On The Couch - February/March 2003
'If my ferret had odd behaviour, it was nothing compared to mine!' says DR JUNE McNICHOLAS a senior psychologist and expert on animal behaviour who has opened her case notes exclusively for Ferrets First readers.
Teasel came into my life unceremoniously. While manning the ferret stand at a game fair with colleagues we were approached by a man carrying a knotted sack. "Here, take this", he said, shoving the sack at me. "She's no bloody good to me," and off he went! Inside the sack was a small sandy jill. She wasn't the first ferret to be dumped on us at shows and I doubt if she'll be the last.
I took her home and found she was probably around two years old and in reasonable condition, apart from some odd scars and an unhealed bite on her face which needed attention. That was easier said than done! She was not at all happy about being handled. She especially disliked men and took particular exception to the vet. Still, in time we got her fit and she became reasonably well-behaved with most people.
She settled in well with two of my working jills and I thought I might try her on an outing with them. She'd more than likely been a working girl and I was intrigued as to why she'd been branded 'no bloody good'. She was happy to be fitted up with her locator collar and seemed to know what she was doing as I entered her into a hole. "I bet she kills down below ground" I thought. No one likes a ferret who has to be repeatedly dug out. But that wasn't Teasel's idea at all. Quick as a flash, she shot out of a netted hole, through the hedge and straight up a tree!
Although it was early winter, there were still leaves on the trees and I was seriously worried I'd lose sight of her so I tried to keep up with her, murmering sweetly at her all the time. And in case anyone's wondering, locating devices are less effective when tracking arboreal ferrets! At least when they're underground, you can dig them out. In this situation my spade was useless, short of throwing it at her, of course!
As I stood talking coaxingly to the tree, my colleagues calmly carried on working their sensible ferrets. It wouldn't have been quite so bad if they'd even have throught it strange, but they seemed to just accept it as normal behaviour from me! Teasel was having a fine time, darting from one branch to another but eventually I was able to coax her to a branch I could reach. She was very agitated and sank her teeth into my thumb. Somewhat wounded in body and pride I returned her to her box and worked the delightfully reliable Sorrel and Firkin for the rest of the morning.
Although I got one or two jibs about 'squirrel hunting', no one commented much on my ferret's odd behavior apart from one old chap who said: "She's too flighty - I bet you're giving her too much meat before work days. It'll make her vicious you know." You never know whether to laugh or cry over comments like that. It's sad to think such beliefs still survive, but it also seems quite comic in its own way. We were having a bit of a laugh about it on the way home when we decided to stop off at a supermarket. I'd got my odds and ends when I saw my friend leaning into the meat freezer. I crept up on him and, muttering darkly: "You shouldn't eat that, it'll make you vicious," I sank my teeth into his arm. I can't describe how I felt when I looked up into the face of a complete stranger! Mind you, his face was something to behold as well! I honestly don't remember what I said to him, if anything at all. I do remember making a bee-line for the exit, wondering if I'd be stopped by security for assaulting innocent shoppers!
Well, after such an embarrassing day, it's a wonder that I even considering taking Teasel out again. Maybe it's a latent love of hair shirts, but later in the season, that's just what I did. It was a bitterly cold morning. "Why can't M&S come up with a new range of undies?", I thought, "Don't they see the urgent need of female ferreters for polo-necked knickers?" Still if Damart can claim their undies went up the north face of Everest, I suppose they're up to ferreting forays.
Teasel was raring to go. This time she did some very creditable work for a short time before - you've guessed it - she made for the nearest hedge. Once again, my morning was spent conversing with trees. It happened the next time, too. And the next, and the next. Why? Teasel genuinely seemed to think working was about being six feet above the ground, not below it! My colleagues began to call her Weasel and say she was 'stoatally' different from other ferrets.
At home in the ferret shed, she was up in the rafters as often as not. Her compulsion to climb seemed to be accompanied by quite panicky behaviour once she was up there. We gave up trying to work her. Apart from Iceland or the Shetland Isles, I couldn't think of anywhere without trees. Instead she became a show ferret and a very enthusiastic racer - even though you had to scoop her up quickly at the end of the tube in case she made for the nearest hedge.
It all remained a mystery. We began to accept her bizarre behaviour and built her extra ladders in the exercise enclosures. It was not until the next season of game fairs and PR events that everything fell into place.
We were at a game fair quite near to where Teasel had been left with us when a man approached and looked closely at Teasel. "That's the ferret old Mr XXX left with you, isn't it? Glad to see she's OK, came close to being hit on the head with a shovel, she did. Lost her nerve, y'see." Realising we didn't see what he meant, the chap looked at us as if pitying the afflicted and went on to explain: "He used her for the rats, y'know, up in the barn lofts. She was OK at first but then she got spooked when a couple fought back. Got bitten and didn't want to know - that's why you got her."
I told him about our strange rabbiting trips with Teasel. He laughed: "Rabbits? Don't think she'd ever been used after rabbits. It was ratting she was used for." And that explained it. Rats in lofts, amongst the rafters. No wonder she thought her work was above ground level!
Now, I've never liked ratting with ferrets. I always feel that it's too much risk to a ferret. Rats can be vicious, they fight back as often as not, and they are fast - even a very quick jill is likely to get bitten. It seems poor Teasel found that out for herself. It's why she lost her nerve and why she seemed panicky when she was high off the ground, even if she climbed there herself.
So Teasel's peculiar behaviour was explained. Mine, on the other hand...well, enough said!