Not exactly Lassie

I got an interesting letter from my brother the other day. It started, “Everybody loves pet stories, and since very few sane people own ferrets ...”

His good-hearted intention was to motivate me to write about Barnaby, my allegedly aforementioned heretofore alluded to pet of the ferret persuasion. There was also – we’re talking about a brother here – the implication that Big Sis might be hovering on the wrong side of the “very few sane people” dividing line.

Nevertheless, his wish was my command. And so I begin today by asking the question: Is it sane to own a ferret? And if it is not, are there any circumstances in which it might be? Let’s start with the basics.

What are ferrets? The scientific name of the domestic ferret (my kind) is Mustela furo. It is a descendant of the European polecat. It is also member of the weasel family; however, I choose to ignore that, because it is more illustrious to have a polecat as an ancestor than a weasel.

Anyway, who would want to kiss a weasel?

Ferrets, like designer fabrics, come in a variety of colors and patterns. Most have caramel colored fur with dark masks around their eyes like Zorro. Angora ferrets, sturdy little fellows, have long hair and resemble the lint that one takes out of the dryer after washing a favorite sweater.

Barnaby, photographed here, is white in the winter with a smattering of black the rest of the year. He is chubby and cuddly from November to April, and thin and cuddly from May to October. His little pink nose cracks me up. All I have to do is look at it and I burst out laughing.

What do ferrets do? Well ... Well ... Maybe it would be easier to tell you what they don’t do. They don’t herd sheep; they don’t bring you your newspaper in the morning; they don’t save little Timmy when he falls into a well; and they don’t bark when a psychopath is about to break through your bedroom window. In fact, they don’t make any noises at all unless you step on them, and then they give a heart-rending yelp.

Despite their inability to perform chores around the house, ferret exhibitions are held throughout the country. This rather reinforces my brother’s opinion about ferret-owner sanity. At these events, ferrets are judged for their abilities to escape from paper bags or to impersonate Elvis. There are also competitions for best yawner, best key stealer, best kisser, and best knocker-of-things-off-tables, all of which the entrants do with great joy and equanimity. Indicative of the generally low performance standards held by ferret owners is this quote from the Ferret Buckeye Bash, “any competitor who bites a judge will be immediately disqualified,” which seems to presuppose that, of course, a ferret will want to bite a judge.

If you give a ferret a Fed Ex mailing envelope, he will ecstatically scratch at the inside bubble wrap and love you forever. Ferrets, too, are remarkably adept at shredding paper towels, hiding in drawers, knocking over plants, sneaking into refrigerators, and licking showers. Like humans who declare that hot dogs taste best when served at a ball park, ferrets believe that water has only been property seasoned after their owners have sloshed around in it at the bottom of a shower stall. And after said shower, most ferret owners would agree that it is unnecessary to dry their feet, as their ferret will do an excellent job of it for them.

What else can a ferret do? (I’m on a roll here.) Well, if you hold a raisin over its head, he will stand up on his hind legs and beg. He can also hear you buying ice cream five miles away, and when you get home, he will stare at you with starving eyes for hours until you surrender something – maybe another raisin – as a treat.

Which comes to what ferrets do best. They look at you. With hopeful, pathetic, helpless, innocent, please, please, please eyes. You may have just given your little guy a six-course meal. Doesn’t matter. He will still gaze up at you, his little black ferret eyes pleading, “I’m desperate here. Won’t you give me some ice cream? A sugar snap pea? A stroll through the heating duct system in your house?”

And that brings us to my current live-in, Barnaby. When people meet him, they are attracted by his joie de vivre, his great skill at clambering up pants’ legs, and, of course, his irresistible pink nose. Other ferret fanciers keep their roommates in cages. Not I. Barnaby sleeps on a cushion in my bedroom. If he gets lonesome, he just climbs into my bed. When I’m off on an errand, he is restricted to the bedroom. When I’m home, he has the run of the house (exclusive of ferret-proofed areas behind refrigerators, stoves, etc.)

Speaking of which, inquisitive people are said to be “ferreting” something out, because the animals themselves are hopelessly nosey. My husband used to call them “Getintos,” because there was nothing they wouldn’t get into. This makes their owners roll their eyes and exclaim, “I can’t believe you just did that!” Ferrets also climb on your lap and insist on being petted when you are reading, performing delicate brain surgery, or watching TV, and they are great company for someone with a big enough ego not to care if his or her pet can’t remember who they are, never obeys, and makes them laugh, and laugh, and laugh.

Laughter is the critical factor here, because there never has been and there never will be a dignified ferret. Puppies become dogs; kittens become cats. But ferrets retain the eternal goofiness of youth. They live to play. And playing, they are irrepressible, mischievous, naughty, adorable, comical, and bold.

Which reminds me of something that Mae West once said. Paraphrased, it perfectly sums up why we sane (or insane) ferret lovers keep the little scoundrels around the house:

“When they are good, they are very, very good. But when they are bad ... they are better.”

Shelly Reuben is an Edgar-nominated author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit:

Copyright © 2008, Shelly Reuben

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