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Now that ferrets have joined hyenas, tigers, jackals, hippos, and giraffes on the Board of Health's list of banned pets, what will become of our furry friends (or is it enemies)? A rather stern bunch of health officials last Tuesday voted to outlaw ferrets on the grounds that the not-so-distant cousins of weasels behave unpredictably and are prone to "vicious, unprovoked attacks on humans." One expert invoked a gruesome New Hampshire incident involving a wayward ferret and an infant's eyelid.
The city's self-appointed ferret advocate, Gary Kaskel, sniffs at the notion that a ferret is any more dangerous than a dog. "They're just wonderful, whimsical creatures," says Kaskel, whose ferret, Ginger, sleeps alternately under his bed, in his laundry pile, and in a tiny hammock in her cage. Despite the clarification of the health code (up to this point, the legality of pet ferrets was debatable), the cantankerous Kaskel insists he will not be taking Ginger anywhere. "She is staying!" he roared, as he stormed out of the Board of Health meeting. Kaskel, a computer programmer who says the Giuliani administration is "anti-animal," also called the board members "fascists."
Ferretsfamous for snaking through narrow spacesseem to work their way deep into owners' hearts. Ferret fanciers have remained loyal, despite the ongoing uncertainty about their pets' legal status. "There's always been that pending doom," says Wendy, a marketing executive who asked that her last name not be used. Wendy lives with two ferrets, Psycho and Moose. She's going to keep the duo, though her thoughts on ferrets do little to explain her willingness to risk a fine of up to $2000 apiece.
"They're definitely an antisocial breed," says Wendy. "Psycho sometimes crawls through the couch and will bite your butt. He sometimes nips at your toes. He also likes to crawl up the window screens." Gross! Isn't that just like a rat? "Not as gross as a rat," Wendy says, smiling. (Rats, by the way, are still legal.)
The ferret seems to straddle the animal worlds, with two paws in the cute, fuzzy pet camp and two squarely in varmint territory. Strangely, it may be its embattled position, itspardonunderdog status, that makes the ferret so extremely lovable to its fans. Since getting her first ferret seven years ago, Mary Shefferman has founded Modern Ferret magazine (circulation 20,000) and accumulated nine ferrets. She considers Bosco da Gama the most intelligent: "If he sees a treat on the bookshelf, he'll move something to use it as a step to get it."
For Shefferman, who lives on Long Island, the New York City ban stands in the way of her work in defense of ferrets around the country. Ferrets are already banned in California (as well as Hawaii and Washington, D.C.), which makes appearances on Leno out of the question. "With New York City cutting off ferrets, how can you reach all the people?" worries Shefferman, whose ferrets have appeared on cable and the Fox News Channel.
But at least she doesn't stand to lose her beloved pets. Lewis Reece Baratz, on the other hand, a consultant to the Board of Education who lives in Manhattan, is contemplating a ferretless future. This is no small matter for Baratz, who told the Board of Health that his ferret, who is blind and has a heart condition, "taught me unconditional love." Baratz refuses to disclose his pet's name, for fear of "search and seizure laws."Reached on vacation in Pennsylvaniawhere he had gone with his rabbit, two cats, and the anonymous outlawBaratz says he would give the ferret only to foster parents who would play with him at least an hour each day and "trim his nails and clean his ears every week."
Other friends of ferrets, says Baratz, may themselves soon be exiles, fleeing the city withtheir contraband pets "because they're appalled that the Board of Health has acted so irresponsibly and so hatefully." One of those potential exNew Yorkers is Helene Shanes, a paramedic who lives in the Bronx. "They would have to rip them out of my lifeless arms," Shanes says of her ferrets, as she cries into the telephone. "I would protect them to that point." Shanes, who has more than a dozen ferrets that she chauffeurs around in a specially outfitted van, says the ban may hasten a move to Pennsylvania she was already considering. In the meantime, she plans to be more circumspect on the daily outings she makes with her ferrets to the park. Others say they'll try to stay undercover by scheduling any medical visits with vets outside the city.
Meanwhile, animal rescue leagues are bracing themselves. Elinor Molbegott, legal counsel of the Humane Society of New York, fears the worst. "It would be a shame if some of these ferrets ended up getting abandoned in the streets," says Molbegott. "That would be just the opposite of what the Department of Health wants."
Nina Trischitta, the president of A Ferret Club on Long Island, says she's already received calls from city dwellers looking to unload their pets. Trischittahas long been getting more unwanted ferrets than she can handle, mostly from impetuous pet buyers who didn't realize what they were getting into. Twenty-two ferrets now live in big cages in Trischitta's house (four of them sleep with her at night). With foster families sheltering more than a dozen others, Trischitta says AFC is operating at capacity.