In the world of sleek pets "Occupant" stood out.
"She was wonderful," said her owner, Irene Wells, 41, of Woodbridge. "She was a little doll baby."
Occupant was a leash and litter-box trained ferret, a small weasel-like animal with a rich and glossy coat. She might have earned a top prize among the 91 entrants at last Sunday's Fantastic Ferret Fling show in North Carolina.
But on Friday, two days before Wells was to load ferret cages onto her pickup truck and drive to the show, Prince William County authorities knocked on her door with a court order. They seized Occupant and carted her to the county animal shelter.
The officials said that on Wednesday the animal had bitten a 20-month-old child on the ankle, and would have to be tested for rabies. They said the incident occurred when the ferret apparently escaped from its back yard cage, scampered across the yard and bit the child, who was walking with her mother.
Yesterday, after an emotional two-hour hearing in Prince William Circuit Court -- during which Wells said she had "gone to pieces at least three times" -- Occupant was ordered decapitated by health officials. Her head was taken to a nearby rabies-testing laboratory. The test proved negative.
"They cut her head off the minute court was over," Wells said.
An hour after Judge Herman Whisenant's decision, Wells was back at home with Occupant's headless body stuffed in a twist-tie garbage bag, wondering whether to call a pet cemetery.
"I don't know what I'm going to do exactly," she said. "I'm sitting here trying to calm down a little bit. I've got the remains of a ferret, and I have to think about how to deal with this."
William Hamblen, assistant prosecutor for Prince William, who argued yesterday's ferret case, said officials had no choice but to kill the 2 1/2-year-old pet.
There is no U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved rabies vaccine for ferrets, he said. And even though Occupant had a rabies inoculation of the sort given dogs and cats, experts could not guarantee it would protect the bitten child from the disease.
Nearly nothing is known about how ferrets react to rabies -- how long it takes them to show symptoms or shed the disease, Dr. James G. Fox, a ferret authority and director of the division of comparative medicine at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in a telephone interview.
Therefore, the usual procedure of observing a suspected rabid cat or dog for 10 days was not an option, he added, agreeing with an opinion rendered by others, including Suzanne Jenkins, the assistant Virginia state epidemiologist.
The last known case of a rabid ferret in Virginia was in 1982, Jenkins said. But, last February, a rabid raccoon was found about a mile away from Wells' home, said Dr. Jared Florance, director of the Prince William County Health District. "So, we know we have rabies here," he said.
Even defense lawyer Floyd Bagley, a state legislator, agreed with the prosecutor: There was no choice.
Wells said that unlike some animal lovers, she "knows the difference" between people and animals, and is not apt to confuse priorities. She nevertheless maintains Occupant's death was unnecessary, and a "waste of a beautiful animal."
Court records refer to Occupant as a "brown ferret," but Wells said she is recognized by the International Ferret Association of Roanoke as the world's only breeder of "chili-pepper red" ferrets.
"It's a color she has developed," said George Harmon of the ferret association, which sanctioned the Fantastic Ferret Fling match in Gastonia, N.C., and which has 14,000 registered ferret members. He said Occupant undoubtedly would have won the "Best of Colors" category at the show, and could "very easily have scored enough to go as grand champion."
Wells obtained her first pet ferret -- "Lady Weasel" -- several years ago as a Christmas present from her husband. When Lady Weasel came of age, she arranged to have her bred to "Sundance." They produced Occupant.
Wells could not estimate how much Occupant was worth, but Harmon guessed in the neighborhood of $10,000 because of the valuable litters she would have produced. (Also seized with Occupant Friday were her six-nursing kits, one of which died at the pound).
Occupant is not Wells' only ferret -- she now has 36 living in a "big wood condominium cage" in her back yard that cost more than $200 to make. The shiny, red Occupant was special.
"In my mind, there was never any doubt," Wells said last night after the test results became available. "I'm really upset. I've lost my pet over this situation. And, I hope it doesn't happen to some other person's ferret."