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Weaseling out of the ferret ban

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Bill Etra wth his albino ferret Barzel, who is being trained as a service animal. (Photo courtesy of Bill Etra)

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Tarzel the ferret has saved his owner's life three times. (Photo courtesy of Bill Etra)

Bill Etra’s heart was racing, but he was on too many painkillers because of a spinal injury to know the difference.

But Tarzel, his 8-year-old ferret, could sense something was wrong. He ran round and round the room, panicking and chortling shrilly.

When Etra saw the ferret, he realized that all was not well. He called his wife, who took his pulse: It was 140 beats per minute. They called the ambulance.

“Tarzel has saved my life three times,” said Etra. “My wife says four. His constant humor keeps me from depression.”

To some, ferrets are smelly, dangerous pets that that have been banned in California and Hawaii, and many cities, including New York, Minneapolis and Dallas. To Etra and others, they are indispensable companions, often with medical benefits.

This has led to pockets of resistance in these cities, where some owners willingly break the law for their pets—the not-so-underground subculture of ferret ownership.

Etra, who lives in New York with Tarzel and 1-year-old Barzel, owns the only two legal ferrets in the city. That’s because his two pets are recognized as service animals that help recognize heart attacks.

The benefits an owner receives from having a ferret to help with medical care contrasts with the bad reputations they have collected over the years. In New York City, a pet ferret that nipped a 22-month-old child led to a citywide ban in 1999.

“Ferrets are known for their unpredictable behavior, and they are prone to vicious, unprovoked attacks on humans,” according to a statement by the Department of Health. “Ferret attacks reported nationwide over time have become notorious for their severity and capriciousness, causing serious injuries to some infants and young children in particular.”

In California, the Department of Fisheries and Gaming upheld a ban in 1996, saying that ferrets would pose a threat to endangered species if they escaped and reproduced. Pro-ferret groups are currently working on an environmental impact report to show that ferrets are not a threat.

Laura Maloney, senior vice president in the anti-cruelty department of American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said her group is not opposed to ferrets as pets.

“Ferrets are domesticated animals” that have been around “for a very long time,” she said. “Just as a dog or a cat, any animal can bite. Certainly a ferret could, but we don’t consider them dangerous.”

Ferrets sleep on average for 20 hours each day, and when they wake up, they behave like curious 2-year-olds. They can be ideal for a person who can’t cope with a cat or dog for medical or lifestyle reasons.

When Denise Squires had her voice box removed because of cancer, she had to get rid of her pets. Her dog required walking, something she couldn’t do with a hole in her throat in the cold winters. Her cats shed too much.

Then on a visit to her mother, who lives on Long Island, where ferrets are legal, she saw Freddy in a pet store. He was tiny—only 8 ounces—and deaf despite his large ears.

“He stole my heart,” said Squires, who speaks with the help of an electronic voice box. “Life would be so difficult without Freddy. He gives me a lot of company. I’m not alone because he is here.”

She worries for Freddy, taking meticulous care to not have him seen by the authorities.

Freddy rarely leaves the house, and when he does, it is concealed in a bag. For veterinary care, she takes him to Long Island because she is afraid that vets in New York will confiscate him.

“I don’t want anything happening to him,” she said. “You never know, people can be very mean. This big guy, the handyman, wouldn’t even hold him. He’s afraid he’d get bitten.”

Squires and other owners say owning an illegal pet can be isolating if not for meet-up play groups and veterinary practices where owners can find each other and the pets can socialize.

Paradoxically, ferret supplies and veterinary care are freely available in places where the creatures themselves are banned. In California, owners get together at the annual Ferrets Anonymous Round Up to celebrate all things ferret.

“I didn’t even know ferrets were banned until two months ago,” said Dale VanSickle, an owner who was trying to find other ferret lovers through meetup.com. “It’s not out there for people to find out about.”

VanSickle keeps ferrets because he is allergic to cats and his landlord doesn’t allow dogs. His youngest ferret, Baby, died two weeks ago of an unknown illness, a loss so recent that VanSickle still refers to her in the present tense.

“Just like any other animal, they become part of your family,” he said. “I had a hard time when I had to put her down. Definitely the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do.”

E-mail: gv2176@columbia.edu