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- Leonardo da Vinci's "Lady with
- Queen Elizabeth I with her
Weasels Wear Many Hats
Ferrets have been a helpmate to
mankind for thousands of years. Let's take a stroll through the history
of the working weasel and then bring you up-to-date with today's ferrety
Ferret lore commonly states that ferrets
were first domesticated by Egyptians. However, most of today's ferret
researchers have discarded that theory, because evidence shows that
Egyptian animals were more likely a mongoose or meerkat-like creature.
The earliest mention of the domesticated ferret was by Aristophanes in
450 B.C. Greek writer Strabo (54 A.D.) describes how people living
around the Mediterranean Sea reared albino ferrets in their homes for
Roman armies needed an easy way to feed the
troops while they were on the move through Europe. One way was with
rabbits. And to help catch the rabbits, trained ferrets were used to
flush them out of their burrows. As the armies marched north and west,
the "ferreting" practice caught on in Spain and France. Legend
even has it that the infamous Genghis Khan used ferrets for hunting
In Medieval England the ferret achieved
important status. Wealthy ladies kept ferrets as pets, and high-ranking
churchmen had ferrets to manage their rabbit warrens.
"Ferreters" or "warreners" were important servant
positions attached to royal courts. Rabbits and ferrets were so valuable to
the landed gentry that a law was passed in 1390 that restricted the
ownership of ferrets to only the very wealthy. Queen Elizabeth I's
portrait shows off her pet ferret, complete with jeweled collar.
English settlers brought their ferrets to
the New World in the 16th and 17th centuries. At this time, the ferret's
job changed from rabbit router to rodent exterminator. Ferrets were used
on colonial navy ships to keep the rat and mouse populations under
control. The ferret is still the official mascot of the Massachusetts
Colonial Navy today!
By the late 1800s, ferrets were used chiefly
for rodent extermination in America. Tens of thousands of ferrets were
raised and sold for this purpose, and the job of the "ferretmeister"
was to bring his ferrets to granaries, barns, mills, and churches to
eliminate the pests. After the First World War, ferrets were so popular
in this line of work that the U.S. Department of Agriculture published
regular bulletins detailing and encouraging the use of ferrets in rodent
abatement. However, by World War II, effective rodenticides had put most
ferrets on the unemployment line. A few performed wartime work by
pulling wires through tight spaces in airplanes.
Today, most ferrets have "worked"
their way into our hearts and homes as wonderful pets. Although it's
illegal to hunt rabbits with ferrets in the United States, one can get
permits for ratting in some areas. However, the ferret's job as a hunter
is largely over. You're more likely to see ferrets serving these days as
successful therapists—used in nursing homes, with autistic children,
and for people suffering depression. A ferret named Doofus was so
popular he was elected the 1995 homecoming king of Rice University!
Finally, ferrets are useful nowadays in the
telecommunications industry for running wires and cables through narrow
spaces. When Prince Charles of Wales married Lady Diana Spencer, the TV
cables used at the wedding were put in place by a ferret. The ferret ran
through narrow pipes pulling a line attached to a special harness. When
the ferret popped out at the other end, the line was attached to the TV
cables, which were then pulled through the pipes.
In October 1999, the U.S. Air Force Space
Command needed a way to connect new computers at Peterson Air Force Base
in Colorado. The cost and difficulty of threading wires through crowded
40-foot conduits was daunting until Lt. Col. Randy Blaisdell volunteered
his pet ferret Misty. The 6-year-old ferret dashed through the conduits
towing a piece of yarn that was then used to pull the computer wires.
Misty's multiple-dash work was complete in just one hour, and all it
cost was her favorite treat: a strawberry Pop-Tart!
And let's not forget: My ferrets work very
hard eating, playing, exploring, posing for photos, sleeping, and making
me laugh! I think I'll keep them all on full-time!