On The Couch Special - The Story of Stonebridge

June - 3Kb This is the story of a very special ferret and how, through sorting his problems out, some children's lives were changed and improved forever, say DR JUNE McNICHOLAS. In some ways it is an unremarkable 'vicious hob comes good' story. It is the effect he had on other people's lives that makes it remarkable. This is the story of Stonebridge.

In the spring of 1996, I received a phone call from the police to say that a ferret was loose on the Stonebridge Highway, a busy dual carriageway in Warwickshire. It was on a part which was heavily fenced and, unable to escape on to neighbouring fields, the ferret was causing havoc with the traffic.

When I arrived, I found he had succesfully been backed against the fence but no one was prepared to pick him up. Upset and frightened, he was squaring up to the officers, daring them to touch him. I don't suppose their training included dealing with large polecat hobs, hissing and screaming and lunging at them. We caught him by the simple method of prising him off my leg when he leapt at it and sank his teeth into it (not that I offered it to him voluntarily, you understand).

Back home, I found that I had one of the worst natured ferrets I had ever encountered. Quite a few rescues are nasty because they are frightened. The Stonebridge ferret was not at all frightened he was just hell-bent on being nasty and had the self-confidence to be brilliant at it. If you approached his pen he would adopt a bulldog stance, defiant, eyes blazing. You could almost hear him snarl: 'Come on if you think you're hard enough. Make my day'.

The first attempt to take him to the vet for castration was aborted when he simply could not be caught and handled to get him into the carrier. We left a screaming, raging, skunking, but victorius hob.

Stonebridge 1. Mankind 0.

Sharing a nap

The second trip to the vet got as far as the surgery. Stonebridge shot out of his carrier, giving the poor nurse quite a bite in passing, before leaping on to the floor. Almost simultaneously, the vet, the nurse and myself leapt on to the examining table.

Stonebridge 2. Rest of the World 0.

We decided we somehow had to try to make him more handleable before the next attempt. It's a standing joke that I bored Stonebridge into submission. It's said that falconers sit with a new bird and talk to it continously for three days and three nights, by which time the bird is exhausted and totally used to the falconer's voice. I modified this approach. Recent exams at the university had meant that I was left with scores of medical students' papers to mark, I sat by Stonebridge's cage and read them all aloud to him as I marked them! I can't say he was appreciative at first but he grew bored with squaring up to me and, surprisingly quickly, decided I and my reading material were simply best ignored. It took most of the week to mark the scripts. By then Stonebridge was completely used to me being there. He probably knew a great deal about paediatric psychiatry too. which might explain his future career path!

Stonebridge's progress was relatively straightforward after that. We could soon handle him, take him for walks with the dog or around the garden and the outdoor ferret pens. He was very aggressive to other ferrets and I was a bit concerned whether he would integrate into a group even after he'd been castrated. Still, he went in for his op without fuss. A quick scan round his teeth while he was under anaesthetic revealed he was probably about four years old. He did not take the anaesthetic particularly well and, although there were no real complications, he was rather slow to come round. I decided I'd put him in the small recovery room we used for special cases such as poorly ferrets, kits needing hand rearing and the like. The only ferrets in there at the time were a litter of five orphaned kits, around four weeks old and were still needing bottle feeding. I place Stonebridge's cage on the opposite side of the room and left him to sleep it off.

A little while later, I went to give the kits their next feed and to check on Stonebridge. What I saw made my heart stop, my blood run cold - all the cliches you could imagine. Stonebridge's cage was wide open - and so was the kits'. He had forced the catch on his door and then completely torn off the fastener on the kits' cage. I could hardly bear to look, expecting to find bloody little bodies or, worse, no sign of the kits at all, just a very full cannibal hob. I literally shed tears of relief when I found, not mangled little remains, but a large polecat hob curled around the kits, washing and bedding them down as devotedly as any mother. One by one I fed the kits. One by one, Stonebridge washed them and tucked them into his side as I returned them. I'd never seen anything like it. It was a difficult decision whether to leave Stonebridge with the kits overnight. I ended up sleeping next to the cage myself, just in case. I needn't have worried, though. 'Uncle' Stonebridge had taken full charge of the kits and from then on he kept them clean, warm and supervised their weaning. As they grew older, he tolerated them jumping on him, chewing his ears, tail and just anywhere else they could chew on.

The kits grew into healthy, outgoing, loveable little characters with not a hint of nippiness and I decided to bring them on as a PR team. Wherever they went, Stonebridge went too, although at first I did not let other people touch him. However, he adored the outings and the attention and was soon doing his own PR work alongside 'his' kits. He became the most gentle and docile of any of them - to the point where he could be placed on a toddler's lap in a pushchair. It was this that made me think of taking Stonebrige to work with me.

At the time, much of my work was involved with the treatment of children with multiple disabilities and serious, sometimes terminal, conditions. Stonebridge became a regular companion on the children's wards and in the special schools. He became a very special part of the children's lives. They wrote stories about him, drew pictures of him and made cards to send him at Christmas. Many of them had paralysed limbs, or mobility problems. Some were blind and deaf, yet they did this for him. Stroking or walking the ferret became valuable physiotherapy as well as a reward. One child, always believed to be totally blind, was discovered to have a tiny amount of residual sight simply because she let us know she could see Stonebridge and wanted to hold him. This tiny amount of vision was enough to help her learn with a specially enhanced computer. Her reward? A picture of Stonebridge flashed on the screen in the field of her minute amount of sight each time she got an exercise right!

Stonebridge and a young friend For nearly six years, Stonebridge worked with literally hundreds of children. Some have left school and are growing up. Many still have school and are growing up. Many still wrote to him years after. Sadly, some did not live to grow up and Stonebridge attended more than a few funerals alongside the medical team, by invitation of grateful parents.

By then, Stonebridge himself was growing very old and, although still fit and healthy, we thought it unfair to expect him to keep up his work. He retired just before we moved up to Scotland. He remained happy and relatively healthy but it was clear that he was ageing fast. He was at least ten or 11 and time was taking its toll. His strength and exuberance were diminishing and he was becoming a very sleepy old man, content to lie in his hammock in the sun.

At the end there was no illness and no pain. He was just very very tired and we knew he was slipping away. Maybe because he was so old and life was making him so very tired, death came disguised as sleep and the time of his last breath was almost imperceptible, even though we were holding him closely.

His loss is keenly felt. Few animals have touched so many people's lives and left such lasting benefits. But I know that when the rawness of his death subsides, we will be left with a wonderful memories, each one a celebration of a remarkable little creature's life.

Stonebridge 1992-2003. Your life was our privilege.

(From Ferrets First Issue no. 13 August/September 2003)

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