Fugitive Ferrets

Animal on dangerous, exotic list since late ’80s
Monday, July 26, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:57 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Ferrets have whiskers, tails and long slender bodies. They can wriggle their way in and out of holes and tight places. They are also illegal in Boone County.

But according to a veterinarian, they’re also pets to at least 80 Columbia and Boone County residents.

Dr. Greg Chapman of Noah’s Ark Animal Hospital and Bird Clinic in Columbia said he thinks ferrets should be legal. He agrees they do have a reputation for being biters, but said that is true of any exotic pets, such as snakes and lizards, that are legal in Columbia. He also said dogs and cats can bite people as well.

“I see a lot of ferrets. Their owners take good care of them, and they care about them,” he said.

In June 1988, with the recommendation of the Health Department, the City Council made owning domestic ferrets illegal in Columbia by including them in the Dangerous Exotic Animal Ordinance alongside bears, ocelots and jaguars. They were made illegal in Boone County a few years later.

Ferrets were “grandfathered” into the new ordinance, meaning anyone already owning a ferret could register and keep it, but no one could buy or own a new ferret legally after 1988. According to the minutes from that council meeting, ferrets were included in the list because there wasn’t a rabies vaccine available for use in ferrets. There was also some discussion of ferrets having a reputation for attacking children.

Ferrets originally banned due to rabies

At the time, council members agreed that including ferrets in the Dangerous Exotic Animal list was a good compromise until a rabies vaccine for ferrets became available. The council said it would then be willing to bring the issue up again and possibly remove ferrets from the list. In the early ’90s, the Food and Drug Administration approved a vaccine called IMRAB3 for use in preventing rabies in domestic ferrets.

Molly Aust of Columbia’s Animal Control Office said since the ordinance went into effect in 1988, they have had six to seven incidences with ferrets. There has been only one incident — about two years ago — when a ferret bit someone on the finger. The ferret was not claimed, and was turned over to the Humane Society to be euthanized and sent to Jefferson City for rabies testing. The ferret tested negative.

Most other incidences involved ferrets that had gotten away from their owners and were not claimed. These pets were also handed over to the Humane Society where they were euthanized after five days. Because they’re not legal in Columbia, ferrets do not have to be held for the normal 10-day period.

The most recent incidence was six months ago when an unopened pet store in Boone County was housing ferrets.

Ferret domestication in question

Dr. Howard Pue is Missouri’s public health veterinarian. He took over for Dr. F.T. Satalowich, who recommended that ferrets be included on the city’s exotic animal list. Pue says he has not been invited by the council to discuss removing ferrets from the list even though a rabies vaccine is now available. Although Pue does think ferrets should remain illegal, he cannot recall ever receiving a phone call regarding an incident of a problem from a ferret bite. Pue considers the issue to be more about the level of domestication.

“I don’t think they’re domesticated to the point of dogs and cats.” Pue said. “Ferret behavior is less predictable. There are a lot of people that love their ferrets, but there are also lots of people that love their chimpanzees and love their boa constrictors, but those don’t make great pets either.”

Neil Timmerman, a courier for FedEx Ground, cares for his friends’ ferrets when they are out of town. He said he has left houses with pit bull terriers and doberman pinschers without delivering their packages because he was afraid for his safety.

“Those dogs scare me enough to not deliver a package and they’re legal, but I’ve never questioned my safety around a ferret,” Timmerman said. “I don’t consider them dangerous.”

Ferrets are also illegal in the entire state of California and Hawaii as well as cities such as New York, Washington, D.C., and Dallas.

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