On The Couch - #20

June 10k Dr June McNicholas, a senior psychologist and expert on animal behaviour, reopens her casebook to tell us the story of 'Psycho' a once vicious ferret who now wins rosettes in junior handler classes with his proud young owners.

Being called out to pick up a ferret can take you to some scary places. Most cities have areas that are labelled 'undesirable' for lone females to wander about in. Happily, in 'Psycho's' case, I didn't have to called out. During a routine tour of a district notorious for its red-light area, crime and drug abuse, a police panda car picked up in its headlights the silhouette of a ferret snuffling about in the gutter. At the time a prominent member of the National Ferret Welfare Society was a police officer in that city so the officer on patrol knew that if he picked up the ferret he could quickly off-load it to her. To his credit he simply stopped the police car, picked up the ferret and placed it in the back where it sat placidly all the way to station.

Back at the police station, the PC/NFWS member was on duty and was summoned to inspect the ferret in the panda car. It turned out to be a small polecat hob, thin, dirty, covered in fleas and ticks, but seemingly docile enough. Between them, the 'arresting officer' and the NFWS member removed ticks and generally inspected the poor animal before he was taken into custody by the NFWS officer. That's when the problems started. Once rested and recovered from the ride in the panda, the hob decided he was not docile or placid. He seemed to have a very simple life philosophy - if it doesn't move, trash it; if it does move, go for it.

'Psycho' (named for obvious reasons) very soon showed a psychopathic hatred for people. No one could get near him. He would hiss, spit, scream and then launch a full-blooded attack. Shares in Elastoplast were beginning to look like a good investment by the time he came to us. Over the following days he got worse, not better. Despite bribes, soft voices and slow movements we all fell victim, even the dog. Now considering our dog is built on the lines of a small donkey. It says a lot about the hob's determination to get the better of us. The dog wisely made a hasty retreat in the very early stages. We then found that Jeff was No. 1 target. The hob hated the sight of him and, since Jeff's presence seemed to make him even worse, he too, had to retreat. That left me doggedly trying to make friends with a very uncooperative, hostile, little beast. Every day he locked himself somewhere on to me, totally intent on inflicting damage. He attached himself to the cuff of my jumper and refused to let go, even when lifted off the ground. It's not always a good idea to immediately place a biting ferret on the ground because they can learn that biting is a way of being set down or let go, but in this case I didn't have a lot of choice! As soon as his feet touched the floor, the little monster let go of my jumper and leaped straight at my face. He was scary and he knew it.

When he hadn't been claimed after a week we had him castrated. This usually improves temperament but back he came from the vet as spitting mad as ever. OK, we thought, it can take a couple of weeks for hobs to calm down. The weeks passed, no change. Jeff stil had to be outside the room. I was still in the line of fire. Psycho was still stamping, hissing and generally screaming his hatred for people. He was looking good, though. Ridding him of his ticks and fleas, and a good diet and clean housing, had made him into a handsome chap.

But no one would ever want to give a home to such a psychopathic monster. Would he be the first ferret we had to have put to sleep because of his nasty nature? We began to fear so. We'd had some close calls before but somehow they all worked out well enough in the end. We saw no such improvement in Psycho, however small, to even hope for a similar happy-ending.

We tried everything over the next four or five weeks. Treats, the 'head in the tub of goodies' trick so we could stroke him and talk to him, and just letting him potter about in the hope he would decide we weren't so bad after all. Nothing worked. He was still as aggressive as ever. We felt we had failed him. We began to talk seriously about whether he had any sort of future with us, or with anyone.

It was one morning when I brought him in for his usual attack and rampage session (always optimistically referred to as a 'socialisation' time!) that we both noticed a change. Somehow, something in face or his eyes was different. He looked up at us and it was as if a different animal had suddenly emerged. Instead of the aggressive look, his expression was almost quizzical, as if he had noticed us for the very first time. We all looked at one another for a little while and then I offered a hand. I'm not a brave person, it just somehow seemed the right time. Within minutes we were both tickling him and he was chuckling. Then he bounced. Almost immediately he stopped, astonished, as if he didn't quite realise what he'd done, but obviously liked it because he went on to bop, bounce, chuckle and, for the first time, allow himself to be picked up and cuddled. That morning it was as if someone had thrown a switch and his whole character changed.

I still swear it was nothing we did. I really believe that something had suddenly altered in his make-up. Maybe it was mainly hormonal and that the change was down to his castration, even though it had taken weeks longer than any other hob we had dealt with. Or maybe he just suddenly realised there was no need to be aggressive or afraid of anymore. Whatever it was, I have never seen such a sudden complete transformation in any animal.

The transformation was permanent. From that time the (now mis-named) 'Psycho' was an utter sweetie. He was affectionate, adored laps and cuddles, and anyone could do anything with him. The ferret who was so near being put to sleep because he was so horrible now needed a family of his own.

If, when we first took this ferret, anyone had said to us that he would end up a pet in a family with young children I'd have probably told Jeff to keep them talking while I called security! The idea would have seemed total insanity. Yet here was Psycho off to a new home with a NFWS member and her family, to be a gentle companion for an existing ferret. The family continued to help Psycho (who was given a much nicer name to suit his loving nature) and thanks to their love he went on to prove that even the most seemingly hopeless cases can work out.

If I told you his new name, many readers would recognise him, I'm sure. He's become quite a winner in rescue and junior handler classes. I don't think Jeff or I can take much, if any, credit for the outcome. His new family certainly deserves a huge round of applause, not just for taking him on but for bringing him on so wonderfully.

However, maybe the biggest tribute is to the ferret himself - and to ferret nature in general. Even when they have had no reason to like or trust people they can put that behind them and give and return so much love.

(From Ferrets First Issue #20 October/November 2004)

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