New York’s Most Misunderstood Mammal

How bad science and bureaucracy bred NYC’s strange relationship with ferrets

4858095298_b9f2d825eb_bMy ex had wanted them after graduation. So I’d gotten them for her—and grown to like them, despite my reservations. I’d heard they were mean. (They’re not, she insisted.) And stinky. (Only if you don’t change their bedding, she rebutted.) By the time I discovered they weren’t allowed in New York City’s five boroughs, there was no going back.

“They” were ferrets. Peanut and Grizz. Roughly the size and consistency of stockings filled with sand, they had the demeanor of kittens and made the commotion of mice. Perfect for our 300 square foot Hell’s Kitchen apartment. Until the veterinarian across the street told me the bad news: domestic ferrets were—technically—illegal.

“But,” the vet said, “They shouldn’t be. Clinics treat them anyway.”

Thus began four years of paranoid New York living. My neighbor smoked a kilo of marijuana every Sunday, but I was the scared one in the building. I panicked every time a stranger knocked on the door, throwing a blanket over the cage before answering. I made sure not to make mention of the animals on Facebook. Local pet stores all stocked ferret food, and clerks winked knowingly when I bought it, but my survival instinct kept me jumping at police sirens.

One day, to my horror, my building superintendent spotted Grizz from the doorway. But instead of a warrant for my arrest, I got a, “Well isn’t he a cute little guy?”

A few days later, I played dumb and asked a cop on 50th Street and Broadway if ferrets were legal. “I think so…” he frowned. At home, I called a few pet-friendly doorman buildings, asking if they were “ferret friendly.” The answers generally amounted to, “Sure.”

No one seemed to care about my contraband ferrets.

The ferrets are gone now. Despite that, a wave of relief washed over me this summer when I heard that Mayor de Blasio and the NYC Department of Health might legalize them.

By this time, I had personally decided that pet ferrets were not vicious (and only somewhat stinky). They were less violent to my couch than the house cats I’d grown up with, and less injurious than my old Labrador back home in Idaho. And Peanut and Grizz were delicate enough that we banned shoes in the house for fear of accidental maimings.

I wondered why they were illegal in the first place.

“A hundred years ago New York had this big rat problem in the subways,” the teenage clerk at PetLand on 49th Street and 9th Avenue informed me. “So they released ferrets into the tunnels to eat them. Then the city was worried about ferret infestation, so they made them illegal.”

Another employee, Erik, had a different story. “Giuliani got it into his head that people were releasing ferrets into the streets,” he said. Then he added, definitively, “I’ve lived here my whole life, and there have only been three ferrets on the loose.”

“I heard that someone once dropped a ferret down Michael Wolff’s pants,” said a fellow reporter at dinner the other night. “That’s got to be part of New York City ferret lore.”

“Ferrets are illegal?” blurted my incredulous personal trainer the next morning. “Maybe they watched that scene in The Big Lebowski with the ferret in the tub.”

It became clear to me that New Yorkers and ferrets have a confused relationship. But the real story was more complicated than any theory I’d heard so far.

***

Mustela putorius furo have been domesticated for at least 2,500 years. Some experts estimate longer than cats. Early human settlements, likely in North Africa, attracted mice and rats with their food storage. Polecats—from which domestic ferrets descend—came to eat the vermin. “Those that were considered a dangerous pest themselves were killed, and the only ones that survived to produce the next generation were the most docile,” Dr. Richard Bulliet, Columbia University professor of history and animal studies, explained to me.

In the wild, the gentlest animals within a species don’t contribute to the next generation because they are killed by predators. However, in early civilization, “Those [laid back polecats] were not eaten by hawks, eagles, and things like that because the humans killed [their] predators,” Bulliet said. Over 20 to 30 generations, polecats became increasingly docile, their adrenal glands reducing in weight by seventy-five percent, diminishing their fight or flight instinct and allowing them to submit to humans as pets.

Like dogs, ferrets were employed as hunting aids—chasing rabbits out of burrows—then eventually as companions. They became popular as pets primarily in Europe. (In fact, Leonardo da Vinci painted what appears to be a white ferret in Lady with an Ermine). In the 1980s, a pet ferret fad crossed over to America, where the public routinely misidentified the animal as a rodent—as various news outlets still report—or the wild, American black-footed ferret—whose photo often appears alongside domestic European ferret headlines. Reports of minks attacking people, or feral stoat populations occasionally were misclassified as ferrets. Popular cinema typecast the ferret as a wild and crazy sidekick. But in the real world, ferrets mostly slept 18 hours a day and ate chicken pellets.

Forty-eight states eventually adopted ferrets as legal pets, including New York state. But New York City did not deign to jump on the bandwagon.

Ferrets aren’t the Big Apple’s first controversial pet. For much of its early history, pigs were NYC’s critter of choice, and wild dogs were the local nuisance. They’re often found on the streets in famous 19th century lithographs, running loose and rooting in the trash—which piled high for centuries until the city installed a sanitation code. On a given month in the 1850s, the City Inspector would report the removal of hundreds of dead dogs, cats, sheep, goats, and hogs from the streetside trash. Rules banning domestic pigs from the streets led to various skirmishes between the Irish and African-American poor and the City in what became known as “the hog riots.”

Such mayhem led to the official 1933 Sanitary Code, which laid out specific policy on animals that could be owned in the city at all. The NYC Department of Records has lost the document, but a 1943 Sanitary Code Appendix references the original code, where the section “Keeping of wild animals prohibited” places a ban on “tame or untame lions, bears, wolves, foxes, snakes or other animals with similar vicious propensities.”

In 1959 the Sanitation Code was replaced by the Health Code. The City lost that document, too. But the City does have a 1969 amendment that defines “wild animals” not by the scientific definition, but as any species that the City deems “dangerous or naturally inclined to do harm.” It mentions that some “wild” animals like birds are actually not dangerous, and some “domestic” species of dogs are “quite savage” and should be outlawed. Ferrets were not specifically named; however, it appears that the zoological family mustidulae—all of whose species are wild but ferrets—was included in the City’s assumed definition of “wild animals.”  During that period, the increasing number of NYC ferret owners lived in a gray area, claiming their animals were not indeed wild, but fearing confiscation because they were not officially on a “safe list.”

By the 1990s, New York State had dropped its requirement that ferret owners obtain so much as a permit for their pets. But in June 1999, the City’s Health Department released an exhaustive list of banned animals to replace the vague one on the books, declaring that illegal animals found to have bitten a New Yorker be immediately euthanized and examined—in that order. Ferrets were lumped in with their wild weasel and badger cousins, to the dismay of ferret advocates. “One does wonder what prompted this specific prohibition,” said Kenneth Cobb, Assistant Commissioner at NYC Department of Records, who could find no record of why ferrets were among the only domestic pets prohibited.

Pet advocates claim that the impetus was a fallacious letter sent to the Health Department by a veterinarian 250 miles away in New Hampshire. It compared ferrets to tiger cubs and asserted—with anecdotal evidence—that ferrets had a thing for chewing on babies.

The ferret people sued the city.

***

The late Judge Allen G. Schwartz, the federal justice appointed to the 1999 ferret rights case, was an animal lover and owner of a dog named “Winnie the Poodle,” according to his daughter, Rachel. The group of ferret owners that loitered in his courtroom were a motley mob, a woman with pink hair at the center.

They claimed a breach of equal rights—a notoriously hard type of case to prove, explained Rebecca Wisch, Associate Editor of the Animal Legal & Historical Center at Michigan State University. “The plaintiffs had to prove by clear and convincing evidence that the law was unconstitutional. This is an extremely high standard,” Wisch told me. “The city only needed to prove that this law protects the health, safety, and welfare of its citizens.”

The defense questioned the validity and interests of the plaintiffs’ two witnesses, a pediatrician and a doctor whose parents owned a large ferret breeding farm (Marshall Farms). The ferret lobby failed to successfully challenge the City’s witnesses, none of whom appear to have had scientific expertise in ferrets—except for one Dr. Charles Rupprecht, chief rabies researcher at the Centers for Disease Control who was overseeing development of a ferret rabies vaccine. Though the ferret lobbyists already had a weak legal argument (in which they would have to prove discrimination based on something as charged as race, religion, etc.), most of the discussion in court centered around whether ferrets were wild animals.

According to testimony by Martin Kurtz, Director of the Bureau for Veterinary Public Health Services, “Ferrets remain prone to vicious, unprovoked attacks on humans, particularly children and infants,” the court recorded. Kurtz had no expertise in this area personally. He had resigned from the board of the Center for Animal Care and Control in 1997 after having been accused of mishandling the city’s animal shelter system.

The main evidence cited to back up Kurtz’s assertion was a 1988 California study called Pet European Ferrets: A Hazard To Public Health, which stated that infants are “perceived by ferrets as prey.” Over a ten year period, the study showed, 62 infants and children in 18 states had been attacked unprovoked.

However, an examination of the study reveals flabbergastingly poor science. Authored by a bat rabies expert and a health care executive, it draws from dubious sources, including an 1837 book by a British dentist and amateur zoologist named Thomas Bell who claimed that the ferret is “excited by the smell and taste of blood.” This document, unsupported by science, became evidence in the 1988 document, which in turn became primary evidence in the 1999 court case.

The 62 attacks cited in the study did not provide statistical significance to draw the conclusions that the authors made, and whereas five of the attacks required reconstructive surgery—a horrible thing for a child to require—in the same period an estimated 300,000 American dog bites required such surgery. Approximately 100,000 dog attacks occurred in New York City alone during that time. (The city also recorded 10 ferret bites, more than 2,500 cat bites, 37 rabbit bites, and 52 hamster bites.)

A few horrific cases have been reported over the years of ferrets chewing on infants’ ears, fingers, and eyelids. Dr. Erika Matulich, a marketing professor now at University of Tampa and owner of six ferrets, claims to have researched every publicly reported incidence of a ferret attacking a child in the U.S. in order to testify for ferrets in a county in Texas in 1999. “What I found was that in every case, the ferret was in an abuse or starvation situation,” she told me. “Related to most of these cases were associated cases of child abuse as well.”

A recent example of this is a highly-publicized 2011 case in which a Missouri couple’s four-month-old had seven fingers chewed off by a starving baby ferret. The story recently ended with a guilty plea for endangerment in exchange for a lightened sentence for the parents, who’d faced prison time. Cell phone data revealed that, despite initially claiming to have been asleep, the parents may have left the child home alone.

Ferret opponents haven’t refuted Matulich’s claim, though I wasn’t able to verify it. Statistics, however, indicate that per capita, ferrets are significantly less likely to injure than dogs.

The World Health Organization estimates about 4.5 million dog bites occur per year in America. Between 13 and 20 dog bite deaths are reported each year, most of them children. In 2012, a golden retriever dismembered a two-month-old in South Carolina. That same year, a Jack Russell killed a newborn baby of a teenage mother in England. Last year, a pack of chihuahuas mauled a 6-year-old in Oregon. This year, a 3-year-old was killed by a neighbor’s pit bull. (The owner was a 24-year-old mother of three.) And a South Wales child had its head “eaten” by a Malamute in February. According to the nonprofit Dogsbite.org, a dog bite occurs every 75 seconds in the U.S, generating more than 1,000 ER visits per day. Cats aren’t blameless either. In fact, a grown man was airlifted to a hospital after his house cat attacked him in 2011.

The 1999 New York Court, however, decided that because the ferret population couldn’t be reliably estimated, ferret bite percentages could be higher than currently thought, though calculations based on the amount of ferret food sold in the U.S. indicate that ferrets are many times less likely to bite a human than a dog.

“I always recommend that children be supervised whenever they are playing with their pets,” Dr. Shachar Malka, Diplomate ABVP at the Humane Society of New York and one of approximately 150 exotic pet specialists of his kind in the world, told me. “But I can tell you, I have been bitten by parakeets, hamsters and hedgehogs more than I have ever been bitten by a ferret.”

Regardless, the court declared that ferret and dog stats were apples compared to oranges. The court further worried that pet ferrets could form feral populations in the city, or turn rabid. Two instances of feral ferret colonies in the U.S. were cited as proof. However, these colonies involved purposely introduced ferrets with the intention of breeding in the wild to kill vermin. “To my knowledge, feral population of domesticated [runaway pet] ferrets have never been documented,” Dr. Malka told me. Ferrets are sterile by the time they are sold to pet stores, he pointed out. In pets’ case, he said, “This is almost a myth that they can survive in the wild.”

Dr. Rupprecht of the CDC put the rabies question to rest. “We had a licensed vaccine. We showed that ferrets shed rabies virus in their saliva in a similar manner that dogs and cats do,” he told me. “It was accepted by the Compendium of Animal Rabies Prevention and Control.”

Other court witnesses cried rabies anyway. Invalid evidence wasn’t dismissed, and the court said that since “ferret ownership is a ‘debatable’ question,” the City’s ban was not unconstitutional. The ferret lobby lost the case.

In the ensuing press announcement, Health Commissioner Neal L. Cohen recited another concern brought up by the California study. “In multiple dwelling residences, which are not natural habitats of ferrets, a ferret could crawl through holes in walls or travel along risers or ducts to another apartment,” he said. “The potential consequences for the neighbor of a ferret owner, particularly for an infant neighbor, could be tragic.”

Dr. Malka confirmed that this has never happened in New York, and no record could be found of any such occurrence in Tokyo, Toronto, and Chicago.

***

The ferret people seethed at their loss. They posted line-by-line rebuttals online. They outed the anonymous letter-writer, and, the writer told me, harassed him to the point of depression. They plagued council members and health officials with angry emails and phone calls.

Perhaps that’s why in 2001 the City Council passed a vote to officially overturn the ban and be done with it. However, Mayor Giuliani vetoed. He compared legalizing ferrets to legalizing tigers, and ferret advocates claim that one council member called the group, “Evil ferret lovers.”

Though he expressed indifference to The New York Times last summer, Giuliani was notoriously passionate about the ferret issue. A clue to why comes from his famous ferret rant in July 1999 in which he called a ferret advocate, David Guthartz, “deranged.” Sure, the mayor was being a jerk, but why did he fly so far off the handle? It appears that Guthartz had been harassing Giuliani for a while, in similar fashion to the persecution of other ferret opponents like the New Hampshire vet—even calling up in the middle of the night. Perhaps the mayor was made grouchy because of these intrusions? Or perhaps he just hated ferrets? Either way, with that rant, the NYC ferret situation transformed from a misunderstood scientific issue to an extremely personal one.

Recent research has refuted the arguments in that 1999 case. CDC has officially deemed ferrets rabies-safe. A 2010 California study disproved the assertions of the 1988 study. A rash of experts have spoken out in favor of ferrets. Other major cities allowed ferrets without major incident. And we’ve discovered that humans bite humans more than ferrets bite humans, and human bites become infected a nasty percentage of the time.

Meanwhile, ferret ownership in New York has become practically decriminalized. However, unlike opponents of other shrugged-on crimes, like marijuana possession, ferret opponents seem to not want to talk about the issue anymore. Dr. Cohen refused to speak on the record “for many reasons.” The anonymous veterinarian begged me to keep his name out of the story, saying he wishes he never wrote that letter. “If I were to re-write that letter today I would suggest licensing of ferrets rather than a ban,” he said. “There is certainly a greater amount of harm done by and to dogs.” Giuliani’s press office was eager to talk to me, until it heard that the topic was ferrets, then declined to arrange the call. Dr. Kurtz now appears to work for a dessert manufacturer in Illinois and could not be contacted. Judge Schwartz passed away, but his daughter said he was “torn up” about the case. The only witness eager to speak was Dr. Rupprecht, who happened to be the only relevant scientist in court, and despite no personal affinity to ferrets told me, “Is there anything substantive out there about why ferrets should be illegal more than dogs or cats? I don’t think so.” He continued, “If anything, there is less probability of risk in New York City as you would have in rural areas.”

Though I was apprehensive about a New York City pet in general, pet ferrets were a pleasant surprise. Grizz, who is now deceased, once bit a three-year-old on the foot after the three-year-old kicked him into the wall. Otherwise, they never behaved “wild”—and certainly not as wild as the skittish goats back home at my parents house, or the neighbor’s hyperactive dog who kills their chickens. Neither Grizz nor Peanut, who now lives in New Mexico, ever crawled through any holes.

The NYC Board of Health is holding a public hearing on ferrets on January 21, and plans to vote on the proposal soon after. My paranoia will persist til at least then, though it’s now overshadowed by the fear of one day finding myself holding an armful of ferrets and yelling at civil servants, wondering how I got to this point.

But in the meantime, if NYPD reads this story and comes for my arrest, please tell them to stop by my stoned neighbor’s apartment, too.

New York’s Most Misunderstood Mammal