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The ferret: Pet or pest?

Ferrets, owners say, are full of personality. But depending on where you live, state officials concerned about the effects of released ferrets on native species have banned ownership and lawbreakers risk up to three years in jail.

By Associated Press / January 8, 2013

Ferret fans argue that the foot-long domesticated creatures make excellent pets and shouldn’t be regulated by wildlife agencies as such. Pat Wright, a La Mesa, Calif. advocate for legalizing ferret ownership, gets a kiss from one his three ferrets.

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The difference between owning a ferret in Hawaii and one in Pennsylvania can be up to three years in jail — and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

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That's the penalty for ferret fans in the Aloha State, where the 3-pound members of the weasel and polecat family are banned amid concerns of the animals escaping and wreaking havoc on the islands' delicate ecosystems. Similar fears are behind a decades-old ban in California, which has one of the nation's most diverse ecosystems.

"The concern is that if these animals were released, like other non-native species have been, they would adapt and thrive and out-compete native species for food, and prey on native species," said Adrianna Shea, deputy director of California's Fish and Game Commission.

States have had problems with feral animals in nonnative environments, creating problems for native species by eating them or ravaging their food supply. Feral cats, for example, have decimated bird populations. In Hawaii, the introduction of the mongoose to combat a rat problem "was a very poor idea. Rats are nocturnal and mongooses are diurnal. They only saw each other for a short period between dusk and dawn," said Minami Keevin, a land vertebrate specialist with the Hawaii Department of Agriculture.

But ferret fans argue that the foot-long domesticated creatures make excellent pets and shouldn't be regulated by wildlife agencies.

"Ferrets are really wonderful animals for those of us who are so inclined. They are messy, and they're expensive, and they're demanding, but they are full of personality, full of love and full of joy," said Pat Wright, who lives in La Mesa, near San Diego, and has been fighting California's ban for nearly 20 years.

Keeping a ferret as a pet takes more time, care and money than owning a dog or cat. The American Veterinary Medical Association in Schaumburg, Ill., which recently posted a YouTube video on pet ferrets, noted that they need to be caged most of the time, require hours of exercise and emit a musky odor that many people find unpleasant. Large cages are expensive, but on the other hand, ferrets don't require as much medical or dental care as cats or dogs.

"They are wonderful little clowns that not only steal your heart but they will steal anything they deem is theirs. This includes your shoes, socks, pens, pencils, hairbrushes, potatoes, car keys, wallets and clothing. I had two ferrets that tried to take my notebook computer to what is called their hidey-hole," said AmyJo Casner of Harrisville, Pa., who legally owns ferrets Manny, Marcuz, and Marylin.

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