Prince William County authorities weren't amused when "Occupant," a prize ferret, broke loose from its cage at the Woodbridge home of Irene and Leslie Wells on Aug. 7. Game wardens alleged that Occupant bit a 20-month-old child near the home, and county officials got court permission to kill Occupant to determine if it had rabies. It did not.

The Wellses, however, became even more livid last week after receiving a letter from the county, directing them to remove the 35 pet ferrets that remain caged on their back patio.

The letter, signed by zoning inspector Bob Moore, said that the ferrets were considered farm animals, and that the Wellses' house is not zoned for that use. It warns that the county "will be obligated to take more formal action" if the couple does not act.

"I think it's positively asinine," Irene Wells said. "Whoever heard of farm animals that were housebroken?"

Leslie Wells agreed. "We certainly can't plow fields with them," he said. The Wellses said they have never received any neighborhood complaints about their ferrets in the more than two years they have owned them.

Irene Wells said she can no longer work because a 1981 accident left her partially immobilized, and that during the day the ferrets "are all I have to keep me company."

Leslie Wells said he has no intention of removing the ferrets and is considering filing suit against the county for harassment.

Moore, contacted Friday, declined to comment.