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You'll spot them every so often driving the speed limit on border-crossing back roads. Maybe walking down suburban sidewalks with squirming shapes under their coats. Or nervously scanning the aisles of a pet-food store.
They're members of the ferret underground, an uncounted society of pet owners so committed to husbanding the weaselly, smelly, razor-clawed critters that they're willing to live outside the law. Only California and Hawaii ban ferret ownership, but the government estimates that, at any given time, 500,000 ferrets illegally reside in the Golden State.
In defense of their right to harbor the cuddly furniture-eaters, friends of these fugitives have now forged their own underground railroad -- a loosely knit group of volunteers dedicated to ferrying contraband ferrets out of California to the "free states," lest government agents put the animals to death.
California's game wardens, Carley, and her fellow railway volunteers have struck an uneasy truce of late. The rescuers are allowed to ship ferrets off to friendlier shores, while the state Department of Fish and Game exterminates only the ones that Carley and her accomplices can't rescue.
The rest frolic undetected in California living rooms, and it is for them that Carley fights. She claims to have no ferrets of her own, but she keeps an office behind her ranch house to run her ferret salvage operation. Every couple of weeks or so, she rushes to rescue a ferret at her own expense. In between, she calls legislators on behalf of Californians for Ferret Legalization and otherwise works to set the ferret owners free.
A lithe and edgy woman looking to be in her early 40s, Carley moves about her office with ferretlike energy, leaping to take a phone call, vigorously searching for some papers, passionately denouncing what she believes is an insane conspiracy to force ferret lovers underground.
"There are feral cats, feral dogs, feral horses, and feral pigs, but no feral ferrets," she says, apparently unamused at the delightful tongue-twister she has invented. "Do we think they missed them somehow? Garbage! Commercially sold ferrets are neutered. You don't reproduce if you don't have the bits. It's elementary basic stuff. What are we waiting for?"
While perhaps representing the vigorous extreme of the free-ferret movement, Carley has plenty of collaborators: pet stores that stock ferret snacks and ferret beds; ferret lobbyists who promote ferret-freedom bills in Sacramento; ferret activists who would make San Francisco a polecat sanctuary; and ferret veterinarians who discreetly agree to treat this illegal breed.
But ferret-freedom bills have been failing in the California Legislature since 1994, and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors nixed a ferret sanctuary proposal last year.
So Carley's ferret freedom train keeps on rolling. She, along with around 40 other volunteers throughout California, jumps into action whenever word gets out of a captured or abandoned ferret. She rushes to the local humane society -- or wherever the miscreant pet is discovered -- and claims the animal. After a vet examines it, Carley squirrels the beast away in a box and puts it on a plane to safer climes.
The state government looks askance at these activities but allows them to continue as long as the underground railway workers produce a clean bill of health from a vet and an airline waybill proving that an animal is really gone for good.
"The department would prefer that they were transported out of state instead of killing them," says Capt. Tom Belt of the Department of Fish and Game.
About the shape and consistency of a fur-covered, foot-long braided cable, ferrets would seem to be -- judging from the descriptions of their fans and detractors -- the most Janus-faced of all God's creations.
To ferret fanciers they are frolicky furballs harmless to man and beast alike.
"They're so cute when they're a few weeks old," effuses one Peninsula ferret owner, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "They're sort of a combination between kittens and weasels."
But to their detractors, ferrets are needle-fanged embodiments of pure evil. Originally bred by British huntsmen to worm down rabbit holes and come back with the occupants in their jaws, ferrets have lost little of their killer instinct, say these critics -- who include the Audubon Society and the Department of Fish and Game. A distant relative of the common skunk, ferrets give off an awful smell. Ferrets sold in pet stores come "de-scented." But they still stink, ferret owners say.
"Loyal to nothing that lives, the ferret has only one characteristic that might be deemed positive -- a tenacious, single-minded belief in finishing whatever it starts. That usually entails biting off whatever it bites," wrote Donald Katz in a seminal 1983 Outside Magazine piece called "King of the Ferret Leggers."
As seeming proof, one ferret fancier's pet was euthanized last year after it bit a news photographer during a free-the-ferrets protest march in Southern California.
"This is a strain of vicious predators. The strain of wildness has been bred out of it. But if they have a potential to still be wild and take up residency, we don't want that to happen. No one wants to take the risk," says Belt, adding that ferret fanciers' claim that ferrets are harmless, sweet beings would never stand up to Fish and Game's "mouse test" for viciousness.
"If you took a live mouse and let it go, it would be interesting to see what that ferret would do," he says.
Legions of ferret owners continue to suffer willingly to keep these pets, mouse-killers or not.
One, who asked not to be named, hasn't told her neighbors about her two pets, lest someone rat her out. And she's avoided joining any of the Bay Area's handful of secret ferret societies. When you belong to a criminal underground, it's hard to know who to trust.
"If I were a cop who hated a ferret owner and wanted to get them, I would probably infiltrate," she explains.
Stanford law student Shawn Vietor, meanwhile, drove from the California border back to Louisiana during the dead of summer in 1997 after California agricultural inspectors espied her fiance's ferret cage atop their pickup truck.
"We didn't think quickly enough, we got to the inspection station, and the -- I don't know what they were called: border guard? -- he clearly knew what the cage was for," says Vietor. So Vietor and her fiance turned around, drove back to Louisiana, found a home for the ferret, then drove back to California again. They had a tire blow out in the Mojave Desert, and their fuel system failed in the hills east of Bakersfield. But the ferret was saved.
So does Vietor resent California's ferret narcs? Will she launch a ferret liberation resistance any time soon?
Not exactly. Vietor reacted the same way any self-respecting girlfriend -- or state government -- would when faced with the prospect of cohabitating with a smelly, needle-toothed, weaselly little beast.
"When they said we couldn't bring it in, I was almost relieved. I didn't like it much anyway," she recalls. "Those guys were so nice that I can't resent them at all.