Toronto Conference 2006

by Dr June McNicholas

It was a great honour to be invited to speak at the International Ferret Congress conference in Toronto in June 2006. My brief was to talk on ferrets in the UK, health, husbandry, disease, behaviour and so forth. I joined an array of well-known veterinarians from the ferret world in a very intensive three day conference dedicated to the treatment and well-being of ferrets. I made copious notes and attended a session of surgery on ferret lymphoma, all of which I promise to write up very soon for a special newsletter summarising a lot of the valuable information from the conference. In the meantime, here's a somewhat less formal description of my visit to Canada (my only excuse at this stage is that at the time of writing I have had three conferences to attend, at different sides of the Atlantic and beyond, so I've haven't had time to catch up on some sleep or adjust to the time differences enoght to write anything very serious! Jet-lagged brain cells, you understand.

I arrived in Canada several days before the conference at the invitation of Randy Belair, the organiser of the event. For those who have never met or heard of Randy, she is a wonderful person, totally dedicated to ferrets and a whole lot of fun to be with! My first day was a little hazy, I'd been working hard and, with the five hour time difference, was distinctly under the impression that it was bed time when I arrived in Toronto. In fact, their time, it was mid afternoon and time to get sociable! Despite the time difference I still woke up the next morning at 5am (UK time) ready to see to our sheep. No sheep in the suburbs of Toronto! Well, who said you need to sleep and eat every 24 hours?!

The next night it hit me, I was REALLY tired. We were about to turn in for the night when the phone rang. One of Randy's ferrets (placed in a foster home) had escaped. We all made a midnight dash to the area in Toronto where he had been placed. Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that I'd spend several hours wandering the back gardens in Toronto in the dead of night! Not only that, but it was the evening everyone put out their bin bags for the garbage trucks to collect. How to find a ferret in an area filled with bin bags?! Several things struck me. First, here was I wriggling under fences and gates, looting through garbage - oops! People in Canada (like the States) are ARMED! Guns are ten-a-penny so what was to stop anyone shooting a percived burglar? Secondly, there were loads of cats. Not strays, lovely, well cared for cats, but obviously out on the prowl. Several became familiar friends in various backyards, but there was ONE which positively haunted me! No matter where I went, which road I turned into, there he was, a sleek black and white cat intent on watching me. I could have taken it in my stride if I hadn't been looking for an albino ferret. As it was, every time this cat arrived next to me all I saw was his white bib and chest emerging from the gloom, and, every time, it looked like a white ferret appearing! By his tenth appearance I was ready to cosh him with my heavy duty flash-light!

The third thing that struck me was that it is not only cats and runaway ferrets that are attracted to bin bags. I really thought I'd found the ferret when I saw the wriggling of a small animal inside a bin bag. I prodded it slightly, only to be greeted by an irate chittering of an extremely annoyed baby raccoon! Quite clearly, he was saying, 'Bog off, woman, find your own trash!' From then on, it was wall to wall raccoons, all investigating trash cans and bin bags, and none in the least disturbed by me rooting around beside them.

By 4am we called a halt to the search and stuck up lots of posters in the area advertising a lost ferret. Happily, by 7am he was back home, none the worse for his adventure. You couldn't say the same for the rest of us though, we were shattered! But there was no time for rest as the next day was the opening of the conference with a special picnic in the park, and a lot of food need to be cooked beforehand. Thanks to the runaway ferret nothing had been prepared! An all-day, all-night cook-in took place, producing corn bread, jambalaya, chilli, various cookies etc took place. I, and everyone else at Randy's must have looked like something the ferrets had dragged in by the opening of the conference!

However, it all went well despite the baggy-eyed appearance of some of us. Not that it stopped us visiting Niagara Falls (I got delayed by US customs en route and had to explain my presence in US when I'd only got Canadian passes and dual nationality just to add to the fun!) and Toronto Zoo. At the zoo I was introduced to some of the Black footed ferrets which formed part of the captive breeding programmes that re-released these fabulous animals back into their native habitat. 'Skivvy' is a breath-taking beautiful male black footed who has been a major breeding assest tot he programme. One of his partners 'Skittles' was nursing 4 week old kits who will, some day soon, be introduced back into the wild. Over 300 black footed ferrets have been bred at Toronto Zoo to support this wonderful precious animal which was believed to be totally extinct until 20 years ago. I was thrilled that I may have a small part to play in the rehab of these beautiful animals as a Ph.D. student at the zoo asked me to help her devise a research programme for 'her' release site. I realise that UK ferrets must be a priority here in the UK but I couldn't help feeling what a privilege it would be if we in UK, and NFWS in particular, could help in re-establishing this wonderful animal? I just wished I could get my tongue round 'Black Footed Ferrets' as every time I said it, it came out as 'Flat footed ferrets!'

The next day was the 'conference proper'. We had talks from a vet with particular interest in homeopathic remedies for ferrets; the vets specialising in Aleutian Disease, various surgical procedures, insulinoma and, in the lunch break, Bob Church gave a very entertaining (but informative) talk on the need for enrichment of ferret environments.

My talk was scheduled for Saturday, between talks on clinical examination techniques and pathology and disease of the domestic ferret given by highly respected veterinarians. I had decided quite early on that my talk would try to be informative but funny - after all it had been a serious two days. Happily my talk on the myth behind ferrets down trousers, various humorous case studies on ferret behaviour achieved this alongside more serious areas of the need to control oestrus in jills (with reference to Dr Nico Schoemaker's work in the Netherlands), and concerns that exist here (and in the US) about Aleutian Disease.

I also touched on my concern about the attempts to inter-breed wild polecats with ferrets. I, and many other rescues, have had a number of puported hybrids handed over. I know I've said this numerous times, but WHY should anyone want to re-introduce polecat characteristics into our domestic ferrets? It has taken centuries to produce the domestic ferret from the polecat so why put back what was bred out in them first-place? Wild polecats are mainly solitary; they are shy and suspicious of humans, and they won't readily enter holes they are not familiar with. We bred the domestic ferret to be gregarious, happy to be handled by humans, and to confidently enter any hole we introduce them to. So WHY whould we want to put the polecat back into our domestic ferret? From experience of the hybrids I've taken in, they are admittedly beautiful to look at, but they are shy, nervous, and unsuitable for pet, show or work. On top of that, it is illegal to take a polecat from the wild (even for temporary captivity such as for breeding purposes). They are a protected species and illegal possession carries serious financial penalties, up to 5000 per animal in the absence of a properly granted licence. Nevertheless, in the UK, there are a number of breeders/sellers of kits who openly advertise that their stock is derived from wild polecat. Only the rescues who have taken in the sad little offspring can testify to the awfulness of these 'breeding programmes'. These animals are neither domestic nor wild and so, caught between two worlds, will never have a contented life. They do not make good pets but neither are they able to be released to the wild, it's yet one more thing to add to man's misuse of animals. And I speak from experience here. Not only do I have 'hybrids' here that will never be able to go to pet homes, I also have a wild polecat jill who was originally caught from the wild to interbreed with ferrets. I can only assume she showed the natural aggressiveness of a wild polecat as someone clipped her teeth to gum level and so ensured that she would never be able to be a natural predator again. Happily for 'Polly' she has settled with a young castrated hob who acts as her 'mentor' and she will live out her life as a sort of ferret. It's taken us three years to get her socialised and willing to be handled. We love her, and feel privileged to know a wild polecat at such close quarters, but the unspeakable cruelty inflicted on her has scarred her, and hers is not the life she should have led. PLEASE do not be part of any so-called polecat-ferret breeding programme. I know I'm on a soap-box here, but let's stop this 'inter-breeding' NOW.

Anyway, after my talk, and the rest of the veterinary/behaviour talks at the conference we settled down to enjoy ourselves. This came in the shape of the Gala Dinner. Great food, great company and then the fun began! Dr Karen Purcell, a well known vet in the ferret world, performed a belly dance to a much appreciative audience! This was followed by an auction of Dr Bruce Williams' underwear and, in a perverse sort of auction, Bob Church had his shorts first auctioned off then re-autioned to keep them on! I narrowly escaped having my bra autioned, but not so one of our veterinary colleagues! However, it was all in good clean fun, and not a person or ferret was offended in the least.

One event attached to the conference was a ferret fashion show. I know, like many here in the UK, we aren't greatly in favour of dressing ferrets in various outfits, but the whole thing was fun and it raised money for ferret shelters. The hosts of the show were Ferret Couture UK and they donated a very large number of outfits and accessories for auction. I wasn't willing to take part but I confess I did like a little tee-shirt emblazoned with the message 'I could kick your dog's ass' on it. I could just imagine my big, beefy line-hob modelling that!

I stayed in Toronto for several days after the conference and my heartfelt thanks go to Randy Belair for her hospitality; Renee Downs for her instruction on deep south recipes and simply her fun outlook; Dr Karen Purcell for her company, Dr Susan Brown for her support for my talk, plus Bob Church, Dr Bruce Williams, Dr Heneke Moorman (the only European vet to treat only ferrets) and heaps of others, including the wonderful ladies from California, Alberta and Massachusetts.

I shall revisit all my notes from these very informative people and their talks and hopefully produce a special edition of the NFWS Newsletter in the next few weeks.

First Published in NFWS News #75 Spring/Summer 2006

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