“If they legalize ferrets in New York, D.C. can’t be far behind,” said Barbara Bullock, 49, who lives in Southeast. Self-effacing, with a ready smile, Bullock doesn’t seem like someone who would harbor fugitives, but she does: Her pet ferret, Olivia, is not allowed in D.C.
“I eventually figured out that D.C. is not big on enforcing the ferret ban,” she said. “It’s not like New York or California, where they will confiscate your ferret at the border.”
The Internet abounds with stories of California and New York City ferret owners having their pets taken away. D.C. officials seem less interested in sending out the ferret police, said David Gaines, a Rockville resident and ferret advocate. Indeed, three out of five Petcos in the city carry ferret food and other supplies.
Until the D.C. Council votes to add ferrets to the list of allowable pets, D.C. ferret owners live with the knowledge that their beloved “fur babies” could be taken.
“Ferrets have been removed from the District,” said Mahlori Isaacs, a spokeswoman for D.C.’s Department of Health, though she didn’t specify when or how many.
That fact gives Christina Davidson, 40, pause when she takes her ferret, Subcomandante Abu Weasel al-Chupacabra, out for walks around Adams Morgan.
“The police here are really friendly, but I worry that, one day, I’ll run into the wrong one,” she said.
The ban has more insidious effects, as well, Bullock said. For instance, local ferret owners hesitate to take their pets to city vets, for fear of being turned in. “In an emergency situation, you might not have time to get to a vet in Virginia or Maryland,” she said.
That nearly happened a few months ago, when Olivia caught an intestinal parasite and “went downhill fast,” Bullock said. Bullock drove to the Halethorpe, Md., home of Bonnie Russell, co-founder of Washington Metropolitan Area Ferret Outreach. Russell stabilized Olivia and, after a vet consultation and a course of antibiotics, Olivia went home.
Olivia’s close call illustrates one common ferret fallacy that has been used to justify bans in New York City and California, Russell said.
“People think these guys will escape and form feral colonies and endanger wildlife, but they can’t make it three days out on their own,” she said.
Descendants of the weasel-like polecat, ferrets have been domesticated for around 2,000 years. Early Europeans may have used them for pest control and to hunt small game, like rabbits.
Today’s domesticated ferret is playful, docile and easy to train. Olivia can roll over, play dead and give a high-five on command. Perhaps even more so than cats, ferrets bond with their owners. Every night before bed, Olivia crawls into bed with Bullock and demands a full-body massage.
The main downside to ferrets, said Russell, is that they are a lot of work.
“It’s like having a 2-year-old. You have to watch them constantly or they get into trouble,” she said.
Southwest D.C. resident Brian Wenham, 34, found that out when one of his four pet ferrets crawled up into his La-Z-Boy chair and got stuck.
“I had to flip it upside down and half disassemble it,” he said.
Misinformation, particularly the belief that ferrets are vicious wild animals, has been behind most city and state ferret bans, Gaines said. In D.C., ferret advocates are fighting an even tougher foe: bureaucracy. Regulation changes have been pending for the better part of the past 10 years, he said.
“The D.C. government, even more-so than most governments, operates like molasses running uphill,” he said.
D.C. Council member Yvette Alexander, chair of the Health and Human Services committee, says they’re waiting for recommendations from the D.C. Board of Veterinary Medicine. Once new regulations are in place — for example, requiring ferrets to be licensed and vaccinated like dogs and cats — she’s all for ferrets in the District, she said.
“We will make sure they are regulated so that if residents want them as pets, they will have that option,” she said.
If that happens, D.C. may have a small influx of new residents, said Megan Holland, 25. When Holland moved to the area a few years ago for a job at the Humane Society Legislative Fund, she and her two ferrets, Minsky and Moscow, decided to live on the right side of the law, in Arlington.
“I was really disappointed to learn D.C. didn’t allow ferrets,” she said.
That doesn’t stop her from taking Minsky and Moscow to D.C., where she has a cage set up for them in her office. Per Metro pet regulations, the animals stay in their hard-sided carrier during their Orange Line commute.
Minsky and Moscow are pretty lazy co-workers. They nap through meetings, Holland said. But when the duo wake up and caper around, they’re a big hit.
“They’re so funny, everyone in the office loves them,” she said. “It’s hard not to smile when you’re watching a ferret.”
Should I get a ferret?
Don’t believe former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. Ferrets do not tend to bite and are less smelly than most dogs, says Bonnie Russell, co-founder of Washington Metropolitan Area Ferret Outreach, a ferret rescue group.
“Ferrets are beautiful creatures and so entertaining, I cancelled my TV subscription,” she says.
As a ferret owner, you should budget two to three hours a day for playtime, Russell says. Additionally, you’ll need to empty their litter boxes daily and clean their cages about once a week.
Be sure to sock away funds for emergency vet visits. The critters tend to ingest debris and end up with life-threatening intestinal blockages.
The hardest part of ferret ownership is their short lives. Ferrets often develop chronic diseases around the age of 3 and few make it to the ripe old age of 9, Russell says.
“They are heartbreakers, that’s for sure,” she says.
If you do decide to get a ferret, don’t buy one at a pet store, Russell says. Instead, adopt through a rescue group or humane society.
“There are so many ferrets in need of good homes,” she says.
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