On The Couch - December/January 2003/4

June - 3Kb DR JUNE McNICHOLAS, a senior psychologist and expert on animal behaviour, opens her case notes for Ferrets First readers. Here she shares the seasonal tale of Sandra's Christmas Present (or The Sweet Smell Of Success).

When I took the call it sounded as if it was leading up to a rehoming request. The chap seemed a bit shy or hesitant as he explained his problem. Brian, as he introduced himself, had been divorced for several years and lived on his own with his cat and his house ferret. Now he had met a special lady and there were problems between her and the jill.

However, neither he nor Sandra, his 'Special Lady' (he had a rather endearing way of emphasising words as if they were underlined or in capitals) wanted the jill to be rehomed. They hoped to find a way they could all be friends.

Well, that was a refreshing change. It's often these sorts of life changes that cause a rehoming situation. So what was the problem between Sandra and the ferret? Brian was clearly puzzled. Flick, the ferret, was usually such a sociable little soul and positively enjoyed the company of visitors. In fact, she could be a bit of a show-off and very demanding of attention, usually wanting to climb all over visitors, investigate any pockets or bags, or initiate a game. However, when Sandra visited, Flick had behaved totally differently. She had come into the sitting room happily enough but then went stiff-legged and bottle-brushed. She glared at Sandra, hissed and stamped off under the sideboard. When Brian had tried to scoop her out, Flick had hissed at him and nipped - not hard, but enough to say: 'Not a chance, pal. Get rid of her first'. And Flick had stayed there, hissing to herself, until Sandra had gone. Eventually, Flick had allowed herself to be coaxed out but had gone over to where Sandra had been sitting and adopted the stiff-legged, bottle-brushed, stamping, hissing, routine all over again.

This had happened several times and Brian's hope that Flick would become accustomed to Sandra was diminishing fast. Sandra was upset about it too. She like animals. She had made friends with the cat and was really quite keen to at least reach a truce with Flick. Instead, Flick was behaving like a disapproving mother-in-law. Brian seemed a little embarrassed to ask, but was Flick possibly jealous?

I'm never quite sure how to answer questions like that. On the one hand, it seems totally absurd to anthropomorphise animal behaviour in terms of human emotions. But I'm sure we all have had instances where it really seems as if there is an underlying feeling like jealousy to some animals' behaviour. I well remember a bachelor friend whose Siamese cat behaved as if she completely resented my presence and would climb up the back of the sofa to box my ears and swear at me before going off in a monumental sulk. We did eventually reach some sort of reconciliation through the helpful medium of sardines, which didn't do the aroma of the sitting room much good, although it doubtless gave shares in Glade air fresheners a boost.

Making friends through food treats isn't exactly ground-breaking behavioural modification but it can work. Not in this case though. Brian had done that, been there, tried on the T-shirt and so forth. If he held Flick while Sandra offered her a treat (even Ferretone!) she had simply wriggled, swore, bottle-brushed and shot under the sideboard. If Sandra had reached under with a treat, Flick hissed and eventually skunked in protest. When Sandra left, Flick would grandually become her normal self again and play with Brian, although she would first stamp and grumble all around the area where Sandra had been.

Brian lived a good distance away from me so visiting wasn't easy. However, we had tried various suggestions and nothing was working so off I went to meet everyone. Brian and I wondered how Flick would react to me - would I cause a tantrum and a sulk under the sideboard? Seemingly not. Flick danced over to me, climbed up my leg and started to investigate my pockets. I tickled her, she giggled and danced away, only to come back for the whole routine to be repeated.

Then Sandra arrived. Flick stiffened, hissed and stumped off under the sideboard. There didn't seem to be anything objectionable about Sandra. She seemed very sensible around animals - softly spoken, no sudden moves or pushing herself into the animal's own space, yet Flick was behaving as if Sandra was perfectly disgusting to be around!

Sandra went to the kitchen to make tea. Flick came out snorting, stamping and swearing softly. Brian and I looked at each other. The only thing I could suggest was gradual 'desensitisation' to Sandra by asking that some item of her clothing should be left around in Flick's domain. Technically, the best garments would be those worn next to the skin but since I didn't know at what stage their relationship had reached, I felt I might be pushing it to suggest Brian should ask Sandra to leave her underwear behind. We settled on a cardigan for decency's sake.

After Sandra had left, I spread the cardigan on my lap. The change in Flick was amazing. She immediately fluffed up, snorted and stamped off. I removed the cardigan and eventually Flick came out to play again, although a bit suspiciously at first. I then rubbed my hands in the cardigan and offered them to Flick. Snort, stamp, hiss. Flick wasn't having any of it, thank you very much.

We decided to leave the cardigan next to Flick's route to the kitchen so she would need to pass it to go to her bowls and her bed. I told Brian that it might not work at all, and even if it did, it could be a slow process.

Arriving home, I was greeted with: 'How did you get on? Mmm. You smell nice.' Considering tht I usually smell of Hibiscrub or things a lot worse, this was an unusual observation. I sniffed my hands. I DID smell nice - Sandra's perfume must have been on her cardigan. Jasper, one of our house ferrets, came up to greet me. Sniff, sniff - shoosh! A bottle-brushed Jasper shot past me under an armchair. His little black poley face peeped out: 'Cor, YUK! Woman, where the heck have you been?' he seemed to say. It was the same with Tansy, his little albino jill-friend.

I phoned Brian and told him that the problem could lie with Sandra's perfume. Considering that ferrets are believed to be smelly creatures it seemed supremely ironic that Flick should find Sandra's smell offensive, Whatever allure Christian Dior had intended, it did not have the desired effect on ferrets! I later found out that this particular perfume has quite a strong musk base - maybe that's what the ferrets were picking up.

Brian wasn't sure how to tell Sandra that Flick thought she smelt bad so he decided on a more diplomatic approach. With Christmas just around the corner, he would buy her some special perfume, something light and flowery perhaps. I was on the verge of saying that I thought some of the vanilla based perfumes smelt just like Ferretone, but thought this might have been a bit too much like indulging ferrety whims.

Sandra was very understanding. In fact, she decided not to wear perfume at all, and she even had all her clothes that might still be carrying it cleaned or laudered. So Christian Dior lost a customer that Christmas - but Flick and Brian found a new member of the family.

(From Ferrets First Issue no. 15 December/January 2003/4)

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