California bans them, as do five other states. Critics warn of bites and worry about rabies. Yet ferrets continue to grow in popularity. At $100 to $200 each, sales of the two- to four-pound relative of the weasel have tripled in the past three years, from about 50,000 a year to 150,000, said Charles Morton, one of the biggest ferret breeders.
"You talk about a yuppie pet. . . . it's the cat of the '80s," said Linda Mills, editor of Miami-based Pet Business magazine.
Estimates of the number of pet ferrets in the United States vary widely, from 500,000 to 5 million. Aficionados compare the animals' frisky, reckless behavior to that of kittens. "Ferrets do the same things, but they never outgrow it. . . . They're not distant like cats are," said Karen LeBlanc, executive director of the Germantown, Md.-based United Ferret Organization.
Ferrets on breeding farms are not producing babies fast enough to keep up with demand. Morton's Path Valley Farm in Willow Hill, Pa., is no longer taking orders for its two-year waiting list for ferrets. He plans to boost output to 20,000 next year from between 12,000 and 15,000 ferrets last year, he said.