The Ballad of the Wakeham Woozles

by Kirsty Glover

(or the unexpected side-effects of late-night shopping!)

I'm a believer in Fate; if something happens, there's usually a reason for why it happened when it did. Without the intervention of Fate, I'd probably never have ended up with my ferrets!

I'd thought about owning a ferret or two for a while. A friend of ours, Jan, used to load hers on the back of her motorbike and take them to rallies (which are basically an excuse for a few hundred bikers to gather in a wet field and get drunk round a bonfire, which has always seemed a perfectly nice way of spending a weekend!). My fondest memory of Jan's 'babies' was me sitting in a pub in the middle of January, next to a blazing log fire with a ferret curled up asleep in each of my jumper sleeves - which made my pint of cider last a long time!

A few years later, my husband, Nigel, and I were in the throes of building a house, and were living in a mobile home behind the building site, along with a cat called Pye and a young Border Collie, Tam Lin. One September evening in 1999, we returned from a shopping expedition. It was about 8 pm and getting dark. I'd just squeezed out of the car, laden with groceries, when I noticed something small and furry, sniffling at a parked car a few yards down the road. Even in the dusk I realised that it wasn't a rat, and there are no squirrels where we live. I stopped, it stopped. I saw that unmistakable bandit mask and dark chocolate points and I realised - a ferret! It realised - a human! If it could have squeaked with joy, it would have, and rushed at full tilt towards me, clambering straight into my arms in a state of excitement. Holding onto the little, wildly-wriggling beast as well as I could, I sent Nigel in for Pye's travelling box. By the time he returned, I had a ferret up my jumper once more, and was being thoroughly investigated!

Once indoors, we had to find somewhere to stow the ferret until the owner was tracked down. Tam was taking an unhealthy amount of interest, so we decided that the caravan's small bathroom would have to do, as it was warm and draught-free. After some internet surfing for information, refreshments in the form of dried cat food (which Pye didn't like anyway) and a bowl of water were gratefully accepted by our little guest, who then curled up and went to sleep in a hastily-prepared tube made out of an off-cut of Vetbed. At that time, of course, we were unfamiliar with ferret sleeping habits - such as they are! Separated from our bedroom by just a thin hardboard wall, the little sod crashed, banged and rattled in the cat box all through the night! Next morning, feeling more than just a little worse for wear, we decided that we'd have to see if 'it' minded living outside for the time being.

We'd built an outside run for Tam when he was a pup, so that we could carry on with building work without having to shut him in the caravan for long periods of woodwork-and-cable destruction. The cage was a 6 ft x 6 ft x 4 ft cube with a door, and mesh all round including the floor in case Tam decided to dig. He'd soon outgrown it, and it was now sitting idle with the idea of it being used as a fox-proof chicken run in the future. For now, it would do nicely as an outdoor home for our new furry friend; the weather was warm, and the run was under the trees and fairly sheltered. An unwanted electricity meter box was pressed into service as a 'des res' - the lid now became the roof, and it was divided in half inside to separate the sleeping and dining areas. A covered cat-litter tray was the outside loo, and our guest settled straight in.

Pickles - 27k For a few days, we made enquiries and left posters at the local vet, pet shop and pub, but no one came forward to claim what was so obviously somebody's pet. Our vet (who identified the bundle of fun as a little girl) told us that there was quite a problem with stray ferrets in the area, although the majority of them were working animals - we have always had quite a healthy bunny population (in accordance with local superstitions we never mention the 'R' word!). Eventually, we accepted that our household had grown in number, and it was time to give her a name. To say that our sense of humour is decidedly un-'PC' is an understatement, and Nigel wanted to call her 'Chutney' (if you don't get the joke, I'm not going to explain, ahem!). It didn't suit such a girlie girl, who was full of fun and love (she only ever bit me once), so we agreed on 'Pickles'. Trouble was, she was an only ferret and in obvious need of round-the-clock company. While Pye was completely aloof, in the way that cats are, Tam was fascinated and his old run became his entertainment centre - dog television! However, it was only a short time before Pickles' - and our - world was to change.

Pickles had been with us for less than a month when, one evening, the 'phone rang. It was Tony, the landlord of the local pub, wondering if our ferret had escaped. I rushed out to check, only to find Her Ladyship curled up, fast asleep, in her bed. Phew! No, all present and correct. Tony explained that his wife, Dot, had been in the garage, getting something out of the freezer, when she looked down and saw a whiskery nose and a pair of beady eyes looking back at her! After recovering from the shock, Dot realised that it was a - you've guessed it - and the animal was caught up and placed in a box with something to eat.

Two days later, and a knock at the door. There was Tony, with a cardboard box, not to mention lots of plasters on his fingers! "Thought you might be able to give this a home", he said, gingerly opening the box to reveal the most pathetic, scabby creature I'd seen this side of a TV vet programme. Erring on the safe side, I put on a pair of thick gloves and lifted him (the smell was a bit of a giveaway!) out. He was very thin, and covered in ticks, and had a few bald spots where some had been and gone. I guessed he had been living rough for a while. He had those typical polecat markings, although paler than Pickles'. He also had a large scab on his chin, and a lower canine that stuck out, and I wondered whether he'd fallen or been clipped by a car. When I put him down, he walked with a pronounced limp. Rescue Phase 1 again, with cat box in the bathroom and plenty of peace and quiet. It was one of the few times that he didn't bite me….

If I thought Pickles was a riot in the small hours, this was like trying to sleep at an Iron Maiden gig! In the morning, the nice manners of the day before were long gone and he was absolutely furious; despite his bad leg, he could climb like a monkey and quickly learned to leap from the basin onto my head! I had to shut him in the shower cubicle while I cleaned out his bed, for fear of losing too many appendages. I was already considering turning him into slippers or a draught excluder, but decided that, for now, a visit to the vet for tick-removal and an overhaul would have to do. I kept him in Tam's travelling cage in the garage for a few more days, and then decided that I could put it off no longer - Pickles was about to have a new friend! With her being so sweet-natured, I was concerned that he would be too spiteful as he'd shown me no quarter this far, but I needn't have worried. She fluffed herself to twice her normal size, and used the most appalling Anglo-Saxon that I'd ever heard! This was also the first time I'd seen the weasel's war-dance, and us humans laughed until we hurt. Tam was positively aghast, and Pye ignored everyone and stalked off to toy with the local shrews.

An uneasy truce was worked out, but the new boy (who was now known as 'Branston') was still sleeping in the cat box in the run, and Pickles remained the undisputed ruler of the meter box. Having learned about the pitfalls of a jill's fertility cycle, it wasn't long before she was whisked off to the vet, leaving His Nibs free to move house. Pickles' operation went well, and the nurses at the practice really fell in love with her. "I didn't know that ferrets were so sweet", one of them said when we came to take her home. "You should meet the other one", I replied, absently rubbing my fingers! Back at home, after a day in the warm bathroom, 'Modom' was transferred to Tam's travelling cage, in the garage. She was soon back on her feet - I was working on one of the bikes when I heard a crash. I turned to see Pickles happily trashing a parsley plant on the windowsill, after finding a gap that was just large enough to squeeze out of! Thankfully, the vet pronounced her nicely healed, so she was ready to go back 'home'. Back in the run, lots of sniffing and a bit of dancing around eventually gave way to companionship.

Branston - 21k Despite his previously poor condition, Branston had managed to pick up and was turning into a handsome big chap. He still had the wonky tooth and pronounced limp, but was otherwise on fine form; this was helped by my discovery of Ferret Complete and, with winter by now on the way, the pair of them grew glorious thick pelts, almost overnight. In fact, I'm sure I heard a sound like 'plumph' one day, and there they were! Nigel had to go away for a couple of weeks in December, so I decided that it was time for a new home for the 'woozles', and kept myself out of mischief by making a luxury two-storey hutch, complete with en-suite facilities. The pair moved in without hesitation (although Pickles has always preferred using the space underneath the hutch as her toilet, to my annoyance!). They did well over the cold spell, their diet supplemented with a raw egg between them twice a week, and 'woozle sticks' (aka Felix Rascal's Reward) as treats at every opportunity.

Despite all the spoiling and fuss, and a subtle blend of psychology and extreme violence, Branston was still a complete and utter evil git, always in search of the nearest available piece of skin. He was also claustrophobic! We'd put odd ends of surplus drainage pipe in the run, linked with bends, and Pickles loved to run through them. Not Branston. He'd go in only far enough to grab Pickles' stash of munchables, then back out quickly. Had he been stuck down a bunny hole while out working, and been abandoned? His loss of contact with humans hadn't helped his temper, but spring was on its way, and so was a visit to Mr Vet! Although Pickles is usually the one to play rough, Bran's insistence on dragging her round by the face was making her look a little world-weary and dishevelled. Time for the 'kindest cut'!

I'll never forget picking him up after work that day. We went into the recovery room, where we were hit by the overpowering smell of hot hob - the hormones were going down with all guns blazing! There, amongst all the cages of cats and dogs, was our reprobate, snoring happily in his Vetbed 'jim-jams' tube, looking almost sweet and completely oblivious to his surroundings. "How many people did he bite?" I asked, warily. "Oh, no-one, he was as good as gold" replied the nurse. Grrrr! Back home, following a couple of days' R&R, he was reunited with his main squeeze. I eagerly awaited signs of improvement, although not without a pair of leather gloves within reach. He's certainly better than he was, but will still regularly show you his teeth, and delights in turning a telling-off session into a game (unless it involves Mr Poo Scoop, which will make him go quiet for a minute or so!).

Branston and Pickles - 27k Not knowing their ages, it's difficult to tell how long we'll be enjoying their company. Bran can sometimes look quite old, and has been caught dozing 'on the front porch', ie head and front paws out of the hutch doorway, on a few occasions. When he's playing, however, he's nearly a match for his more boisterous partner, and now that we've included some transparent and translucent pipe sections into their 'plumbing', he's more willing to chase her through them. Pickles is still a total sweetie, and loves to climb over me and whuffle in my ears, or roll over so that I can tickle her fat little tummy! One or both of them are always waiting for me to come and see them in the morning, and get incredibly excited when they see the packet of 'woozle sticks' (cupboard love, eh?).

The only adventure we've all had recently was taking them out for a walkabout in our field. Bran took to the harness quite well (even if it's a green velvet cat one that belonged to Pye, now no longer with us), convincing me again that he once had to work for his keep. He was quite happy until he caught the scent of something, possibly our local wild rat, and then he was off! I managed to pull him out from under the shed, where he'd disappeared like a flash, but not before he'd wriggled half out of the harness. Pickles didn't like the bondage gear one bit, but she's had a supervised wander 'au naturelle' - until she made a bee-line for the woodpile! They both enjoyed their excursion, although Branston got a bit over-excited and was being Flat Eric for a while afterwards. They may yet get proper harnesses for Christmas, depending on Pickles being persuaded that it's A Good Thing.

Once our house is finished, they'll be moving into a new run in the back garden, next to the garage where there's both more sun and more shelter from the wind. I know one thing that will come with them from their old home - Tam! As a typically obsessive Collie, he's usually to be found either watching 'television' or waiting for someone to come and turn it on for him. And he really loves it when there's a good action movie showing…

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