After having had the usual family pets -- hamsters, fish, a lizard, a dog -- Nat Eliason was ready for something more, um, exotic. Like a ferret. Or maybe a pair of ferrets.

For months he read everything he could about the slinky critters. But his parents were still uncertain. Dad insisted that Nat, who's 12, take full responsibility for caring for the animals. Mom had to be shown that ferrets don't smell horrible or attack for no reason -- common misbeliefs that have given ferrets a bad rap, Nat says.

Finally, this summer, Nat got his wish. Blizzard and Zorro, frisky 2-year-olds from the FerretsFirst rescue shelter in Annandale, moved into his bedroom.

During the day, while Nat is in class at Longfellow Middle School in McLean, the ferrets stay in a 41/2-foot-high cage that has two hammocks, a fleece blanket, ladders to climb and containers for food, water and kitty litter.

When Nat gets home, the fun begins. After sleeping all day, Zorro and Blizzard want to play. They race around Nat's room like furry subway trains, darting here and there and checking every nook to see if anything has changed since their last visit. Then they chase one another or go after Nat's socks.

"They're extremely cool," Nat says of his mischievous pets. "They're nothing like a dog or a cat. I'm not saying they're better. They're just different. . . . They love to make you laugh, and everything that happens, they have to know about it."

At the end of Nat's bed is a cardboard play box he made using plastic pipes and cornstarch packing peanuts. Nat drops Zorro into the box, and in a few seconds the ferret is poking his head out of one of the pipes at the bottom. Blizzard, his hunter instincts alerted, races over and tries to keep Zorro from getting out.

Later Zorro demonstrates his disappearing act, crawling into the bottom drawer of Nat's desk and reappearing seconds later -- in the top drawer.

Ferrets need to be free to explore for at least three hours a day, so Nat spends lots of time in his room. One day he was doing homework on his computer when "Zorro ran across the keyboard and everything disappeared. I was like, 'Oh no!' "

Another time, Zorro climbed the window blinds slat by slat until he could hop on top of Nat's tall dresser. Zorro also has hidden Nat's shoes and unzippered his gym bag.

"Anything they can squeeze through, they love it," Nat says.

Nat takes his ferret duties seriously. He feeds his pets, cleans their cage, cuts their nails once a week and rubs vitamin-filled oil on their tummies.

"Dook-dook!" Nat says, imitating the sound ferrets make when wrestling. He's clutching Blizzard and Zorro for a photo, but they are squirming to get free.

"Chill out, okay?" he says.

"Dook-dook," they reply.

-- Marylou Tousignant

Nat Eliason, 12, holds pet ferrets Zorro (left) and Blizzard, as his 8-year-old sister, Sonja, looks on.Blizzard peeks out from a play box.