New York pro-ferret lobby rejoices: Don't lump us with even-toed ungulates

Ferrets may be weaseling their way back into the heart of the Big Apple, as the city's Board of Health takes up petition to lift a 15-year-old ban on the right to own a ferret.

By , Staff writer

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    A ferret named Monkey is seen in Sacramento, Calif., in 2001. New York City is considering a petition to repeal a ban on ferrets passed in 1999.
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New York Mayor Bill de Blasio might soon give the people (well, some of them) what they want: the right to own a ferret. 

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene is supporting a college student’s petition to repeal the city's controversial ban on ferrets, news media reported. To go into effect, the possible amendment to the city’s health code would have to be approved by the city’s Health Board.

The petition, brought by Brooklyn College student Ariel Jasper, would end the five boroughs’ 15-year-long ban on ferrets, which belong to the Mustelidae family of carnivorous mammals that include weasels and otters. Two previous New York City administrations had successfully defended the ban against a small but insistent pro-ferret lobby, calling ferret prohibition a necessary means of protecting locals from ferret bites and scratches.

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But Ms. Jasper told The New York Times that Mayor de Blasio, who has positioned himself as a friend to Central Park’s carriage horses, might see the matter anew.

“We have a mayor who seems to be a little bit more concerned about animal issues,” she said. 

To the parents of children who do not live in New York City, the ferret is often a compromise between a hamster – feeble, feckless, and liable to die without sufficient notice – and a dog (though, ferrets, which live up to 10 years and require daily walks, can be just as time-consuming).

Most states, including New York, do not ban ferrets. Only California, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia, are deliberate ferret-free zones. 

But, in 1999 New York City decided it was fed up with reports of bad-behaving ferrets going rogue on their child owners. Enough, it said, with the ferrets.

“Ferrets are known for their unpredictable behavior, and they are prone to vicious, unprovoked attacks on humans,” said the New York City Department of Health’s June 1999 press release announcing that the city had drawn up an official list of animals, including ferrets, that were not welcome there.

“In New York City's multiple dwelling residences, which are not natural habitats of ferrets, a ferret could crawl through holes in walls or travel along risers or ducts to other apartments,” it said.

That, it continued, could have “potentially tragic consequences for the neighbor of a ferret owner.”

Ferrets could take cold comfort in that they were not alone in their exclusion from the Big Apple. Squirrels, pilferers of picnic baskets, are not pets, according to the list of banned animals. You are also not allowed to keep a whale in your New York City apartment, should this idea occur to you.

Animals that are not pets also include:

  • All even-toed ungulates (including pot bellied pigs, giraffe and hippopotamus).
  • All odd-toed ungulates (including rhinoceros, but excluding domesticated horses).
  • Hedgehogs.
  • All “non-human primates” (that is, no chimps, lemurs, apes, or gorillas).

The current rules urge that if you insist on making an odorous addition to your living quarters, it should be a small bird, a dog, cat, hamster, guinea pig, domesticated rabbit, female chicken, or gerbil.

The 1999 list had detractors from the get-go. Supporters of the also-banned iguana and the sugar glider (a possum-like animal) were outraged. So too were people fond of ferrets: A pro-ferret group filed a lawsuit against the city in October 1999 to get the ferret back.

Ferret supporters pointed out that the animals are domesticated – ferrets are distinct from their doppelgangers, weasels, which are wild animals. Though ferrets can bite and scratch, the risk of attack is no greater than it is from a feline or canine pet, according to NYCFerrets.com.

But the city was not having it. In one episode over the issue, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani told a ferret rights activist on a radio program that “there’s something deranged about you” to be so obsessed with ferrets, according to a transcript published in The New York Observer in 1999.

 “I’m being honest with you,” Mr. Giuliani said. “Maybe no one in your life has ever been honest with you.”

“The excessive concern that you have for ferrets is something you should examine with a therapist,” he said. “You called here excessively all week, and you called here at 3 o’clock in the morning. And 4 o’clock in the morning. Over weasels. Over a ferret.”

The Bloomberg administration inherited the 1999 lawsuit and defeated it before the State Supreme Court in Manhattan in 2002.

''All this decision does is undermine the public trust in government and the courts,'' Gary Kaskel, head of the group New York City Friends of Ferrets, told The New York Times in 2002.

The New York Times notes that the city’s current Board of Health is staffed by appointees of the Bloomberg administration. 

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