by Margaret Booth
I was intrigued to read the tale of the "Great Escape" in The Times on 13 February. "A ferret that escaped from a garden hutch in Retford, Nottinghamshire, has been found a fortnight later and 20 miles away at Swallowsnest, near Rotherham, having crossed dozens of main roads, a canal and two motorways. It is now in a brick hutch." I wondered if any NFWS members know anything more about this well travelled ferret since I presume it must have been quite a local celebrity.
I know from first hand experience how adept ferrets can be at escaping since an escapee is the prime reason we have now become involved with ferrets. One day a couple of years ago I glimpsed what I then thought to be a polecat walking along the pavement, just down the road from our house (in Macclesfield at the time). Never having had anything to do with ferrets (and at the time obviously not even knowing the difference between a polecat and a ferret), I dashed indoors to get my husband Dennis to check out what I had seen. Luckily, in common with lots of young boys brought up in the country, Dennis had had a ferret in his youth. When he got outside he retrieved it from the butcher's shop assistant who was holding it at arms length having caught it one its way into the shop for a quick snack. Dennis assured her that it probably belonged to our next door neighbour John. He kept ferrets in a substantial brick building at the bottom of the garden and used to work them quite regularly but because we never saw them I had never really given them any thought.
Anyway this started the wheels in motion because Dennis's reaction was to the effect that if it turned out that it did not belong to John, well he wouldn't mind keeping it since he rather fancied having a ferret again. Well, having spent a couple of hours in our rabbit hutch (minus rabbit naturally), it turned out it did belong next door and it transpired that it was a ferret John had found when he had been out rabbiting. He said that it was not a very good worker and he reckoned it had therefore probably got thrown out or maybe just left behind if it had not returned at the end of the days working. Dennis indicated that if it did not settle down as a worker he wouldn't mind having it. And that could have been the end of the story except it reappeared in our back garden a couple of days later. It was re-housed in the rabbit hutch and we tripped round next door again to be reassured that it couldn't possibly be John's ferret as there was no way it could possibly have got out again. He went and counted heads and yes it was the same one.
Discussions about ferrets sort of continued on and off for some time and were followed up by a request to John that if he knew of anyone who had any polecat type kits could he let us know. Some months later out first two kits arrived. They were from working stock and had not been handled very much. I must have looked rather hesitant about taking hold of them as their owner asked if I knew how to handle them and there was a certain intimation that if I didn't know what I was doing I would get bitten. We got the following crucial advice regarding their care and upbringing: "Give them plenty of tommy and they won't bite". We deduced that this meant we had to fill them up with food, but it's an expression I had not heard before or since. Well they did nip a bit but the only time I got seriously bitten was when I made the mistake early on of trying to pick two kits up with the same hand I had day old chick in. I have never made this mistake again. Although now I think that with the amount of handling the ferrets get, even when they are feeding, it would not happen. I am not sure about kit behaviour or adults who may be extremely hungry, but certainly I am convinced that, rather like dogs, if they become habituated to your handling both them and their food while they are eating they will tend to become more amenable.
Our numbers have now increased to four, courtesy of Betty Shepard. And at present we do not really want any more, mainly because we spend a lot of weekends away in our caravan at Land Rover trials, and four ferrets and two dogs, all of which need taking for walks, is more than enough to cope with when I hope to be away for rest and relaxation. This brings me back to the newspaper story which gave me some cause to think about the ferrets holiday accommodation. Having seen a number of people at the NFWS AGM with rather splendid travelling cages with plastic bases, I decided that this would be ideal for in the caravan.
I was by now getting rather tired of erecting our home made wire mesh cage which could only be properly cleaned with great difficulty. I therefore had a good look round and discounted those at Pet City (now called something else that I cannot remember) which looked rather flimsy and potentially escapable from - I was not too impressed by the reaction when I enquired about a holiday home for my ferrets - apparently there is not much call for such equipment. I have now bought what looks like a giant hamster cage, made by Marchioro, from Stapeley Garden Centre. Believe it or not Stapeley actually has a really good pet section (no, I am not on commission) which additionally includes a wire mesh cage with a number of levels specifically designed for rats and ferrets - escape proof. The one I have bought though, like most hamster cages could be fairly easy to open, so mine is reinforced with a number of padlocks. It has been tried out and the base is deep enough to stop ferret droppings landing on the caravan floor, it can be disinfected, moved about fairly easily although I have to take it apart to get it through the caravan door, and it is roomy enough to have a separate (also plastic) sleeping box. Now I know that ferrets have remarkable chewing abilities, but to date ours have made no attempt to chew any part of this cage. If they escaped into the caravan it might be inconvenient but we do sometimes leave them in the awning and should they manage to chew their way out then, well we might have a problem. I would be interested to know if anyone has any experience of ferrets chewing their way out of similar cages and if so what were the specific circumstances?
Having ferrets certainly seems to make people more likely to talk to you in the vet's waiting room. It is amazing how many people don't know what they are but interestingly, despite their supposed reputation, everyone seems to want to stroke them. It is a really good job that ours are good natured because the attention, especially from children can be a bit overwhelming at times. I wasn't too sure about our new vet in Nantwich at first because he was a bit reluctant to vaccinate them initially. We had had the experience in Macclesfield of our original vet wanting us to sign a disclaimer before she would vaccinate them - needless to say we changed vet. However the present vet has certainly come round since he commented on my last visit with them that they were better behaved than his last client - a cat.
To finish, just in case anyone missed the invaluable opportunity that the general election has given to ferret public relations, I quote from The Times of 22 April "Paddy loses the hunk vote but passes ferret test". "Mr Ashdown....made the most of an unexpected photo-opportunity with a ferret. The creature called Beavis, was being walked by its owner, 12-year old Penny George, and appeared on a wall behind Mr. Ashdown's left shoulder as he was being interviewed by reporters about Europe. Ignoring a plea by one of his aides not to pick the ferret up, Mr Ashdown scooped it from the wall. "You're a lovely little beast, aren't you?" he said. "I don't think I've ever seen such a patient and docile ferret". Mr Ashdown may have to rethink his claim, made on Sunday, that the Tory leadership contenders were fighting like ferrets in a sack. I wonder how many ferrets Mr Ashdown has previously made the acquaintance of!