Editor’s note: Article updated Oct. 29, 2019 to better reflect the reason ferrets are deemed illegal to own in California (paragraph 9).
What do California, Hawaii, and New York City have in common?
For the sake of this article, it’s not expensive housing markets, dream vacation spots, or even the price for a gallon of gas.
It’s that these three destinations are the only places in the U.S. that don’t allow people to own ferrets as pets.
And yet, ferrets and their owners are scattered throughout California, including the North Tahoe area, from the casual ferret parent who stumbled upon ownership to those long-committed to changing state law.
Teresa Bryan works as the building facilitator at Truckee’s Community Arts Center, and her desk is a dead giveaway: What with a ferret calendar, ferret portrait, and glazed footprints of one of her many ferrets, it’s no surprise Bryan is a ferret lover. Enough so that she’s had 12 ferrets over the past 24 years.
Jeepers and Shadow and Vicarious and Tucker … it’s like naming Santa’s reindeer.
Bryan’s last ferret, Jeepers, passed in December 2018 from abdominal cancer. Up until then, her ferret ownership was on the down low, which is how she believes most local ferret owners live.
“Occasionally I’ll talk to someone who says, ‘Oh, I know so-and-so and he has a ferret, but he doesn’t tell anyone,’” Bryan said. “We don’t know other ferret owners … We do not broadcast it.”
Section 671, Title 14 of California’s Code of Regulations restricts possession of ferrets for the protection of public health and safety, as well as agricultural, wildlife, and natural resources. Ferrets are not native to California, and are thus deemed “a menace to native wildlife or to the agricultural interests of this state,” according to the code. Being caught with a ferret means a fine and/or jail time.
Despite the ban, Pat Wright, a ferret advocate with the Legalize Ferrets campaign, said there could be as many (or as few) as 80,000 ferret owners in California based on Facebook and Google advertising analytics.
“We do know a quarter of the [national ferret] pet supplies were sold in California,” Wright furthered. “That’s kind of tricky because a lot of people feed their ferrets cat food, so it’s really hard to know where the merchandise is, but roughly we are at a quarter of the population.”
Though California doesn’t legally allow ferret ownership, the state does tolerate ferret products to be sold in pet stores. Marshall Grattan’s Pet Station has multiple stores straddling the California-Nevada state line; his Nevada stores sell ferrets, his California ones do not.
“I know there’s a ton of people living close that have ferrets and live in California,” Grattan said. “We’re allowed to provide them with food and other things. I’m not going to stop that. The one line we have to say, and we do, is ‘You know you can’t have these in California.’ And the people can choose to do what they want with that information.”
Grattan is sure people have lied to him about purchasing ferrets in his Nevada stores to take back to California, but privacy laws keep him from collecting driver’s licenses or anything else that would prove a home address. And he thinks the law is silly, anyway.
Ferret ownership follow-up has been heavily enforced in the past (for example, ferret raids in Modesto during the ’70s), but California has since then taken “a more lenient view,” according to Bryan.
“Now they do not take ferrets unless they’re going through an agricultural check station and they find a ferret,” she continued. “They are legally obligated to take that ferret, or the person must leave, turn around, go back. If the Fish and Game [Commission] find you with a ferret … [you] have 72 hours to get it out of state.”
Bryan’s theory of the now lack of enforcement is reflected in Truckee itself, where numbers of detained ferrets haven’t exactly been staggering.
“In the past 10 years, Truckee Animal Services has only had two ferrets at the shelter,” wrote Deverie Acuff with the Truckee Police Department in an email to Moonshine Ink. “Both ferrets were transferred to a shelter in Nevada where ownership is legal.”
The transfer to Nevada shelters is a significantly better alternative than some of the other options in the state of California. One local ferret owner, who requested to remain unnamed so as not to be targeted by authorities, was wary to discuss his ferret ownership even anonymously.
“It is a little concerning because it is not legal and besides that,” he said, “if authorities were to have found out who I am or where I live, they would not only take [my ferrets], but they actually take them and kill them.”
Euthanasia of ferrets is a possibility, based on the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s manual 671, which states the department may “euthanize the animal or place the animal in an appropriate wild animal facility” if certain stipulations are not met by the owner in question.
The California DFW did not comment on the ferret topic due to pending legislation, though public information officer Peter Tira did mention “that ferret legislation is introduced every year and has been for many, many years.”
Wright and his Legalize Ferrets crew have a couple of petitions currently in the works. One, to the Sierra Club to reevaluate its classification of ferrets as an invasive and wild animal; the second to the Fish and Game Commission.
“It’s an official petition for regulation change,” Wright said of the Oct. 9 Fish and Game meeting. “We’re asking them to not refer to domestic ferrets as wild animals. I’m very surprised they have accepted that petition and it’s on their agenda.”
The modification is step one for making life easier for ferret owners — who include, by the way, some of the very people who enforce the anti-ferret law:
“I was told by one of the vets that one of our police officers had a ferret,” Bryan said. “[And] I had one ferret, my second ferret … at the end of his life, there were seven people working on him, trying to save him. One of the people working on him was the dog catcher.”
The anonymous ferret owner said there’s no social group for local ferret owners. There’s no bragging or posting on social media either; only his closest friends, those who’ve been to his house, know.
But there are those out there who post such content for others as instructions around California checkpoints, including the I-80 agriculture station on the eastern edge of Truckee.
Whether a change in legislation is successful or not, Bryan doesn’t plan to house ferrets in her future, citing cost and her hope to travel as reasons why she’s not buying her 13th ferret.
But she does envision her life surrounded by them again.
“My hope for retirement eventually is to go to a ferret rescue center and work as a volunteer,” she said. “They are just so wonderful to have. They don’t ask for much, give me some food, give me some love and a warm place.”