Ferret Domesticity: A Primer

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To consider domestic ferrets wild animals is ridiculous. This history lesson offers some examples of the domestic ferret's relationship with humankind through the ages.
by Erika Matulich, Ph.D.
Ferrets USA
Volume 5, 2000 Annual
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"Lady with Ermine" Leonardo da Vinci 1489























Stevie, Reserve Grand Champion, Shelter Ferret Division, Ferrets in the Sun Show 2000 (John Porter)





Doofus, Rice University Homecoming King

Webster's New World Dictionary defines a domesticated animal as one that has been tamed for man's use and which has become accustomed to home life. There's a lot of debate regarding the origin of today's pet ferret and when the animal was first domesticated. These arguments may never be resolved, and one reason may be because there is simply not much early evidence regarding the ferret's relationship to humankind. Questions also plague the scientific community; many scientists cannot agree whether today's domestic ferret is descended from the European polecat or the steppe polecat.

Another possibility being bandied about is that today's domestic ferret is descended from an animal that is now extinct in the wild. (Everyone agrees, however, that today's pet ferret is not descended from the American black-footed ferret -- at least, I've never heard of anyone stating otherwise.) Regardless of controversy, historical records indicate that ferrets have been domesticated for at least a thousand years, if not more.

According to the Good Book

One of the first possible historical references to the ferret is in the Bible. In Chapter XI, 29-30 of Leviticus, the ferret is listed as trayf, an animal that Jews were forbidden to eat. This reference to ferrets is highly controversial, however, because in different Bible versions, the word trayf, which could mean any small mustelid, is translated into weasel, and even lizard. Well, at least it was known pretty early on that ferrets should not be eaten!

Walk Like an Egyptian?

Common ferret legend dictates that the modern ferret was domesticated by Egyptians thousands of years ago. However, there is no evidence to support this notion. Mummified remains of what were thought to be ferrets are probably those of ichneumon, which is a mongoose native to Africa. The mummies could also possibly be meerkats. There have been no skeletal or mummified remains of ferrets positively identified in Egypt, despite the fact that Egyptians mummified huge numbers of other animals. There are numerous Egyptian paintings, glyphs, statuary and models of ferretlike creatures, but experts agree that these depict the mongoose and not the ferret. In fact, mongeese are still kept in Egypt as pet mousers today. Therefore, today's domestic ferret was unlikely to have originated from Egypt.

The Greek Influence

The Greek playwright Aristophanes mentions ferrets in his comedy The Acheans, which was written about 450 B.C. Aristotle also wrote about ferrets in the Historia Animalium in about 320 B.C. However, debate about whether or not the word "ferrets" was correctly translated from the Greek make these references suspect. Later, Greek writings by Strabo (about 20 A.D.), in his book Geographica, seem to definitely describe the ferret. Strabo, a Greek historian and geographer, describes an albino, ferretlike animal that was bred in captivity and used to hunt rabbits. The people who utilized these ferrets were not Greek; they lived in the southern Mediterranean countries (which are present-day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya).

When in Rome, and Elsewhere

So how did ferrets get from northern Africa to Europe? It seems that the Romans' love of the rabbit may have been accompanied by a fondness for ferrets. Pliny the Elder was a Roman scientist and historian who wrote many books that mention ferrets as being kept by Romans. As the Roman armies marched north, they helped spread rabbit colonies into Spain and France. Rabbits were an important food source for the Roman armies, and leashed ferrets were used by the Romans to chase rabbits out of their burrows. The Normans copied the Roman tradition of creating rabbit warrens as a continuous food source for armies. They brought the rabbit (and, presumably, the ferret) to Britain about 500 A.D. Later, in 600 A.D., the Bishop of Seville (Spain) wrote extensively about the ferret's usefulness in rabbit hunting.

Middle-Aged Ferrets

By the Middle Ages, ferrets were widely used for hunting rabbits. Legend speaks of the notorious Genghis Khan and his hunting ferret forays in 1221. In 1281, British documents show that a ferreter was often a part of the English Royal Court. By the 1300s, ferrets were being commonly portrayed in artwork and tapestry depicting royal life, with ferrets included. Queen Mary's Psalter of 1340 shows well-dressed ladies ferreting, and records kept by high-ranking churchmen indicate that ferrets were kept as pets. By 1390, a law was passed that allowed only the very wealthy in Britain to be able to own a ferret. A wealthy medieval English lord typically employed a well-paid "warrener" who used ferrets to hunt in the specially built rabbit warrens on the lord's property. The warrener was provided with his own house, which included a separate room for the ferrets, which lived in barrels or hutches.

The Ermine Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I shows the queen with her pet ferret (painted as white with ermine spots and a jeweled collar). Because of this portrait, some researchers speculate that much of the "ermine" that was used to trim the robes of royalty was in fact ferret fur (also known as "fitch"). It has also been said that the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin is actually based on the early ferreters' practice of calling their ferrets out of rabbit holes by using a flute. I suppose they had to use flutes because squeaky toys had not been invented yet! In 15th century Italy, Leonardo da Vinci painted "Lady With Ermine" (also known as "Lady With the Ferret"), which pictured a woman holding a white ferret in her arms. Other European paintings and tapestries of the 15th through 17th centuries depict noblemen and women with their pet ferrets curled around their necks. The last and greatest king in Poland's history was Jan III Sobieski, who kept ferrets as pets and used them for hunting. In the 1800s, it was widely believed that ferrets were useful in curing whooping cough in England. Numerous documents instruct that a ferret be allowed to lap milk from a saucer; the rest of the milk was then given to the patient to begin the cure.

Coming to America

Ferrets were brought to America by the first English settlers during the 16th and 17th centuries. At this time, the animals were used mostly for rodent extermination. The Massachusetts Colonial Navy (formed in 1775) used ferrets on board their ships to keep the rat and mouse populations under control. (In 1986, the ferret was named the official mascot of the Massachusetts Colonial Navy, and Pokey the ferret [the first ferret that held the Navy's mascot title] spawned one of the first-ever lines of stuffed ferret toys.) During the mid-1800s, Europeans began keeping and breeding ferrets for the animals' fur. By the 1900s, this practice caught on in the United States. Thankfully, the use of ferrets for fur has greatly fallen out of favor (although many "camel hair" paint brushes are made from ferret fur). By the turn of the 20th century, thousands of ferrets were raised and sold for rodent abatement in the United States. The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued regular bulletins to "ferretmeisters," detailing and encouraging the ferret's use in rodent control. Ferretmeisters were hired to clear rodents out of barns and granaries, and they traveled extensively with their ferret teams in tow. Ferrets were so popular at this time that, in 1915, an entire town in Ohio, New London, was called "Ferretville." Later, before the second World War, the widespread availability of chemical rodenticides eventually led to the disuse of the ferret in professional rodent clearing operations.

The Contemporary Ferret

Today, domestic ferrets are an important part of many people's lives. Ferrets are popular as working animals, in sporting events, as show animals and as loving pets.

Working animals. Ferrets are still widely used in Britain, Europe and Australia to hunt rabbits. It is illegal to hunt rabbits using ferrets in the United States, although some areas permit ferrets to hunt rats, provided their owner has the appropriate permit. Ferrets are still used as rodent exterminators in many parts of the world. Rumor has it that ferrets were instrumental in the construction of several U.S. Air Force and Navy craft, running wire and cable. A ferret was also used to string television cables so the Prince of Wales' wedding could be broadcast to the rest of the world. Ferrets are also used to help out in the telephone and computer industry, to run guide strings for the fiber optics used in fiber optic technology. When a ferret is helping to run wire or cable, a strong but lightweight string is tied to the ferret's harness. The ferret is then released into the pipe that will eventually contain the wires or cables. The ferret then races through the pipe to get a treat at the other end, usually while being called by a whistle or squeaker. When the ferret emerges from the opposite end of the pipe, the string is removed from the ferret's harness and tied to the wire or cable to be pulled back through the pipe.

Sporting events. In merry olde England, when only the wealthy were allowed to own ferrets, poor poachers would sometimes hide illegal ferrets in their trousers. This practice evolved into a competition known as "ferret legging." During the competition, men, naked beneath their trousers, would see how long they could keep a live ferret down their pants. Fortunately, this "sport" has been banned in most areas today. A much more entertaining sport (for both ferrets and humans) is ferret racing. During a typical race, ferrets run through tunnels made of pipe or hose. Ferret racing has also spawned a number of ferret "Olympics" or "fun match" shows, during which ferrets can prove their athletic prowess by tipping over cups, swimming, jumping out of paper sacks, climbing, finding their way through mazes, jumping or digging. These are fun events that are attended by a wide variety of ferret enthusiasts.

Shows. During ferret breed shows, exquisitely groomed ferrets compete in various classes (usually separated by gender, breeding status, age or color). Ferrets may be judged on coloration, conformation, health and demeanor. Ferrets can earn points at these shows to try and achieve championship status. Champion ferrets are highly sought after for breeding purposes. These ferret shows have also prompted the breeding of specialty ferrets, including those with longer-than-normal fur (angoras), unique fur colors (cinnamons, silvers, dark-eyed-whites, blacks, etc.) and markings (mitts, bibs, stripes, spots, and masks).

Industrial applications. Disturbing as it may be to many ferret enthusiasts, ferrets are also used in biomedical research. They are frequently used while researching strains of influenza, because ferrets are susceptible to many of the same influenza viruses as humans. Ferrets are also used to help study virology, immunology, pharmacology, toxicology and teratology. This is a practice many ferret enthusiasts would like to see ended. Ferrets play a physiological role in medical research, too. For example, nurses in neonatal and pediatric care have been known to practice intubation techniques on ferrets before the procedures are used on human infants.

Ferrets in Popular Culture

Most of today's ferrets are with us as wonderful pets. Some estimates put ferrets as the third most popular companion mammal in the United States, right after cats and dogs. Businesses associated with ferret care continue to create new products for ferret owners to offer their pets, including a variety of ferret foods, toys, grooming products and other accessories. One sad indication of the ferret's popularity is the growing need for ferret shelters. Although ferret kits are often quickly sold at relatively high prices through pet stores, large numbers are turned over to shelters from people who no longer want their pets. The key to responsible ferret ownership is education. Because you are reading this magazine, you are even now taking an important step in knowing how to take care of your ferret and what you should expect.

Ferrets have also demonstrated their popularity by being "cast" in movies and television shows. The first movie to feature ferrets prominently was The Beastmaster, in which ferrets played an important role. Beastmaster II, once again featuring ferrets, followed. A ferret in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Kindergarten Cop even helps Arnold to save the day. Ferrets have popped up in other films, such as Mars Attacks! and The Big Lebowski, as well as television shows, including Full House, Northern Exposure and Deep Space Nine. Television commercials are jumping on the ferret bandwagon, too-- most notably with a recent spate of Budweiser commercials.

Biological Differences

We have traced the ferret's history from the Bible to Budweiser, and it is abundantly clear that ferrets have been tamed for human interaction. How else can one decide whether the ferret has been domesticated or not? Scientists look at the following factors to establish domesticity from a biological standpoint.

Size. One way to differentiate a domestic animal from a wild animal is by size. A domestic species may exhibit a wide variety of sizes, whereas the wild counterpart is fairly uniform in size. This is certainly the case with pet ferrets, which can range from delicate, 1-pound females to massive 8-pound males. Pet ferrets also can have either a lean "whippet" or "greyhound" body build, or a more hefty "bulldog" build.

Coloration. There is usually little body color variation (aside from an occasional mutation) in wild animal species. Domestic ferrets, however, are available in many color and pattern varieties. Although the European polecat is a typical standard sable, pet ferrets come in many shades, from deep black and dark brown to chocolate and light sable. There are also diluted colors, such as cinnamon and champagne, as well as whites and albinos. Pet ferrets can also sport a variety of patterns and markings.  Another difference between domestic and wild ferrets is that domestic animals gray as they age while their wild cousins do not.

Physical changes. Typically, domestic ferrets have shorter legs and smaller eyes than their wild cousins. Domestic ferrets also are less able to see colors and have eyes that are directed downward more so than wild animals. Perhaps this is because domestic ferrets are more concerned with scanning the floor for treats than searching the skies for hawks! The teeth of the domestic ferret are more crowded (perhaps due to a shorter jaw structure) and numerically variable, plus domestic animals have longer digestive tracts and coarser, less dense fur. Finally, today's pet ferrets do not need to rely on hunting skills to survive (although some have been known to capture insects and smaller animals). Thus, many have poor eyesight and hearing (even to the point of deafness) that would probably not allow them to survive in the wild for long.

Behavioral differences. Wild polecats tend to be solitary, territorial and temperamental animals, while domestic ferrets are socially gregarious and friendly. Domestic ferrets have little fear of humans (unless they've been abused), and will actually run to investigate a potentially dangerous threat (such as a loud noise or big dog) -- another trait that could quickly lead to their demise in the wild. Wild ferrets have an instinctive fear of humans and other potentially dangerous animals.

The Political Angle

In the United States, there is no reason to not accept ferrets as domestic animals. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines ferrets as domestic in the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 9, as of January 1996. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has long recognized ferrets as domestic pets. Finally, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) issued a policy statement regarding ferrets as companion animals in 1996 -- it states: "The HSUS recognizes that domestic ferrets have become increasingly popular as pets in recent years and can be kept legally as pets in nearly every state."

Even in the face of overwhelming evidence for domesticity, there are still some areas (statewide restriction apply in California and Hawaii) whose politicians insist that ferrets are wild animals that should be illegal to own. Hopefully, with further education, these politicians will be able to change their stance and allow people the freedom to own domestic pet ferrets if they so desire. After all, if ferrets were good enough for royalty, aren't they good enough for Californians and others?