Dances with Ferrets

NEFFER was founded last April by the former board of directors-Catherine Bell, Dianne Wood, Heather Wojtowicz and Debbie Honeysett-at a small ferret shelter as a resource for anyone interested in ferrets and ferret care. “We hope to introduce ourselves to a broader group of people and provide a fun and informative day for people who are interested in ferrets,” said Catherine Bell, vice president of NEFFER. “In the past, our events have been held at times when school has not been in session, and we would like to be available as a resource to the student population in this area, as well as to those who are here year-round.”

So what exactly attracts all these people to ferrets? “They’re very affectionate,” said Wojtowicz. “I have six; it seems like a lot, but I know people who have 30.”

Like any animal, though, caution must always be exercised around small children. “I’ve taken mine to my mother’s daycare and most shelters have educational ferrets that they always take with them to schools and group activities to demonstrate all the things about ferrets,” said Wojtowicz. “But when they do bite, they bite hard. I’ve had one attached to my finger and not been able to get it off.”

Owning a ferret always seems to make a person stand out just a little more. “From a ferret owner’s perspective, none of us thinks we’re weird but probably everybody else does,” said Wojtowicz. “I was one of the people who was just waiting for [ferrets] to become legal.”

“The qualities that people find so endearing about puppies or kittens are manifested tenfold in ferrets,” said Dianne Wood, president of NEFFER. “The best thing is they don’t outgrow those qualities as they age; they’re like puppies or kittens all their lives!”

The frolic will feature ferret games, contests, educational materials, ferret merchandise and more. “Unpotting the flower,” in which ferrets race to be the first to dig out a plastic flower out of a flowerpot filled with sand, is always a ferret favorite. “Mine could [win] except I’ve got them so conditioned that they’re not allowed to dig,” said Wojtowicz. “Everyone has that problem. They say ‘go’ and the ferret looks at them like ‘What? But I’m not supposed to do this.'”

Last year’s frolic amazed everyone as a woman from a shelter in Pennsylvania demonstrated how well-trained her ferret was during the “Best Trick” contest. “She held him, looked at him and said ‘take a nap’ and he went limp, put his head back and closed his eyes,” said Wojtowicz. “We made her do it six or seven times to prove that it wasn’t a fluke. We were just standing there with our mouths open. We couldn’t believe she had taught him to do this.”

But ferrets are indeed intelligent animals, as Wojtowicz notices daily. “I have cats and ferrets and the ferrets run circles around the cats as far as intelligence goes,” she said. “If they want to get up on something, they can figure out how to push a box over and climb up on that.”

The ferret frolic is more than just fun and games; the event tries to increase public awareness of ferrets for the improved welfare of all ferrets. Ferret shelter representatives also make an appearance at the frolic to educate the public and also to promote some of their own ferret products. The shelters are all privately run and so the frolics are one of the only ways that they earn money. There are currently only two major shelters in Massachusetts, both of which are in people’s homes. “We have a network of foster homes because shelters are very small and they can take tons and tons of ferrets, but there comes a point where they can’t take them anymore,” said Wojtowicz.

The lack of ferret resources in western Massachusetts led to the creation of NEFFER. With working relationships established with the 13 ferret shelters in New England, NEFFER is now working to expand its membership base. “There are several small shelters in Massachusetts and one very large advocate organization out in the Boston area-they are the group that’s responsible for getting ferrets legalized in ’96-but there’s not much happening out here as far as something outside of shelters,” said Wojtowicz.

Ferret ownership was first legalized in New Hampshire and is still relatively young in Massachusetts. Although many ferret lovers were excited about that change in 1996, there is, unfortunately, a lack of information about ferrets and ferret care. “Our veterinarian did this stealth thing, where she went around to different pet stores and she asked questions about ferrets and she got back completely wrong information from the employees-even they don’t really know [about ferrets],” said Wojtowicz. “So we go to PETCO once every six weeks and to Dave’s in Hadley and set up a table with educational stuff because there are so many people who have no idea what they’re really doing.”

Ferrets left in shelters are often in poor condition, as a result of an owner’s ignorance. “I care for many who are sick or who have been abused, so my heart is frequently torn,” said Bell. “Ferrets are intelligent, loving, mischievous animals with minds of their own and goals that you may not always want them to achieve-e.g., stealing the remote control or your socks. They are not low-maintenance, but they are worth every bit of care they require to someone who wants an animal with their characteristics.”

According to Wojtowicz, people often substitute cat care for ferret care. Owners will let their ferrets run free in the house when ferrets should be kept in an enclosed space and only let out for a few hours a day. “We get a lot of calls from people who are having trouble behavior-training their ferrets,” she said. “Because they’re little and they can get into little spaces, there’s so much more around the house that’s dangerous for them. Some people think that you can just put one litterbox in a room and the ferret will understand where to go, but it won’t.”

There are very few ferret regulations except that they must be vaccinated. “There’s one town in Massachusetts that bans ferrets and different towns have different regulations, like you can only have so many, but there’s no leash [law] or anything like that,” Wojtowicz said.

Unfortunately, this also means that very little is known about ferret health care as well. “There are several ferret diseases and they’re kind of unknown,” said Wojtowicz. “Pet food companies are the ones that put the major bucks in research, and because [ferret] food companies are small, they can’t kick in the kind of research budgets that outfits like Purina and Iams can.”

One common and fatal ferret disease is ferret Aleutian disease, which first started as mink Aleutian. “Its transmission and the duration and symptoms are a lot like AIDS,” said Wojtowicz. “There is no vaccine and no cure, and ferrets die from it too frequently.”

One of NEFFER’s goals, therefore, is to introduce younger students in high school and college to ferrets so that they will be aware of opportunities in ferret research and health care. “NEFFER hopes to foster an interest in pre-vet students and bio and chemistry majors who may go into the field of animal research and animal disease to focus on ferret pathology and disease,” said Wojtowicz. “Not that your grad school is hoping that someone with ferret background applies, but I’ve found that it’s been a thing that makes them look twice at you because it’s different.”