Posted: May 1, 2008, 5 a.m. EST
Courtesy of Colleen
Bob Church made several new ferret friends during his travels in New Zealand.
Like in California, New Zealand outlaws ferret ownership. Also as in California, New Zealand has a strong underground of ferret owners, who all care deeply for their ferrets. I have spent a great deal of time meeting with New Zealand ferret owners, playing with their ferrets and discussing the problem with them.
Meeting Pet Ferret Outlaws
“Mary” looked me over seriously when I came to her door, blocking access until she heard my American accent. Even then, if not through the help of a known intermediary, I would not have been allowed to visit. With her trusted friend present, I was allowed to enter a room where the curtains were drawn.
(For purposes of this article no one named is real. “Mary” represents a consolidation of a number of ferret owners who all need to remain anonymous because of the serious nature of owning ferrets in New Zealand. All ferrets mentioned are given the names of my personal ferrets. – Bob Church.)
Inside was a very nice cage, populated with dark-masked, bright-eyed ferrets. Mary watched me carefully as I handled the first ferret, an older boy from the Mystic Ferrets years. Mystic Ferrets was a New Zealand ferret breeder forced to close in 2005 through government pressure. Under current New Zealand law, all ferrets owned before the change in ferret legality are allowed to remain as pets, and “Clyde” was one of a growing number of older ferrets remaining under legal ownership.
Clyde’s health has deteriorated lately. He has the beginning of adrenal disease, and he has serious periodontal disease. His gums were so infected that when I took a DNA sample using a small brush, it was covered with bloody pus and cell debris. The owner had tears in her eyes as she explained that visiting a vet risked getting caught and losing her ferrets. This is a typical fear among New Zealand ferret owners. Few have inoculated their ferrets against distemper or other disease. Many ferrets have health problems that in the United States, or New Zealand before the change in law, would have been easily treated. Since my visit, I learned that Clyde has visited a veterinarian, is receiving aggressive treatment and is responding well.
Mary has homemade cages, crafted from a number of sources. This is partly because things are very expensive in New Zealand, partly because ferret items are no longer sold, and partly because of paranoia that everything is a clue for the Department of Conservation (DOC) to find ferret owners. Just mention the DOC, and ferret owners spit out epithets.
“I’d sooner go to jail than lose my ferret,” Mary said. “They are my children. Why would I let the government take them away?” Without a single exception, every ferret owner I met in New Zealand shared Mary’s views about ferret ownership. All are prepared for fines and perhaps jail for the pleasure of beloved ferret company.
Because of this problem, New Zealand ferret owners have a difficult time finding and purchasing ferret food and supplies. Even importing ferret materials, such as a product labeled “ferret food,” has a possible negative consequence. Because of this, ferret owners are forced to feed cat food and use cages designed for other animals. It is not the best nor the healthiest solution, but it is all the New Zealanders have.
As the number of older ferrets dwindles, it seems logical that fewer ferrets would be owned. That is not the case. A strong underground of ferret breeders use a “freedom cell” type of communication reminiscent of those seen during World War II. Being allowed to visit a ferret without being known is almost impossible. “We have to be extremely careful. One mistake and it is a fine, but the real danger is to the ferrets. One mistake and they are dead,” Mary said.
Not all ferrets come from breeders. New Zealand has a large number of feral ferrets that were introduced in the late 1800s. These ferrets are notorious for being vicious, dangerous to wildlife, and carriers of various diseases, including tuberculosis — at least according to the DOC.
Feral ferrets do get TB, but it is not because they are directly spreading it, but because they are catching it from the introduced possums that are absolutely everywhere. When a ferret gets TB, it is doomed to die. Also, the incidents of TB are much lower now and, in some places, ferrets are free of the disease.
Feral ferrets kill native wildlife, but they also perform an important positive function: reducing the numbers of rabbits, rats and possums that are far worse for the environment and native wildlife. Rats and possums are tree climbers and predate on nesting birds and eggs. Feral ferrets also help reduce the numbers of stoats and weasels, both shown to be worse problems with native wildlife than feral ferrets. It has been established that the loss to native wildlife from cats and dogs is much greater than from pet ferrets, or even feral ferrets.
As for the feral ferret’s vicious nature, I have seen a change in temperament compared to pet ferrets. They are more nervous and prefer established owners much better than new people, but they are decidedly not vicious. In fact, not a single feral ferret I’ve encountered has even tried to bite me. For the most part, the sweet little feral ferrets were very well behaved. “Mickey Moose” in particular was a timid feral ferret with a very sweet disposition that seemed to enjoy my company — after awhile.
A Troubled Future
Overall, the problems faced by Mary and the other ferret owners in New Zealand can only be described as horrible. They have no or little hope of the government returning ferret ownership, and they are faced with the constant threat of discovery. As a result, Mary and her peers are forced into a recluse-like existence, hiding their ferrets, not seeing vets, and wondering if the next knock on the door will mean legal troubles.
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Bob Church is a former photojournalist and current zooarcheologist with degrees in biology (zoology) and anthropology (archaeology). He resides in Missouri with 19 ferrets that keep his chicken blender overheated and his heart overfull.