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CALIFORNIA

Ferrets Might Shed 2nd-Class Citizenship

September 05, 2004|Jenifer Warren | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — As California's governor captured headlines with a prime-time speech at the Republican National Convention last week, a small group of his constituents back home fretted over a simple question:

Will Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger free the ferrets? For more than a decade, ferret fanciers have labored to win passage of a bill legalizing their beloved pets, banned in California since 1933. This year, they triumphed as a measure granting amnesty to the furry, weasel-like critters emerged from the Legislature with bipartisan support.

Now comes Schwarzenegger, who must decide whether to liberate the ferrets or veto the measure and incur the wrath of those who cherish them.

Backers of the bill are optimistic, in part because of a little-noticed fact nestled in the governor's Hollywood past. In his 1990 movie "Kindergarten Cop," Schwarzenegger played a detective whose co-star is -- you guessed it -- a ferret.

"He's been around ferrets, so he knows they're sweet, playful and cute," said Laurie Pickersgill, who owns three Southern California pet stores and believes ferrets are misunderstood. "I know there are bigger fish to fry in Sacramento, but he can make a lot of people happy by signing this bill."

The fate of ferrets is not the only animal-related question that rests in Schwarzenegger's hands. Another bill on his big wooden desk seeks to ban the force-feeding of ducks, geese and other birds to produce the gourmet delicacy foie gras. He also must decide whether to forbid the declawing of wild cats, such as tigers, lions and other felines used mostly for entertainment.

"California is a very progressive state when it comes to animal protections," said Nicole Paquette, general counsel for the nonprofit Animal Protection Institute. "So, we're all watching and waiting to see whether this governor will reflect that."

His aides would not discuss his position on the bills.

Opponents of the ferret measure include the Department of Fish and Game, the California Waterfowl Assn. and the Planning and Conservation League. At Fish and Game, wildlife biologists say the cute, cuddly ferret is actually a sharp-toothed carnivore, born and initially bred to hunt. As such, they say, ferrets pose a threat to the state's ground-nesting birds and small mammals.

Aside from his movie work with ferrets, Schwarzenegger's background gives few clues to his views.

Since his election, however, he has learned the hard way that animal issues are deeply emotional for Californians -- and treacherous for politicians. In June, news leaked that the governor's budget sought to save $14 million by allowing animal shelters to euthanize lost dogs and cats after three days instead of six.

The public howling was instantaneous and fierce. Critics nicknamed him the "pet terminator," a dozen shelter dogs held a "poop-in" on the Capitol lawn and lawmakers knowingly tsk-tsked over the governor's faux pas. Schwarzenegger quickly reversed himself, calling it an oversight.

"I'm an animal lover," he insisted. To back up the claim, he noted that he shares his Brentwood home with three pooches: a cockapoo named Sarge and yellow Labradors Sammy and Spunky.

Ferret fans find cause for hope in that episode, and also suspect that Schwarzenegger's experience in "Kindergarten Cop" will make him inclined to favor their bill. In the movie, he plays a police detective who goes undercover as a kindergarten teacher. With the help of his pet ferret, he calms a roomful of wild children -- and catches a killer.

Ferret partisans note that in "Kindergarten Cop," the animal is portrayed as kid-friendly and heroic. Perhaps, they hope, that reflects the governor's view.

But Jeanne Carley, co-founder of Californians for Ferret Legalization, believes Schwarzenegger would be naturally drawn to the bill because it would remedy an instance in which state bureaucrats "have clearly overreached."

"I think his natural tendency is to limit government, and here you have a class of folks in California who are criminalized for doing something they can do legally everywhere else on the continent," Carley said. "That has got to raise a red flag for Gov. Schwarzenegger."

Under current law, it is illegal to import, transport or possess a ferret without a permit from the state Department of Fish and Game. The ban -- Hawaii is the only other state that forbids the animals -- has created a vast underground network of ferret owners who risk fines and even jail for harboring the pets.

The legislation, SB 89, would grant amnesty to the 160,000 to 500,000 ferrets thought to be in California, providing that the animals are spayed or neutered and vaccinated against rabies. Ferret owners would pay a registration fee of $75, which would go toward funding a report assessing the animals' impacts on wildlife. Ferret sales and imports still would be banned.

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