Mayor Rudolph Giuliani probably didn’t expect much of a political backlash when he added ferrets, iguanas, wombats, vultures and dozens of other species to his quality-of-life hit list not long ago. In defending health officials’ decision to ban city residents from keeping those animals as pets, Mr. Giuliani signaled his disregard by dismissing ferrets as “little weasels.”
Talk about underestimating your opponents.
It turns out that the “little weasels” and their banished brethren have some pretty powerful friends. Two months after the Mayor turned his sights on the animal kingdom, the initial outrage has escalated into a national battle involving everyone from the nuttiest animal-rights crusaders to well-heeled Washington lobbyists to owners of giant pet store chains.
Mr. Giuliani, who is expected to run for the U.S. Senate next year, has big-time political trouble on his hands. Upstate breeders who are looking to crack the city’s ferret market are threatening to use Mr. Giuliani’s stance against him next year. In Manhattan, ferret freedom fighters are expected to sue the city before the end of the month. In Staten Island, iguana defenders are considering their own lawsuit. Meanwhile, they warn darkly of a mass release of iguanas in Central Park.
In Washington, D.C., a lobbyist for the $20 billion national pet industry-including giant chains like Petland Discounts, which could lose tens of thousands of dollars in annual iguana sales-said he may launch a campaign to roll back the Giuliani administration’s new health code, which outlaws ownership of the newly banned creatures.
“We’re exploring the possibility of litigation,” said Marshall Myers, executive vice president of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council. “But we hope we can work with the city.”
For those who missed the beginning of this controversy, let it be noted that the city health code has long banned all pets defined as “wild, ferocious, fierce, dangerous or naturally inclined to do harm.” But the code neglected to specify which species fit that description. So the Board of Health recently voted to amend the health code to specify more than 150 species that have no place in Rudy Giuliani’s New York. Among them: dingoes, pythons, snapping turtles, elephants, scorpions, prairie dogs, whales and, of course, ferrets.
Many of these forlorn creatures have gone quietly. Not ferrets. The slinky, weasel-like mammals, which look like a cross between a beaver and a rat, stir deep passions in their owners. The owners argue that ferrets are legal in 48 states and are sweet of temperament. The owners’ lament is simple: They love their ferrets, and they don’t want Mayor Giuliani to take their pets away from them.
“If you could see my ferret, he is the most sweet, adorable creature you can imagine,” said Guy Glass, a psychiatrist based near Gramercy Park who, along with the guerrilla group New York City Friends of Ferrets, is helping to launch the lawsuit against the city.
“He has glaucoma and cataracts and adrenal tumors, and he is incredibly sweet,” Mr. Glass continued. “So it’s difficult for me to imagine why anyone would depict ferrets as vicious.”
‘You Need Help!’
Mr. Giuliani doesn’t have time for all this sappy nonsense. “This excessive concern with little weasels is a sickness,” he told a protesting ferret owner who called his radio show on July 23. “You need help! And please get it!”
Mr. Giuliani’s pet crackdown is well on its way to becoming an international incident. It has been the subject of radio shows in Britain and Germany, and it even found its way onto Australian television.
Ferrets may be popular all over the world, but to city health officials, the ferret is a ferocious, rabid threat to babies and helpless animals. City officials have argued that ferrets have been illegal since the 1930’s. But that argument has been difficult to uphold in court, since ferrets weren’t named in the health code.
To make the ferret ban official, city officials have asserted that underneath their cuddly exterior, ferrets are vicious, shiftless creatures. Lori Barber, the managing editor of a newsletter for the Maryland-based American Ferret Association, which is making its formidable ferret library available to opponents of the code, conceded that ferrets have been known to assault infants. But she said ferrets were often unfairly taking the rap for parental neglect or, worse, for attacks actually carried out by wily dogs.
“There was one instance where the family dog disappeared that day, and the ferret took the blame for the bite,” Ms. Barber insisted. “In another, one parent was stoned in the living room, and the other was down in a bar!”
In upstate New York, ferret farmers are vowing a political backlash. Peter Reid, the vice president of Marshall Pet Products, breeds tens of thousands of ferrets a year for owners all over the world: “We breed for a gentle temperament, and we give a one-year guarantee against congenital birth defects,” he said. Mr. Reid claimed that Mr. Giuliani’s directive would harm upstate business.
“He’s holding an industry hostage,” Mr. Reid said. “He wants to become a senator for us, and he’s basically slamming the door on New York business. I’m a Republican. Even I would vote for Hillary Clinton if she would get on the bandwagon.”
Other New York politicians are leaping to the defense of ferrets and their friends. The city’s frightened ferret owners have staked their hopes on pending City Council legislation, sponsored by Kathryn Freed and Gifford Miller, Council members for lower Manhattan and the Upper East Side, that would formally legalize ferret ownership.
What About Iguanas?
Ah, the lucky ferret-he has powerful friends. Iguanas, on the other hand, are not so fortunate-their proponents tend to be less organized. Iguanas may be loved, but, after all, they are reptiles.
Still, the iguana forces have quietly begun to mobilize. “Banned in New York!” blares the Web site http://www.iguanaden.com, whose archive is filled with concerned letters from as far away as California. The site is run by Kevin Egan, who services boiler rooms in Manhattan government buildings by day and rehabilitates abandoned iguanas-“over 600″-by night at his home in Staten Island. Mr. Egan is considering his own lawsuit against the city, or he may join with the ferret folks.
Then there are the pet shops, who stand to get hit hard by the iguana ban. Neil Padron, mustachioed owner of the Petland Discounts chain that has approximately 60 stores in the five boroughs, said he would support any lawsuit to lift the ban on iguanas. Iguanas are big business: Mr. Padron said his stores sell up to 8,000 iguanas a year in the city. He added that the iguana ban could cost him up to half a million dollars in annual sales.
“You have the iguana and the habitat they need-a cage, screen cover, lights, food,” Mr. Padron said. “We used to have a special [sale]. If you buy the equipment, you get the iguana for 99 cents. The average equipment for iguanas is $50 to $70. That’s what we’re going to lose right now.”
The ferret ban also will affect Mr. Padron. Petland Discounts carries an astonishing array of ferret products for which there may be no longer be any need, such as: ferret harnesses ($12.99), ferret shampoo ($4.99), ferret hair brushes ($6.99), ferret cologne ($4.49), ferret balls ($14.99), clear plastic ferret tunnels ($8.99), ferret hammocks ($8.99), chicken-flavored ferret bites ($1.99) and ferret fruit frenzy snacks ($6.49).
“I think Giuliani is a wonderful mayor,” Mr. Padron said. “But I don’t know how he gets caught up in these petty issues.”
In the end, however, ferrets may escape Mr. Giuliani’s guillotine, thanks to the City Council. Iguanas may not be so lucky. Which brings up another problem: Where will the tens of thousands of freshly illegal iguanas go?
To hear iguana lovers tell it, the city’s ban could lead to something of a mass murder of iguanas. Owners fear that if they are forced to surrender their pets, the sheer number of iguanas will overwhelm the city’s capacity to handle them, prompting fears that the reptiles will get the sort of care associated with Dr. Jack Kevorkian.
All of which has Mr. Egan predicting that the city could be overrun by refugee iguanas set loose by their owners. Picture a miniature Jurassic Park.
“When faced with the idea of taking a prized pet and giving it to a service that’s going to euthanize it, most people will take the option of letting it go in Central Park,” he predicted.