Guest Post by Michael Hearing
Do you know your ferret history? Many people consider owning pet ferrets a fairly new fad. But ferrets have a long history as domesticated pets. You’ll be surprised at the illustrious history of your woozle.
The ferret is, of course, a mammal belonging to the Mustelidae family. The most common is the Mustela putorius furo. Wikipedia notes that the ferret “is a very close relative of the polecat, but it is as yet unclear whether it is a domesticated form of the European Polecat (Mustela putorius), the Steppe Polecat (Mustela eversmanii), or some hybrid of the two.” Polecats and ferrets often interbred, and there are even wild colonies of these hybrids that have damaged native plants in New Zealand.
The black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) looks a lot like the domesticated ferret, but the black-footed ferret, in addition to the black markings on its feet and tail, also has a black mask. While the black-footed variety is native to the US, it is illegal to own one. It is endangered because settlers have pretty much eliminated prairie dogs, the black-footed ferret’s main food source. (If you come across someone who owns a black-footed ferret, you should contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.)
Ferrets have been used since the days of ancient Greece and Rome to control rats and other vermin. They are cited in the biblical book of Leviticus among the “unclean” animals the ancient Hebrews were not to eat. (Some Bible translations specify “weasel” instead of “ferret.”)
In addition to destroying vermin, ferrets have also been used to chase rabbits from their burrows. Although ferrets were formerly able to survive in the wild, the domesticated variety has become so dependent on us that it cannot survive alone in the wild and would likely die within a short time.
Ferrets once played a vital role in European life. In some areas of England, they were known as fitchets, from the word ficheaux. They were so valuable that settlers brought ferrets with them when they came to the colonies. Farmers and hunters found them effective tools for controlling pests and sniffing out small food animals. Once chemical pesticides became available, the use of ferrets for pest control died out. Today, it is generally illegal in the US to use ferrets for hunting purposes.
Just as humans don’t always have the most impressive pedigrees, so it is with ferrets. There’s a reason that the term “ferret” is synonymous with “thief.” Ferrets are the compulsive thieves of the animal world, so never be surprised if your keys, coins, treats, and other items suddenly turn up missing.
You can also find many depictions of ferrets and references to ferret history in Western art and literature. No less a personage than Leonardo da Vinci painted La dama Con L’ermellino in the late fifteenth century. While the title describes the animal in the subject’s arms as an ermine, a symbol of purity and incorruptibility, animal experts say it is actually a ferret. (An ermine, a wild animal, would be too difficult to capture and pose for a painting. What’s more, the animal depicted is too large to be an ermine, but is about the right size for a ferret.)
Writer Virginia Woolf once called playwright Noel Coward as “clever as a bag of ferrets and trivial as a perch of canaries.” Speaking of playwrights, William Shakespeare himself has the character Brutus describing Cicero as possessing “looks with such ferret and such fiery eyes as we have seen him in the Capital being crossed in conference by some senators” (Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2).
In more modern literature, Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, wrote a series of short novels called the Ferret Chronicles. (They are now available in one volume called Curious Lives.) Each novel treats ferrets involved in human-like adventures. The recently deceased author Brian Jacques referred to ferrets in The Outcast of Redwall in his Redwall series, which recreate medieval times, albeit with animals as the main characters.
Ferrets have been important in more than vermin-control and art history. For example, ferrets played an important part in the study of human illnesses such as swine flu, influenza, SARS, and cystic fibrosis. They continue to be used in construction projects that require cables to be inserted in pipes too small for humans to enter. Ferrets were used, for example, to help lay the television cables needed to broadcast Prince Andrew’s and Sarah Ferguson’s wedding in 1986. In a more recent royal wedding, ferret races were among the festivities in Kate Middleton’s hometown of Bucklebury, England, the day she married Prince William in 2011.
Experts estimate that there are now about four million ferrets in the US, making them the third most popular pet, behind dogs and cats. Several celebrities, including Paris Hilton and Madonna, have had pet ferrets, mainly because the animals are so sociable and easily carried.
While ferrets probably didn’t come over on the Mayflower and Shakespeare didn’t write any sonnets to his favorite fuzzy, it’s rather interesting to know that ferrets are not exactly newcomers in the world of domesticated pets. Without a doubt, pet ferrets have a long and illustrious history with humans. Found out more about our fuzzy friends in Getting Started with Pet Ferrets.