to interest young wives and marriage counselors.

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