The Story of Yogi and Boo-Boo

by Bill Beck

A 'First Ferret' Story

"Come and look at this!" said Ann.

"What is it?" I asked.

"It's about ferrets," she replied.

Ferrets? I remembered them from "Round the Horne" - yes, I am that old, thank you! - Kenneth Horne was always on about 'stuff your ferret up your jumper' or 'down your trousers' for some ridiculous imaginary cause or other, every week. But what were they really like? Well, I had studied zoology at university so I should know. Only, I didn't. I suppose I knew that they were small(ish), long(ish), thin(ish) and…….. well, that was it really.

So we sat down to watch "It's a vet's life" video-taped from Granada TV: there in the 'Pet of the Week' slot was someone holding, or more accurately, trying to hold onto something that looked like a fur covered eel with legs. We were captivated. James McKay, for it was he, went on to tell us how easy they were to keep (I can here you laughing from here) and how you could take them for walks. This was demonstrated with him walking along whilst the ferret skittered sideways beside him with one leg out of its harness. The only other things you needed were a suitable cage, a bean bag for the little fellow to sleep on and some dried food and water.

This sounded just what we needed. We both wanted a household pet; Ann had never been allowed anything as a child except a goldfish. My family had had a rather aristocratic cat named Timmy who never really forgave me for being born and usurping his rightful place in the family's affections. Since then I had 'borrowed' other people's cats who came to me either because of the sudden arrival of a puppy in their real families, or simply out of neglect. Ann did have a budgie, a real character named Beauty, but we really wanted something that we could cuddle and make a fuss over and Beauty certainly didn't want to know about that! And so we started to seriously consider getting a ferret.

There were two things we wanted to do straight away, namely to see some ferrets in the flesh and to get a book about them. The first task proved to be almost impossible. Where would you go to look at pet ferrets? - Why, to a pet shop of course. So we did, but whenever we asked if they had any ferrets for sale we got incredulous and pitying looks; no pet shop would stock smelly/nasty bitey things like that, whoever would want one of those? Well, we did, but we seemed to be in a minority of two. We therefore attacked the other half of the problem, the book. We eventually fount the "Complete Guide to Ferrets" by James McKay (he of the aforementioned TV programme) in a large Manchester book shop. This proved to be an excellent guide although it did emphasise the keeping of 'exterior' rather than 'interior' ferrets, with less than a page on keeping them as indoor pets. We read the book avidly from cover to cover but there was still no sign of real, live ferrets anywhere.

About this time we went away for a short holiday. Whilst away, we visited the National Birds of Prey Centre near Newent in Gloucestershire. We walked in the gate and looked around us. To our left, just beyond the shop, we espied a small, two-storey wooden shed on legs. It had mesh panels in the walls through which short lengths of drainage pipe could be seen together with toys hanging from the roof. This could mean only one thing……. ferrets at last! We went to the cub and peered in but there was no sign of a ferret to be seen; not a nose, not a whisker. So we wandered off to look at the birds and see the flying displays, but always with half an eye on the ferret cub.

After the early afternoon flying display we went up to the shop to get an icecream and lo-and-behold someone was cleaning out the ferrets! We dashed up - could we have a look please? Could we hold one? Two? We were like children in a toyshop at Christmas. I can vividly remember holding my first ferret there beside the cub and thinking what a wonderful little creature it was - so inquisitive and intelligent looking - and it didn't stay still for a moment. Now I knew why the TV show presenter had had such a struggle holding onto his ferret. We asked all sorts of questions about them but the answers we received reinforced our impression that ferrets were out-door rather than indoor animals. This was something of a disappointment as we really wanted an indoor pet to share our home with us.

Some time later, at a large garden/aquatics centre, we stumbled across an American book about ferrets. This presented a very different view of the ferret. Shortly afterwards we found some more books from the USA, all of which presented the ferret as a non-hunting, indoor pet. We became a bit bemused; there seemed to be two totally different ferret cultures out there, which one was the 'right' one?

In the spring of 1996 we visited another birds of prey centre, the Gauntlet Centre near Alderley Edge in Cheshire. Graham Bessant , who runs the organisation, also kept ferrets. At that time he had Ernie, a polecat hob, and two albino jills, Marge and Snowflake. We told Graham all about our desire to keep ferrets and the problems which we had encountered trying to find one. We visited Graham and his ferrets several times during the spring and early summer and on one occasion he told us that he intended to breed his jills that year. As Ernie had been vasectomised Graham borrowed Bruno, a large, amiable poley belonging to a friend of his to do the business. Marge and Snowflake soon became pregnant and Graham said that we could have one of the kits. We delighted. What should we choose? Would we like albinos, sandies, coloureds or polecats? Hobs or jills? One or two? After much discussion we settled upon one polecat hob and settled down to await developments.

The gestation period of the ferret is forty-two days. As the sixth week approaced we were as bursting with anticipation as the jills were bursting with kits. And then the seventh week came, and then the eighth with still no sign of kits. What had happened to the kits? Pseudo-pregnancy was the answer; the jills were not pregnant and never had been! We felt let down and probably Marge and Snowflake did too as they gently deflated like leaky balloons.

"Never mind," said Graham, "We can mate the jills again and still get a litter this season." He soon telephoned us to let us know that Marge and Snowflake were expecting again, so we settled down once more to await developments. In the same way that some human parents feel that it is unlucky to buy the pram before the baby arrives so we began to fell that it would be unlucky to buy anything for our new arrival in case he didn't (arrive that is). However we decided that certain essentials were required so we obtained some Ferret Complete, Ferretone, litter trays, a collar and an indoor cage with water bowl. The six week wait dragged by. In the latter stages, the hair fell out of the jills bellies exposing the two rows of four nipples and so we felt sure of success this time.

What followed was not so much an action replay as an inaction replay. Nothing! Nowt! Zero! No patter of tiny paws. Frustrated is much too small a word for what we felt. By this time, early September, the breeding season was finished, so what could we do? Graham tried, without success, to find us a spare poley hob amongst his friends and acquaintances. Once again we drew a blank; either they wanted all their kits or the 'spares' had already been re-homed.

Eventually desperation drove us to do a very risky and inadvisable thing. We bought a copy of 'Loot' and looked through it to see if anyone had any ferrets for sale. You might say, "Why didn't you go to a Ferret Rescue Centre? You shouldn't buy ferrets like that anyway, it only encourages overbreeding." The answer to this is that we had no idea at that time that such organisations as Ferret Rescue existed, or that overbreeding was a problem (our experience had bee the exact opposite, remember?). We found three numbers and phoned them all. Two of them were no good, one had only jills and the other had hobs and jills, but no polecats. The third number produced results however and so the next Saturday found us driving to North Wales to view the kits.

When we arrived the breeder greeted us and took us into his backyard, which contained a number of ferret cubs. The ferrets looked healthy and the cubs were quite clean and not overcrowded so we asked to se the ferrets which were for sale. The man produced a really beautiful dark poley hob of about eight weeks. He seemed really healthy and relaxed with no signs of nippiness. We asked to see the parents and they also seemed quite amenable to handling, so we handed over our £5, popped the kit in a collapsible plastic crate with a lid bunged into place and set off home. The kit was well behaved on the journey and once we got him home we fed him some meat and put him in his cage to settle down. After exploring for a while and a few tentative at escape he settled down for a long snooze.

A couple of hours later he awoke. Ferrets generally go to the toilet soon after waking up and this one was no exception. He headed for a corner of the cage, turned around and went into reverse. Unfortunately, the corner he had selected, was not the one where his litter tray was located and so Ann opened the cage and reached in to redirect him. Whether it was just because he had had a stressful day, or because he didn't like to be interrupted, or because Ann startled him as unknown of course, but he sank his little fangs into Ann's thumb. We couldn't get him off; every time Ann managed to pull him off with her free hand he succeeded in squirming around and locking onto that. It was like a much more painful version of trying to remove that persistent little bit of Sellotape which seems determined that it isn't going to go in the bin! Eventually I managed to get him off Ann and to hold him in such a way that he couldn't bite me. I dropped him into his cage and shut the door quickly. Ann had disappeared, I found her in the bathroom, sat upon the loo and bleeding quietly into the washbasin. Several pieces of Elastoplast later we decided to go to bed and see what he was like in the morning.

That Sunday morning I approached the cage and, having seen that the kit was awake and that it had registered my presence I gently opened the door and started to reach in. He went for me unhesitatingly, but I managed to avoid his teeth and slammed the door shut. This was a real problem, I was at that time having to make frequent and sometimes lengthy trips abroad on business and we did not think that it would be realistic for Ann to try and cope with this little demon on her own. We therefore reluctantly decided to return him to North Wales which we did that same day in order to save all of us, the ferret included, any more stress. The breeder accepted the kit back, and returned our £5. We drove home feeling very dejected and gave up trying to find a ferret that year.

One day in October of that year (1996) we got an unexpected telephone call from Graham Bessant at the Gauntlet Birds of Prey Centre: he had located a "spare" ferret for us, were we still interested? Needless to say we jumped at the chance and arranged to visit him as soon as he could get hold of the ferret for us. Finally, the great day came and we drove down to the Centre. Graham took us to the little cub where the ferret was being kept temporarily. We looked in and saw a large, beautiful coloured silver mitt hob. Some of the colour was red, which subsequently turned out to be Graham's blood! "Oh no," we thought, "another biter."

Fortunately, by this time the frequency and length of my European excursions had diminished somewhat so we decided that we could take him on and have a go at taming him. He wasn't a poley like we originally wanted but he was such a striking animal that we did not mind that at all. And so Yogi, as we named him, came home with us a ferreters plywood box.

By this time our reading and conversations with owners had more or less convinced us that ferrets were really outdoor pets and so when we got Yogi home we transferred him to the Dutch-style rabbit hutch in the garden which we had bought a few days earlier. We sited the hutch in a shady area of the patio where we could keep an eye on Yogi from the house. Meanwhile, the indoor cage was consigned to the loft. We resisted the temptation to fuss over Yogi too much. When we did handle him we got our fingers well chewed so we took to wearing our heavy motorcycling gloves at these times. We fed Yogi on butchers' meat, whole rabbit carcass and day-old chicks with fresh water and Ferret Complete always available. Whenever he saw us in the garden Yogi would scrabble furiously at the mesh of his hutch. We trained him our of this by pointedly ignoring him, even turning our backs and walking away when he did it; when he quietened we would approach him again. He soon got the message. Ann would take Yogi his breakfast in the morning and would then spend anything up to 4 hours playing with him in the garage and garden. He loved to explore wellington boots, chase a broom and play tag. He started to become less aggressive and we changed from the winter motorcycling gauntlets to ordinary, thin leather gloves which still afforded us some protection.

By early December he had calmed to the point where we risked going gloveless. Our trust was repaid and Yogi never tried to bite us again except in play. Around this time we began bringing him indoors for short periods. At first we tried to keep him confined to one room as recommended in the American books on ferrets, but with the insatiable curiosity of ferret-kind he was only happy once he knew what lay behind each and every door. Initially we allowed him indoors for only a couple of hours at a time because we were concerned about how he would cope with the sudden changes in temperature. Yogi had now reached his full winter weight of four pounds and had a magnificent winter coat: we were afraid that he might overheat when indoors, but he never showed any signs of discomfort. We put some extra insulation around his cub at night as January approached and the nights became ever colder. Finally, on New Years Day we felt so sorry for him all alone in the freezing cold of the garden that we decided that we would give him a clear choice of whether he wanted to be an interior or exterior ferret. We took the large parrot cage that we had bought months before out of the loft and set it up in the lounge. We then took Yogi out of his cub and put him near the kitchen door that we left ajar. He came into the lounge and explored the cage. During the rest of the evening we put him near the open kitchen door several times but he always headed straight back into the house - well, what would you have done? From that moment Yogi became an indoor ferret and never slept outside again.

In the spring of that year (1997), we heard from Graham that Marge and Snowflake were expecting again. Bearing in mind last year's fiasco when they had false pregnancies we were not over-optimistic of results but we put our names down for a polecat hob as a companion for Yogi. We did this after much thought because although it seemed that Yogi seemed to be happy enough we could not provide him with round-the-clock attention and most ferret keepers seemed to be of the opinion that ferrets were happier in small groups.

At last a litter of six kits arrived, all polecats - and all jills! Yogi is a confirmed bachelor, he does not like jills, they tend to duff him up despite their disparity in size, so we had to say no. Fortunately one of Graham's friends came to the rescue again with a tiny poley hob only six weeks old which we named Boo-boo (what else would a side-kick for Yogi be called?).

Yogi had been castrated in January following his repeated attempts to drag Ann under the cupboard in the lounge and have his wicked way with her. He accepted Boo-boo straight away and although they play-fight quite roughly there has never been very serious aggression between them. Boo-boo was a bit too young to be separated from his mother at only six weeks, but by the time Graham found him for us the separation had already taken place. He seemed to be 50% head, and would have fitted in a milk bottle comfortably.

It soon became evident that Boo-boo had quite a different character to Yogi; whilst Yogi was now generally quite calm and relaxed, Boo-boo was a tiny bundle of almost inexhaustible energy. He seemed to have no 'off' switch and we couldn't see how to take the batteries out, so we put up with it. Boo-boo grew quickly but it was soon obvious that he would never be as large as Yogi. This really only concerned us as far as the play-fighting went. Boo-boo took quite a pasting from Yogi at first but made up in spirit what he lacked in size. There is also a difference in the way that they play with us. Whilst Boo-boo only ever gives the lightest and most fleeting of nips, Yogi tends to get a good grip and hang on tightly enough to be uncomfortable if not actually painful. A few 'Ooohs', 'Aaarghs' and 'Ouches' make him let go however and he seems to realise that he has overstepped the mark because he will often lick your wounds better for you.

Boo-boo is much more athletic than Yogi and will try to reach places that Yogi would not. He does this by climbing and/or leaping from whatever vantage point (often us!) to reach a windowsill, ledge or cupboard. We find it impossible to discourage him from doing this even though he often lands with hefty thud. It also explains why the clock is wired to the mantelpiece!

We have now had Yogi for two and a half years and Boo-boo for one and a half. Although neither appeared when expected, nor from where intended, we could not wish, in retrospect, that it had been otherwise as we have been fortunate enough to have ended up with two beautiful and affectionate ferrets of great character. They have been a constant source of pleasure and comfort to us during a very difficult period of our lives when we have both suffered ill health and 'the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune' generally.

So the moral of the story is not to worry if you still haven't found your perfect ferret - sooner or later, he will find you.

(First published in the April 1999 issue of the NFWS News)

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