The Adventures, and Misadventures of an Urban Ferret Keeper

Part One - Bodie and Doyle

by Peter Hillman

I began my affiliation with ferrets in 1997. I had lived alone in this house for ten years and I felt the time was right to introduce some animal company. After eliminating the more obvious choices as a pet, a dog because the house is too small and he would get bored while I was at work, a cat because I did not want my furniture scratched to ribbons, a rabbit because (like most rodents) he is pretty brainless, I was left with ferrets or chipmunks. The only occasions I had ever seen a ferret was once in someone’s back garden and once in a film called The Beastmaster, where the leading actor used his ferrets to wriggle through tight openings or steal bunches of keys.

After several phone calls, I discovered that a local dog-warden had a litter, so off I went to see if ferrets were destined to become my housemates. When I arrived and went to the back garden, the first thing to intrigue me was the amount of activity in a small pen as soon as they heard the back door open. As soon as the pen door was opened, they all swarmed out and scampered around the flowerbeds. I was fascinated by their playful antics, and when the breeder started picking them up and handling them, I realised that they were friendly little things and not the “monsters” I had always imagined they were. After selecting two polecat hobs (as suggested by the breeder). I paid him and agreed to collect them after my summer holidays in Scotland and when my pen had been built.

The day after I returned from my holiday I went round to collect the “boys” and brought them home. First of all I put them straight into their pens so they could adjust to their new home. As I had brought them for the sole purpose of being pets I wanted them in the house as often as possible, I’m sure all you fellow members are thinking “big mistake” or “yes, we’ve been there before” – absolutely correct! It wasn’t long before I was getting close to a nervous breakdown – they were scratching and messing my carpets, getting into places I didn’t want them to go (like behind the television and messing around with the wires).

The phone bills started to rise as I was constantly asking around for advice. At one stage, despite the fact that I still loved them to bits, I even considered sending them back to the breeder. Obviously I didn’t send them back and very gradually I succeeded in house training them, and managed to ferret proof the two rooms I allowed them in – the television is now in a cabinet that they cannot get behind, the carpets have been removed and replaced by laminated flooring, a sliding door replacing an ordinary one to prevent them getting upstairs and going to sleep in the clothes which are usually lying around the bedroom.

I was fortunate enough to meet a local member of the NFWS, a working ferret owner named Phil. He gave me a huge amount of support and passed on priceless information relating to the needs of the ferret, and I remember him telling me that one day in the future it would be me giving advice to new owners – how right he was. He also advised me to join the NFWS and, although he has since left for his own personal reasons, I still keep in touch with him and talk ferrets. Joining the Society has been not only beneficial in terms of learning about the ferret but also getting to know people with various backgrounds all with one thing in common. Everybody in the Society I’ve spoken to, either at shows or over the telephone, has always been more than happy to discuss ferret issues however busy their lifestyle.

Part 2 – Bruno and Brenda

After two years with Bodie and Doyle I toyed with the idea of introducing a third ferret to them thinking that if one of them was to die they might not miss him. Phil understood my thinking so we agreed to see a local breeder who he recommended. When I arrived there were three separate litters so there were plenty to choose from. I soon chose a dark silver-mitt hob because I loved his little white feet (no, I do not have a secret foot fetish). One of his sisters, another silver-mitt also caught my eye – not because of her white feet but for the manner in which she wanted to be the centre of attention, so I decided to take her as well.

When I arrived home with Phil we put them in the pen with Bodie and Doyle and stood back to see the reaction. There was a fair amount of sniffing each other and after about twenty minutes Phil and I seemed satisfied that all was well. Everything seemed fine until just before midnight when I saw Doyle dragging Bruno around. I couldn’t do much about it so I gave Doyle a ticking off and went to bed.

The next morning I could see that they had not been play fighting as Bruno’s scalp was looking a bit lumpy. Fortunately Phil was at hand with a portable cage and we soon put him safely away. It was also obvious that Brenda wasn’t very happy with Doyle so she soon joined Bruno.

My plans for introducing more ferrets to Bodie and Doyle had gone wrong, and it meant that a new pen had to be made as quickly as possible to accommodate the two new ones. Luckily Phil knew somebody who could help out, and agreed to look after Brenda and Bruno until it was ready. A week later the new pen arrived and my two new ones soon came back home.

Since then I have tried other ferrets with Doyle but every time he goes into kamikaze mode and launches an all out assault on the other ferret. Since Bodie died last year of kidney failure Doyle has been living quite happily on his own and quite clearly doesn’t want any other company, mine expected. Several members of the Society have met Bruno and Brenda and passed on some very complimentary remarks. Bruno has performed very well in shows, including a second in the Christmas Show in 2000 and again at the same show last year, and although Brenda usually comes away empty handed I still believe her day will come. They are both well behaved in the house, Bruno spending most of the time messing around in the supermarket carrier bag or running through the pipe behind the sofa, and Brenda climbing on to the furniture for attention or to clean herself. When I’m not looking she jumps onto the coffee table picks up the cigarette lighter and hides it somewhere – usually under the television cabinet.

Part Three – Arthur, Galahad, Monty and Morgan Le Fey

Arthur - 7Kb It is now 2001; remembering my failed attempts at introducing others to Doyle I now wondered if Bruno and Brenda wanted to be part of a larger community. I wasn’t prepared to experiment with “outside” ferrets so I considered breeding Brenda. I consulted with Phil who tried, at first, to put me off the idea telling me that there could be a number of unwanted kits but if I found homes first he would be around to advise me if I decided to proceed. As it was my intention to keep two of the litter I succeeded in finding homes for six more, so I decided to go ahead and let Brenda become a mother.

It is normally 42 days after mating when the litter is born and usually during the night. I counted the days and when I went to bed after the 41st day I wondered if I would find a countless number of kits the next morning. When I went out that morning Brenda did not appear in the run and I was sure that she did not want to be disturbed. I discretely left her food and checked on the others.

I spent all of Sunday eager to look for an opportunity to open the bedding compartment door to see the newborns and to get some idea how many there were. In the evening Brenda emerged and indicated that she was hungry. I soon put her food in a bowl and set it down in the run that gave me the chance to open the door and look inside. I was expecting a huge number of little bodies however I could only count four. I did not know how to react as I was expecting at least twelve. On the one hand I could have ended up with unwanted ferrets and on the other I did not have enough to give to people I had promised in the first place.

As the kits grew I was getting more and more confused about which two I wanted to keep and which two to let go. I wanted all three hobs but did not want the snappy little jill but I felt that it would be unfair to pass her on to a new owner and let him sort her out. Phil suggested that she should be put to sleep as she was so aggressive but I worked hard with her and endured the punishment and she eventually settled down. Needless to say I decided in the end to keep all four kits and was relieved to see that Bruno has accepted them all.

The pen that holds these six had been built in such a way it was supposed to be escape proof. However, one day I left the door open for a short time, and Monty, who is the only one capable of jumping more than eighteen inches in a vertical direction, managed to leap up to the door and escape. I was totally unaware of his absence until the following morning. I made a few telephone calls including a live one to Birmingham Radio WM, but the one to the local police station told me that he had been found and was being looked after by a local resident. It turned out that Monty had run down the garden path, down the back alley leading to the busy High Street and darted into the local fish and chip shop. Fortunately he hadn’t been battered!

Part Four – Winston, Edwina and Maggie

The last (but I doubt it will be the final) part of my story began when John Barton had a few chats with me last year at various shows, and explained his work at Broadway Ferret Rescue. I told him that my hands were already full with eight ferrets but, of course, I still thought about the possibility of adding to the others. I eventually agreed to visit Broadway with a new member of the Society who was interested in taking two or more ferrets to add to his collection. Of course, while I there I decided to keep my options open, and if John built a new pen, I would consider taking two more. After a few more chats and seeing that he was being swamped with new arrivals I drove down again to see him. As Bodie had recently died I had decided that I could manage two more but when I returned home I had three albinos with me. I decided to name them after Conservative MP’s – Winston because he looks “Churchillian”, Edwina after Ms. Currie and Maggie because she rules the roost.

(First published in the December 2003 issue of the NFWS News)

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