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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.

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Their antics are better than antidepressants, said Casner, whose pets inspired her to start a ferret clothing line that she sells online.

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A count of ferret owners across the U.S. was unavailable, but the American Pet Products Association said that in 1992, 2 percent of people who owned a small animal like a mouse, rat, ferret, gerbil, rabbit, hamster or guinea pig said they had a ferret. In 2000, 10 percent of small-animal owners said they had a ferret, and 7 percent in 2010 had them. That's despite bans in the two states, plus a number of large cities including New York, and U.S. military bases.

In California, where having a ferret can net a $500 fine or six months in jail, Wright estimated between 50,000 and 500,000 pet ferrets live a clandestine existence. His guess is based on ferret-supply sales and a 5,000-member mailing list for his ferret legalization cause.

Shea, who said Fish and Game has never tried to verify those numbers, said California doesn't have enough game wardens to chase violators, so the ban is not strictly enforced. Billboards close to the borders of Arizona and Nevada point motorists in the direction of ferret sellers. And most pet stores in California carry ferret food and supplies.

But the issue is taken seriously in Hawaii, where every report of a ferret is checked. One captured last year in Hilo was turned over to the Hawaii Island Humane Society, flown to Honolulu and quarantined until it could be shipped out of state. The penalty for importing, selling or possessing a ferret in Hawaii is a fine up to $200,000 and as many as three years in jail.

Dr. Valarie Tynes, a veterinarian with the AVMA, said breeders who spay and neuter ferrets before selling them could allay states' concerns that the animals could escape and procreate.

"I think there have been concerns by some that if ferrets got loose, they might thrive in the wild in the United States and possibly be damaging to native populations," she said. "I think it's interesting, as long as they've been pets, I've never heard of any place that's happened."

California's 80-year-old ban can be changed by commission vote or legislation, and there have been six attempts at a bill since 1994. A 2004 proposal came closest when it reached the desk of the governor — Arnold Schwarzenegger, who appeared with a ferret in "Kindergarten Cop." He vetoed it.

Wright is looking for another lawmaker willing to sponsor a new round of legislation, but conceded that task alone was difficult. With legislators facing issues like the budget, gun control and health care, he noted, anyone who goes to bat for ferrets will probably be mocked.

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