Washington — What looks like a blond fur boa curled in a circle suddenly twitches, and one beady brown eye blinks at the viewer. Four tiny paws with black, needlelike claws and mauve pads wave languidly in the air, then disappear as one of the furriest, newest wrinkles in household pets stands up to survey the scene.
Ferrets as pets are not about to drive cocker spaniels and Siamese cats out of the business, but they are developing a following of loyal and often laughing owners. Ferrets, their owners say, are the fur clowns of the pet world. I saw my first ferret this winter at a Washington pet store, just down the aisle from the iguanas, lizards, pythons, water dragons, cockateels, and the real boas that constrict.
This particular ferret, whom we'll call Fred, was a sable one, with a fluffy, dark-honey coat tipped with black. He went for $69.50; Siamese ferrets, a pale shade of blond, with dark masks and tails and feet, were slightly pricier: $79. 50.
When Fred uncurled and stretched out to stalk around on the wood shavings of his glass-walled cage, he looked a bit like a miniaturized fur dinosaur. That's because when ferrets move their slender but long (up to 16 inches) bodies, they tend to hump up the center section like the Loch Ness monster or a croquet hoop, to give their minuscule legs traction to move that long torso.
When a pet-store employee picked up Fred, the ferret was on his best behavior , cuddling in his arms like a long cat. A trio of baby ferrets, or kits, looked on. The tiny, triangular face - with its twitching whiskers and its minute pink ears that look cropped but aren't - peered inquisitively around. But Fred stuck to his decorous behavior, which, as any ferret owner will tell you, is unusual. Ferrets tend to: jump up and down with joy, literally, when they are happy; do a little skittering sidewise dance with their mouths open; burrow under rugs and behind refrigerators; dig up house plants; and play hide-and-seek with your gloves or your supper. Owners talk about ''ferret-proofing'' a house, which means sealing up all the little nooks and crannies in which ferrets like to hide themselves or their loot.
Catherine Hutchinson of Alexandria, Va., a member of the Ferret Fanciers of Virginia club, tells about the time her family found the equivalent of 1 1/2 loads of laundry behind their refrigerator - all the missing socks and underwear the ferrets had been stashing away for months. The Hutchinsons, who live in a split-level house, had sealed off one section of it from their curious ferrets with a gate; it worked well until the ferrets learned how to unlatch it. Finally the family barricaded the gate shut with a couple of beverage cartons full of bottles. Mrs. Hutchinson remembers looking up shortly after that to see the cartons moving slowly away from the gate and across the room as the ferrets, who are strong for their size, bulldozed the cartons out of the way. The Hutchinsons currently have three sable ferrets: Frodo, Bilbo, and Casey.
''They're very different from any other domestic pets,'' Mrs. Hutchinson says. ''They're more intelligent than cats, and just as independent. They're affectionate and very funny; kind of clowns, they play like otters. . . . The verb 'to ferret out' has real meaning'' to anybody who owns one, she says, because the animals are relentlessly curious searchers. The dictionary definition of ''to ferret out'' is ''to find or uncover with keen, diligent, crafty, or shrewd search,'' and this points up the quality that's made these animals useful to man.
In England and Egypt, Mrs. Hutchinson says, ferrets have been used for rodent control; in the United States, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has used them to thread wire through difficult spaces, and during World War II the military used them to run communications lines through pipe. In Great Britain, she says, poachers put them into their hunting-jacket pockets to flush out rabbits.
Everything you've ever wanted to know about ferrets is included in Wendy Winsted's book ''Ferrets,'' which includes among its full-color pictures one of the author with a satchel full of pet ferrets wearing leather collars and bells. She travels with them. Ferrets, she points out, are a domesticated strain of a Eurasian weasel, the polecat - and sniffing cousins to the mink, ermine, badger, and skunk. They can be trained to use litter boxes and taught to walk on leashes , but as pets they also have a few drawbacks:
Baby ferrets regard everything as potential food, biting everything in sight with needle-sharp teeth. Owners recommend buying ferrets bred for gentleness, and then not until they're past the very young stage. Ferrets must be trained not to bite; an untrained adult ferret can inflict a vicious wound, one owner warns.
Ferrets also have a distinctive musky odor, stronger in the male than the female. Though not in the skunk's league, their scent is offensive to most people. Ferret experts recommend that the animals be de-scented, since even frequent shampooing doesn't keep them smelling like lilacs.
Female ferrets tend to breed continuously, too, so spaying is recommended. If you don't, you'll end up with a ''business'' of ferrets, as a group of them is called.
Ferret owners recommend cages for the pets if you're away from your house during the day and expect to see it standing when you return at night. They also suggest wood shavings on the floor of the cage, something for them to crawl into , and a hanging water bottle. Ferrets consider bowls of water just damp toys. Ferrets thrive on commercial cat food, though they've also been known to develop a taste for watermelon, spaghetti, and chewing gum.
One of the first ferret pioneers in Virginia was Cathi Radford, who became interested in them as pets when a neighboring child found what she thought was a funny-looking, muddy cat and brought it into the Radford family's pet shop for care. Ms. Radford named the ferret Saturday, gave it the run of the store, and found customers so intrigued they wanted to buy one. She estimates she's sold 800 ferrets as pets in the five years since then.
Ms. Radford is also the founding mother of the Ferret Fanciers of Virginia, which last year held a ''ferret frolic.'' It included contests for beauty, digging, running mazes, and yawning (if patted on one area of the neck, ferrets have a yawn reflex). Over 100 members' families attended, and (as each family has at least two ferrets and often many more) quite a business of ferrets.