Investigating Ferret Legalization

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Get involved in the fight to legalize ferrets! Your involvement helps ferrets and ferret owners everywhere.
by Erika Matulich, Ph.D.
Ferrets Magazine
Volume 4, Number 2
March/April 2001
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You should not rely on the veterinary advice or information provided on this site for diagnosis or treatment of any specific situation. Always consult your own veterinarian for specific advice concerning the medical condition or treatment of your own pet or animal.

Why Are Ferrets Illegal In Some Places?

Most laws that prohibit ferrets as pets are based on ignorance or misinformation. There are several common "reasons" that ferrets have been declared illegal. These include:

"Ferrets are wild animals" (untrue, they have been domesticated for thousands of years)

"There's no rabies shot for ferrets so they'll spread this disease," (IMRAB-3 has been USDA approved for ferrets since 1991 and no human has ever contracted rabies from a ferret)

"Ferrets are dangerous, vicious biters" (ferrets are thousands of times less likely to bite than a dog according to statistics from the Centers of Disease Control)

"A feral ferret population could destroy the environment" (there are no feral domestic ferret (Mustela putorius furo) populations in North America; the wild cousin to the domestic ferret, the black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes), is one of the most endangered species in the world).

For more information about ferrets and legalization see the Jan/Feb 2000 issue of Ferrets magazine and the 2001 Annual Ferrets USA magazine


Many people are surprised when they find out that ferrets are illegal in some areas. The ones who are the most surprised are owners of illegal ferrets who are suddenly fined, told to get rid of their fuzzies, or even have their ferrets confiscated! Certainly, these owners become extremely motivated to resolve their ferrets’ legal status. But what can EVERYONE do to get involved and make sure ferrets enjoy the same legal rights as other pets?
The first activity of any responsible ferret owner is to find the legal status of ferrets where they live. Start at the state laws, then look for county laws, and then get specific to your city, township, or municipality. City laws can be more stringent than county laws, and county laws can be more stringent that state laws. This means that if ferrets are legal in the state, they can be illegal in the county or at the city level. For example, New York City's ban is not statewide. Ferrets are legal in New York State -- the ban only affects NYC's five boroughs.  On the other hand, local laws cannot be more relaxed than state laws, so if ferrets are illegal at the state level, they cannot be made legal at the local level. At the state level, ferrets are legal to own everywhere in the United States except California, Hawaii, and Washington D.C.  There was a movement to declare San Francisco as a “Ferret Safe Zone,” but because state laws take precedence over city laws, the code could not be changed.
Where Is This Information?
Legal status of any animal is contained in the animal control code. How do you go about getting this information? Much ferret animal control code issues are at the local level, not at the county or state level. When checking out your particular town’s code, the first step is to get a copy of the section of the code of ordinances that applies to animals.  Most cities have a chapter devoted to this.  While some towns have copies of the code in their local libraries, these copies may be many years old with a number of supplements issued as the originally printed code has been updated. You would have to read through the code and all the amended changes to be sure you had all the information, and this can be confusing and time consuming. A missing supplement could also be a key issue!  A better option may be to visit the city secretary's office and request a copy of the entire animal code. You may need to pay a small copying fee. You could also request a current code copy by mail or fax, as long as you can arrange to prepay these costs. Some cities have their animal control code listed on the Internet, which is the best option. Visit (or your county or city’s website) to see if your local code is online, but be sure the code is current. You can easily search for issues regarding ferrets by using the “find” function (Ctrl-F) and looking for any parts of the code than contain the word “ferret” or “mustelid.”
After checking the animal code, find out what the working policies are of your local animal control officers. You may find that policies do not match the code. Debra Thomason, former President and Vice President for Legal Affairs for the Ferret Lovers’ Club of Texas, tells us, “There are instances in my home state of Texas where the animal control folks have told citizens that ferrets are illegal in their city without a word of code to back them up.” In these cases, even though ferrets are legal and you are not breaking the law, your ferrets are at risk. Your ferrets could be at risk of being confiscated, and you may need to go to court to prove you are not breaking a law. In the meantime, your ferret is at risk of having inadequate care while in quarantine, being turned over to a wildlife rehabilitator, or at worst, euthanized.
On the other hand, a few animal control departments tell people that ferrets are legal and actually issue licenses for the critters while the city's code continues to specifically prohibit ferrets!  This could be dangerous because the law is NOT on your side.  Thomas says that in this situation, “Given enough time and a sympathetic judge you might be able to retrieve a seized ferret, but you could not safely bring it back to your home and would be faced with a decision to move, give up the ferret, or place its safety at risk.”
A strategy for finding out animal control information is to use the telephone. Ask to talk to the director of animal control because it is his or her job to know the codes that apply to animals in the city.  Tell the director you are considering a move to the city and want to be informed about regulations that may affect your pets.  Be up front and say you have ferrets. After all, this is a fairly anonymous tactic -- they don't know who you are and hopefully you're doing this research BEFORE you actually move into the city! 
Where ISN’T This Information?
There is plenty of bad information out there on the legal status of ferrets. Jeanne Carley, Co-founder of Californians for Ferret Legalization, says, “Sadly, pet stores have been the number one source of misinformation about the legal status of ferrets in California. Countless folks over the years have told me that pet store workers have told them that ferrets were legal to own but not buy or sell.  Of course that would make sense to anyone working in or visiting a California pet store whose shelves contain dozens of ferret specific products!” Carley concludes that the best way to get the truth about the status of any animal is to call the local animal control or humane societies. 
Lori Malizia, a spokesperson from New York City Ferrets, says, “Unfortunately, lots of  "officials" give out the wrong information. I've been told ferrets were illegal in places they were not and I've been told they were legal in places they weren't! Pet stores, vets, police, public officials.... I've gotten incorrect answers from all of them.” She recommends you contact multiple sources and see if there is a consensus on ferrets’ legal status.
Updates and Changes
Keep in mind that animal control codes are often updated and revised, so it is important to stay current with the legal status of your ferrets. Although in most cases codes are changing to make ferrets legal, occasionally there is a setback, such as the recent ban on ferrets in New York City (where they had been legal before). In my own case, while doing research for this article, I found out (to my surprise) that my county has revised their animal control code effective January 1, 2001. Where ferrets had not been mentioned in the code before (and were by default legal), now they must be vaccinated for rabies and licensed, along with cats and dogs. Without my $5 per ferret license in January, my ferrets would be illegal, and I would be subject to fines and court appearances if I were caught with an unlicensed ferret. Additionally, an unlicensed, unidentified ferret is far more likely to be euthanized if picked up, because my county’s animal control facility simply does not have the capacity to house ferrets “at large” who have not been identified to an owner for pickup.
The Internet is your friend.  Visit Ferret Central at and dig through their lists of clubs and shelters.  Find the ones closest to you and contact them to see if there is legalization activity in the area.  Or use a meta-search engine (such as and try a search for both "ferret" and "legalization" to show up on the same page. You can also sign up for Internet mailing lists with ferret topics and ask about legalization efforts.  The largest such list is the Ferret Mailing List or FML, with over 3000 subscribers and a searchable archive (see Box). Jeanne Carley adds, “The internet is a terrific way make your organization known and a simple search on your area of interest can land quite a bit of hits.”
Both local, as well as state-level, humane organizations and animal control departments are usually aware of other organizations in the same or a similar field. For example, Carley explained, “Representing this issue in Sacramento [the state capitol] has meant that Californians for Ferret Legalization is known on the state level to humane groups like the State Humane Association as well as to state animal control groups like the California Animal Control Director's Association.  We've also worked directly with the California Veterinary Medical Association.  Often a ferret owner isn't sure who to call but those calls generally get filtered down to us that way.”
Another great way to find out about legalization groups is to regularly read national consumer magazines covering ferrets (such as this one). These magazines help you find others working in specific legalization arenas.  Usually contact information is provided to these groups, as it is to rescue organizations at little or no charge.
The best way to get involved and to help out is to stay connected via e-mail and/or letters. Jeanne Carley says, “Californians for Ferret Legalization e-mails everyone on the California Update list when action is needed in Sacramento. We also send out first-class mailings to our members when their Senators or Assembly members are about to vote either in committee or on the floor. We currently have over 7,500 members so it's a substantial number.” Malizia from NYC Ferrets emphasizes that “Getting on the mailing lists will ensure you will stay as up to date as possible.”
Debra Thomason spearheaded efforts to get ferrets legalized in Plano, Garland, and Fort Worth, Texas. After these years of experience she says, “The greatest problem faced in legalization is finding folks who will give of their time and who will be courageous enough to stand up in front of government officials and ask for reasonable laws governing their pets.  People need to be willing to go to group meetings where strategy is discussed and be educated on the issues.  They also need to be willing to attend city council meetings and speak, if to say nothing more than "I want to see ferrets legal in this city."”
Thomason would love to see ferrets legalized in Dallas, but there needs to be many volunteers ready to spend significant time and effort to get the laws changed. She says, “It’s particularly important that there be at least a core group of actual residents in the targeted city who are willing to speak to officials or no effort can be made.  Elected officials need to see that the issue is important to their constituents -- their voters.  Volunteers should be willing to do some of the legwork in gathering documents that may assist in providing the information the lawmakers require to consider legalization.” Thomason adds, “Expect this process to be a time-intensive endeavor-- there will likely be a series of meetings over time that will require someone from the ferret supporters to attend.  Learn how to bite your tongue and "play the game."”
Carley, who has been working diligently for many years in the efforts to legalize ferrets in California, agrees with needing active volunteers. “The best thing our supporters can do is to be an active participant, not a passive observer.  It takes a toll on volunteers and is a drain on scarce financial resources when a strictly volunteer organization asks its members to write and they don't follow through. It's also important to have volunteers for mailings and public events like pet shows.  This spreads the work and gets the message out.”
Lori Malizia of NYC Ferrets thinks the biggest problem with legalization efforts is that people don't get involved for a variety of reasons. These reasons include (1) people feel like they're going to do it "wrong" somehow so they just assume others will do things better, (2) they don’t bother because they assume other people are handling the issue already and another letter or contribution won't be significant, or (3) they are scared that by getting involved they'll be exposing themselves as criminals.
When I spoke to City Council Meetings in Texas, I never identified myself as an actual ferret owner – I just spoke up for ferret legalization. Nor did I give people my home address. You can use your work address or a P.O. box. In addition, you could get permission from a friend or neighbor to use their address. Finally, many legalization organizations will let you use the P.O. box of that organization as your return address. You do not have to put your ferrets at risk by disclosing their illegal address!
It is important for people to realize that their contribution or involvement DOES make a difference. Letters written to the correct people are very beneficial, and they don't have to be perfect. Your legalization group can tell you exactly who to write to.  It's also very important to follow up and stay involved. Malizia points out, “Writing a letter is great, but a month or so down the line, they can write another one as a followup to ask what's going on. They can even call or visit the appropriate legislator. We're not saying people should harass or stalk their legislators, but it's perfectly valid to write, wait a bit, and write again saying they're following up on their previous communications and they wanted to check on the progress or status of the legislation. Often people think that once they've written one letter, they've "done that" and there's nothing else to do. That's simply not true. It's important for people to stay involved and make legalization efforts (a letter, a call) a regular part of their monthly routine. It should be scheduled into their calendar every 2-4 weeks until things change. If everybody did this, you'd be amazed at how quickly things would start happening!”
Don’t try to legalize ferrets all by yourself. This kind of effort takes the help of many volunteers, so join the team, and learn from those who have more experience.  It’s important to learn how laws are changed in your community, and get to know the key players and legislators. Following the rules, no matter how slow and frustrating, is the best chance for success in getting ferrets legalized. Don’t be a maverick and try to bully your opinion through the system – this will only cause problems for a legalization effort. Don’t harass, namecall, or threaten the legislators. Don’t be anonymous, because your opinion won’t count. What you can do is be patient with the slow legal system, the ignorance of other people, and the abundance of misinformation about ferrets. Patience and hard work will eventually lead to ferrets being free everywhere!

Californians for Ferret Legalization
410 Mountain Home Road
Woodside, CA  94062
(650) 851-3750
Email: [email protected]
NYC Ferrets
Cathedral Station
PO Box 952
New York, NY 10025-0952
Email: [email protected]
Places Where Ferrets Are Illegal
Caution: This site is somewhat outdated
The Ferret Mailing List
To subscribe to the Ferret Mailing List (FML), send email to its moderator, Bill Gruber, at [email protected] and ask to be added. You can also try subscribing automatically by sending email to [email protected] with the command SUBSCRIBE FERRET in the body of the email. Other information for subscribing is available at
Searchable archives of the FML are available at
Listing of Ferret Organizations and Shelters