Ferret Friendly Facts and Advice by Erika Matulich, Ph.D.

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Working Weasels

Doofus, Rice Homecoming King
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Leonardo da Vinci's "Lady with Ermine
Queen Elizabeth I with her ferret
Working Weasels Wear Many Hats

© Erika Matulich, Ph.D.

Ferrets have been a helpmate to mankind for thousands of years. Let's take a stroll through the history of the working weasel and then bring you up-to-date with today's ferrety functions.

Walk like an Egyptian? No!
Ferret lore commonly states that ferrets were first domesticated by Egyptians. However, most of today's ferret researchers have discarded that theory, because evidence shows that Egyptian animals were more likely a mongoose or meerkat-like creature. The earliest mention of the domesticated ferret was by Aristophanes in 450 B.C. Greek writer Strabo (54 A.D.) describes how people living around the Mediterranean Sea reared albino ferrets in their homes for rodent control.

The Roman ferrets: They came, they saw, they conquered
Roman armies needed an easy way to feed the troops while they were on the move through Europe. One way was with rabbits. And to help catch the rabbits, trained ferrets were used to flush them out of their burrows. As the armies marched north and west, the "ferreting" practice caught on in Spain and France. Legend even has it that the infamous Genghis Khan used ferrets for hunting rabbits.

Britain's new nobility
In Medieval England the ferret achieved important status. Wealthy ladies kept ferrets as pets, and high-ranking churchmen had ferrets to manage their rabbit warrens. "Ferreters" or "warreners" were important servant positions attached to royal courts. Rabbits and ferrets were so valuable to the landed gentry that a law was passed in 1390 that restricted the ownership of ferrets to only the very wealthy. Queen Elizabeth I's portrait shows off her pet ferret, complete with jeweled collar.

Coming to America
English settlers brought their ferrets to the New World in the 16th and 17th centuries. At this time, the ferret's job changed from rabbit router to rodent exterminator. Ferrets were used on colonial navy ships to keep the rat and mouse populations under control. The ferret is still the official mascot of the Massachusetts Colonial Navy today!

By the late 1800s, ferrets were used chiefly for rodent extermination in America. Tens of thousands of ferrets were raised and sold for this purpose, and the job of the "ferretmeister" was to bring his ferrets to granaries, barns, mills, and churches to eliminate the pests. After the First World War, ferrets were so popular in this line of work that the U.S. Department of Agriculture published regular bulletins detailing and encouraging the use of ferrets in rodent abatement. However, by World War II, effective rodenticides had put most ferrets on the unemployment line. A few performed wartime work by pulling wires through tight spaces in airplanes.

New job opportunities
Today, most ferrets have "worked" their way into our hearts and homes as wonderful pets. Although it's illegal to hunt rabbits with ferrets in the United States, one can get permits for ratting in some areas. However, the ferret's job as a hunter is largely over. You're more likely to see ferrets serving these days as successful therapists—used in nursing homes, with autistic children, and for people suffering depression. A ferret named Doofus was so popular he was elected the 1995 homecoming king of Rice University!

Cable-carryin' ferrets
Finally, ferrets are useful nowadays in the telecommunications industry for running wires and cables through narrow spaces. When Prince Charles of Wales married Lady Diana Spencer, the TV cables used at the wedding were put in place by a ferret. The ferret ran through narrow pipes pulling a line attached to a special harness. When the ferret popped out at the other end, the line was attached to the TV cables, which were then pulled through the pipes.

In October 1999, the U.S. Air Force Space Command needed a way to connect new computers at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado. The cost and difficulty of threading wires through crowded 40-foot conduits was daunting until Lt. Col. Randy Blaisdell volunteered his pet ferret Misty. The 6-year-old ferret dashed through the conduits towing a piece of yarn that was then used to pull the computer wires. Misty's multiple-dash work was complete in just one hour, and all it cost was her favorite treat: a strawberry Pop-Tart!

And let's not forget: My ferrets work very hard eating, playing, exploring, posing for photos, sleeping, and making me laugh! I think I'll keep them all on full-time!