Bailey the ferret gets close to owner Pat Wright. Wright is trying to collect… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)
LA MESA, Calif. — To Pat Wright, his beloved Fausto, Bailey and Tiger are smart, impish and endlessly entertaining, a counterbalance to the dreariness of modern life.
To the state of California, the three domestic ferrets are outlaws, and Wright is a criminal for harboring them.
California is one of only two states — Hawaii is the other — that ban the ownership of domestic ferrets. The California Fish and Wildlife Department fears that pet ferrets, a nonnative species, could escape, go feral and prey on native species and out-compete them for food.
Wright, 54, says that argument is bogus. For 25 years, he has been trying to get California to lift the ban, which dates from the mid-1930s.
"It really bothers me when rights are abused," he said during an interview in the spacious home east of San Diego that he and his partner share with the three ferrets, three dogs (Blue, Shorty and Luna) and a cat (Martini). The ferret ban, he says, "is a symptom of the disempowerment of the average person in California."
Wright ran for Assembly and then lieutenant governor on a free-the-ferrets platform (and lost badly both times). He sued the Fish and Game Commission (and lost). He formed Ferrets Anonymous to gather political clout. He became an officer in the local Libertarian Party.
He held rallies in Sacramento and San Diego. He went to county jail for 17 terrifying days after tussling with a Fish and Game inspector who tried to seize one of his ferrets over an alleged biting incident at a rally.
He came close to victory in 2004 when the Legislature, after considerable hectoring, passed a bill dropping the ban. The bill was vetoed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, despite the governor's starring role in the movie "Kindergarten Cop," in which he appeared with a ferret.
Since that defeat, the campaign has lost steam. Rallies have been flops, and Wright has accumulated a long list of unreturned phone calls from legislators.
"The problem is that it's seen as a loser issue," Wright said. "Any politician who would help us would be ridiculed."
Wright asserts that the concern about ferrets going feral is scientifically invalid, and he has an environmental analysis done at Sacramento State to back him up. But the California Fish and Game Commission staff says the analysis is too limited and not scientifically valid.
Still, Wright soldiers on, with a weekly bulletin to the faithful each Sunday. He now has a new, admittedly long-odds tactic: an appeal to President Obama. The president's staff has promised to review any issue in the nation for which supporters can gather 25,000 signatures on a petition in 30 days.
The White House prefers issues of national policy. But to Wright, legalizing ferrets is truly change that the nation should believe in. He is gathering signatures over the Internet, at http://www.legalizeferrets.org.
Just how many Californians own ferrets is unknown. Most guesses range from 10,000 to 100,000. Whatever the number, they're all vulnerable to a $500 fine and six months in jail.
Fish and Wildlife, however, puts no priority on finding ferrets and bringing charges against the owners. Budgets are tight and there are more important issues, department officials said.
At Wright's home, the ferrets are kept at night in a special cage (purchased in Yuma, Ariz., where ferrets are legal). The cat doesn't really like the ferrets, and the dogs are not happy with them either.
But Wright has a different perspective. "A household with more than one species is an enriched household," he said, as Fausto tried to climb up a visitor's pant leg and Bailey and Tiger used their tiny claws to open a floor-level cupboard for inspection.