On The Couch - Nice Face, Shame About The Legs

June - 3Kb DR JUNE McNICHOLAS, a senior psychologist and expert on animal behaviour, opens her case notes for Ferrets First readers. In her fourth clinical analysis she tells us why there was nothing comic about the behaviour of Dandy and Beano.

Sadly, major changes in family circumstances can often mean the need for pets to be rehomed. In this case the family had broken up. The man had left, no one knew where, leaving his family with his two ferrets.

His wife was terrified of the ferrets. No one but her husband had ever had anything to do with them but she tried her best for several weeks and kept them watered and fed. As time went on and there was no word of her husband's whereabouts, she contacted us to ask for the ferrets to be taken into rescue.

I was shown into a large shed-cum-workshop. The ferrets had a large cage on top of the workbench that extended around three sides of the shed. Apart from being rather dirty, they seemed quite well. They were two albino hobs, less than a year old. Apparently the man had spent a lot of time with them and they had been well handled. They seemed gentle enough as I popped them into a carry case and took them home.

I set up a large cage on the trestle table in the 'quarantine' shed. The two hobs were quite happy to potter about the table while I examined them for any problems with feet, coat, ears and so forth. They seemed quite nice little chaps and I was hopeful of early rehoming after castration.

A few days later and they went in for castration and then spent a few days more in their isolation cage with several trips out on to the table top to get to know me. Then came the day I took them into the house. Clearly enjoying the 'ride' from the shed to the house, they clambered over my shoulders, stuck their noses in my ears and rummaged through my hair. Sweet tempered as you like, even totally face-safe, I'd have said. Once in the kitchen, I put them down on the floor to explore.

The change was swift and furious. They both acted as if electrified. Fur bottle-brushed, backs arched and, with legs tense and rigid, they stood momentarily as if stunned. I took a step towards them to go to soothe them. The movement of my feet seemed to goad them into action. Like two spitting furies they attacked my feet and legs. I'm not ashamed to admit that I panicked. I could feel the blood trickling down from biteson my calf and my trainer was already soaked up blood from an ankle bite. They weren't going to let up either. One was latched on to the back of my leg and the other was attached to the hem of my jeans. His next mouthful would probably be my other ankle.

Alone in the house I couldn't even shout for help. I somehow managed to shake them free and leap on to the kitchen work surface. I swear that Margot Fonteyn would have been hard pushed to manage such a piroutte. Two ferrets circled below my dangling legs... - 15Kb The two ferrets circled below my dangling legs while blood seeped through my trainer.

Well, this was a good start to the day, I thought, and it's probably only about six hours before anyone else comes home. For a few moments I contemplated staying on the cupboard until reinforcements arrived. I edged on to the fridge to ease the handle of the wall cupboard out of my shoulder blade. This felt even more precarious and staying here for hours clearly wasn't realistic. I looked around to see if anything was in reach that could help. A rolling pin would be handy, I thought. That would put the little perishers in their place! With the aid of a draining spoon and a potato masher from the wall rack, I managed to hook the kitchen stool within reach and climb down on to it. The sight of my feet sent the two hobs bananas and they leapt up towards the stool. Right you little b*******, I thought (even psychologists lose their cool at times!) and I snatched up one hob. To my amazement he relaxed, even sighed. The fury left him completely. Not quite trusting him, I held him away from me while I did the same with the other. It was just the same - instant calm.

Baffled, I took them back to the safety (my safety!) of their cage. I returned to the kitchen to clean up the bites. It would have been a good time to have had shares in Elastoplast. It seemed totally inexplicable. Why should two sweet natured ferrets suddenly turn so vicious? And it was vicious. I know even some the nicest ferrets can have a certain weakness for chasing feet, they can't help themselves, and, let's face it, for some a foot in a sock is a declaration of war. But it's mock warfare, usually. This was an all out attack on a grand scale, brought about by fear and possibly hatred. Why?

The next day I dressed in several layers on my legs and put on knee-high leather riding boots. Walking wasn't exactly elegant but I strode stiffly up to the shed and took out the ferrets. They were delighted to see me. They climbed into my arms with all the affection of greeting a long lost friend. I even got a whiskery kiss from one!

In the kitchen and on the floor, the two again showed immediate change of character. Back came the two spitting furies but this time they couldn't get a purchase on me at all. Strangely, if I put my hands down to them, they never tried to bite. It was only my legs and feet. Once in my arms they were peaceful and friendly. I couldn't work it out. Had they been kicked? Trodden on? I put them down on the work surface. The words of my gamekeeper mentor drifted back into memory: 'Don't try to guess or think you know what the problem is, watch and learn. The ferret will tell you what you need to know'.

They were perfectly happy on the kitchen worktop. One nuzzled my hand, the other asked to be cuddled. I sat on the stool to watch and talk to them. Then it dawned on me. This is what the owner must have done with them in his workshop. He must have let them out of their cage and sat playing with them on the workbench.They had never been on the floor, never seen feet. For them people only existed from the waist up. The feeling of being on the floor and these huge striding tree trucks had been terrifying for them, with no freindly person in sight to comfort them.

So what to do about it? Obviously, if these little chaps were going to be rehomed they had to learn to fit in a family, and that meant being safe at floor level. So the next time I took them into the house, I knelt on the floor. They seemed agitated but could climb on to my lap for comfort. Providing I sat quite still, they were happy and eventually felt confident enough to start exploring. Not having spent time in a house before they were very noise sensitive and the slightest strange sound had them running to me to hide.

It was weeks before they were confident enough on the floor for me to try standing up. They hated it and I soon learnt to bend down to their level as soon as they seemed worried. This reassured them a little and so it went on, a slow process but at least progress of sorts.

It took about two months for these two to feel happy about being on the floor with first me, and then other people and the dog, walking around. By this time they had matured into large handsome hobs, full of fun and affection. It really was time to think about rehoming, but how would they react in a strange house with a new owner?

The opportunity to find out came with an enquiry for two pet ferrets from a family with two children. I told them the full story and they sensibly left it for a day or two while they talked it over amongst themselves. Then they rang to say they'd try it. I took the two hobs over to their prospective new home. Everyone sat on the floor and the ferrets were released from their box. The ferrets pottered about investigating people's knees and the room in general. No problems so far. One by one we stood up. The ferrets weren't sure and ran to whoever was left kneeling. However, after a short time they accepted that the people in their world were sometimes feet and sometimes laps and arms.

After an hour, I left the ferrets with their new owners. I'd advised them to always sit on the floor with the ferrets at first and then only slowly to start walking around. This seemed to work very well and I got regular updates on how they were doing. Family and ferrets were growing very fond of each other.

Then came a call - the ferrets had hidden under the dresser and then jumped out on the oldest child's foot, grabbed him by the sock, shook it and danced away chuckling excitedly. It wasn't a complaint. It wasn't even a call for help. They were delighted. The ferrets were playing with feet. No pain, no blood, no maliciousness, just ferret naughtiness. The family had completed the ferrets' retraining and had succeeded so well that the ferrets were engaging in normal ferret ambushes on feet.

Now they were normal 'sock monsters'!

(From Ferrets First Issue no. 8 October/November 2002)

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