Ferret lovers keep pushing to legalize them as pets in California
By Torey Van Oot The Sacramento Beetvanoot@sacbee.com
Published: Monday, Jan. 17, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
It's a new year, a new administration at the Capitol, and the ferret lobby has a new strategy.
Short on cash and support in the Legislature and stymied by procedural requirements at the Fish and Game Commission, a coalition of ferret legalization supporters is hoping a new argument on the cost of the state's ban on the pet will gain traction.
"I think that there's very little doubt that the ferret ban is doing economic harm," said Pat Wright, founder of legalizeferrets.org. "But the question is how much economic harm?"
California, which first prohibited ownership and transportation of the species in 1933, is now the only state in the continental United States where the slender European polecat cousins are outlawed. Despite decades of lobbying by ferret owners and enthusiasts, the state maintains its stance that legalizing the small carnivores presents environmental and safety concerns.
Estimates on the state's illegal ferret population vary significantly, but pet industry experts estimate one quarter of ferret supplies sold in the country come from California shelves.
Legalization proponents say those numbers show the state is missing out on revenue from sales of ferrets, which cost more than $100 apiece, and startup food and supplies, often bought when the owner purchases the pet in Nevada or other neighboring states.
"There's the cage, there's the food, there's the litter pans," said West Coast Ferrets Association member Debby Greatbanks. "It's a good $500 investment."
The costs continue. One Vacaville owner estimated he spends $2,000 a year, before veterinarian bills, on supplies and toys for his six ferrets: Trouble, Ozzie, Winter, Noodles, Bugs and Gopher.
"I don't think there's any doubt that there would be a positive economic impact for California, for California businesses and for revenue for California," said Michael Maddox, vice president of government relations for the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council.
Sales tax revenue would be small – $450,000 from current supply sales by Wright's own estimate – in the context of the state's big budget hole.
Humane Society of the United States senior state director Jennifer Fearing, whose organization is neutral on the issue, cautioned that any gains could be offset by an increase in costs for animal shelters and other local animal services in the event of a spike in ferret ownership.
Still, several owners said they would welcome paying a registration fee to offset such costs if it meant they could own their pets openly.
"Ferret owners feel like they are alone out there," said Greatbanks, who holds a rare permit to find rescued ferrets homes out of state. "They live in fear of having their ferret confiscated. Even the UPS guy can strike a fear in your heart if he knocks on the door."
The ongoing fight to allow ferrets in California is a two-front war. Past legislation, including a ferret amnesty bill vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, has failed to muster enough support.
"No legislator really wants to be associated with this issue when the state's going down the toilet," Wright admitted.
Supporters have stepped up their search for a bill author in the Legislature, hoping their new argument will resonate with lawmakers focused on economic recovery.
Meanwhile, Wright and other supporters continue to press the Fish and Game Commission to remove ferrets from a list of prohibited wild animals.
Past research by the commission has deemed ferrets a predatory threat to poultry and other small animals, and raised concerns about ferret attacks.
Legalization proponents say their research shows the commission's concerns are unmerited and unfounded, claiming there are no documented cases of feral ferret colonies in the United States. They argue that decades of domestication have tamed ferrets' predatory instincts and ability to survive in the wild.
"Everything bites, but the idea is (that) it is outweighed by companionship," Wright told the panel in December.
At that meeting, Wright presented the commission with a 177-page report by a California State University, Sacramento, professor that argues legalizing ferrets would have a minimal adverse impact on the environment or public health.
But the commission said the report did not meet the content and formatting requirements to trigger a formal review. Presented with the economic arguments, commissioners appeared if anything poised to enforce the ban more strictly.
Commission President Jim Kellogg said he was "alarmed" and "irritated" to see pet stores selling supplies for an illegal animal and to hear Wright's testimony that no known citations for ownership had been issued in the past year.
"If it's going to be illegal, it needs to be illegal, and these people breaking the law ought to be punished for it," he said.
Despite the challenges, Wright and others pledged to press on until they find a fix to legalize the animal. Part of that feat could involve winning the support of Gov. Jerry Brown, who recently said he hasn't really considered the matter.
"Do they eat little dogs? I'd be worried about that," joked Brown, who himself is tending to a little dog of late. "So I think we better find out what their eating habits are."