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Unfettered Ferrets? : State Commission Agrees to Hear Arguments for Legalizing the Animals as Pets

November 03, 1995|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Score one for Mustela putorius furo, the outlaw with the sharp teeth, bristly hair and weasel look.

Amnesty is still a ways off, but the state Fish and Game Commission took a major step Thursday toward lifting the state's controversial and widely defied ban on the importation and ownership of ferrets.

For ferret enthusiasts, who love their pets so dearly they are willing to risk fines and incarceration to harbor them, it was a day to celebrate and to vow continued vigilance against a restriction they feel is the height of bad government and bad science.

"It was a good day for ferret owners," said Pat Wright, a leader in Ferrets Anonymous.

"This is a giant victory for us," said Floyd Carley, a retired packaging business owner from Northern California and an activist in the California Domestic Ferret Assn. "We haven't won yet, but there is major movement in our direction."

The commission voted 3 to 2 at its meeting in San Diego to hold a formal hearing in several months to decide whether the ban, adopted in 1933, should be lifted. It will be the first such hearing on the issue despite repeated requests by ferret lovers.

The tone of the questions asked by the commission majority also led the ferret owners to believe that years of assiduous lobbying are paying off.

Commissioner Richard T. Thieriot, former publisher and editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, told the pro-ferret group that it had done a good job of amassing scientific evidence to debunk the anti-ferret argument.

For decades, Department of Fish and Game staffers have opposed removing ferrets from the list of forbidden wild animals. Their opposition is grounded in the belief that pet ferrets might end up as feral packs preying on small wildlife.

"Even a neutered male has to eat," said Terry Mansfield, chief of the wildlife management division of Fish and Game. "We're convinced they will prey on the native birds and animals."

The scientific question is whether ferrets--which are distant relatives of the European polecat and top out at six pounds--are capable of forming feral packs and thus fit the definition of a wild animal unsuitable for private ownership.

"These animals have been domesticated longer than the cat--they've been domesticated for 3,000 years," Assemblyman Jan Goldsmith (R-Poway) told the commission. "I don't particularly like them, but they're cute little critters."

Goldsmith insists that the ferret ban is both a waste of public money for enforcement and an infringement on personal liberty. In one case, Fish and Game spent $40,000 to prove that a Fresno couple was hiding ferrets.

Ferret lovers insist that there is no evidence of wild ferret packs in any of the 47 states where ferrets are legal. If Fish and Game staff cannot prove that ferrets are wild animals, the commission may have little choice but to remove the ferret from the list.

The federal government does not have the ferret on its lengthy list of harmful creatures that includes the African clawed frog, the Japanese beetle, the Pacific oyster and the Asian clam.

The commission in 1982, 1986 and 1987 denied requests to hold a hearing to reconsider the ferret ban. Goldsmith's bill to overturn the ban was narrowly defeated when it encountered the powerful opposition of then-Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), who sneered at ferrets as rodents. (They're not.)

Estimates are that Californians clandestinely own 100,000 ferrets and maybe more. Many of the ferrets were born outside the state and smuggled in.

"What we have is a climate of fear," said Sacramento veterinarian Dick Schumacher, a leader of the state's veterinary medical association. "Owners are afraid to have their pets treated, and veterinarians are afraid to treat the animals because of possible action against their licenses."

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