After years of slinking around, ferrets and their fans may get to go aboveground in the nation's biggest city.
The city Board of Health is expected to vote Tuesday on whether to lift a longstanding ban on keeping the animals as pets, which is legal across much of the country.
Related to weasels, ferrets are believed to have been domesticated about 2,000 years ago. They have gained popularity as pets in recent decades, spotlighted by such celebrity fans as Paris Hilton. The American Veterinary Medicine Association estimated in 2012 that some 334,000 households nationwide have ferrets, a minute fraction of those with dogs or cats.
Ferrets are legal in the rest of New York state, but fur has flown over the issue for years in the city. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani once told an ardent ferret aficionado to get psychological help, saying the man's "excessive concern with little weasels is a sickness."
The city has long defined ferrets as wild animals and generally prohibited them, but the ban became specific in 1999.
Ferret fanciers say it reflects an unfair, outdated view of their inquisitive, playful companions. Owners say ferrets can make ideal apartment dwellers: They're small (about a foot long and three pounds), quiet and litter-trainable and can be caged when no one's home.
"They're a perfect pet," ferret owner Shanise Regis said at a Health Department hearing in January.
Owners say concerns about biting and escape are overblown. The proposal to nix the ferret ban would require the animals to be vaccinated for rabies, sterilized and restrained when outdoors.
"We are responsible pet owners, and we are begging to be able to take our pets to the vet without fear" that the animals will be seen and ultimately confiscated, ferret owner Veronica Nizama said at the hearing. "Or even just go outside and let them feel the sun or the grass between their paws."
But some New Yorkers say the dense city is no place for the agile animals, which can emit a distinctive musky smell.
"I don't think they're appropriate in New York City," Dylan Miller said at the hearing, after describing how his girlfriend's neighbor's ferret made a scent-marking mess.
A Quinnipiac University poll in June found New Yorkers divided: 42 percent opposed and 39 percent supported allowing ferrets as pets. The difference was within the poll's 3.1 percent margin of error.
Mayor Bill de Blasio hasn't taken a position, leaving the decision to the health board.
Reach Jennifer Peltz on Twitter @ jennpeltz.