Owners appeal to Obama over California ferret ban

black footed ferret Image copyright SPL
Image caption A black footed ferret from Montana where it is legal to own the animals.

Among the big issues President Obama will be thinking about as he starts his second term, the great Californian ferret crisis is probably not one of them.

The Golden state is the last part of the continental US to hold out against the charms of this furry member of the weasel family, maintaining a ban on ownership of the mammal, who's Latin name, Mustela putorius furo, means "weasel-like stinky thief".

Ferret fanciers might find the description a bit harsh as they say the creatures are intelligent, fun loving and make great pets.

But California's Fish and Wildlife department begs to differ.

They've maintained a ban on ownership since 1933 to try and ensure that ferrets don't go feral - they are worried that if the critters escape into the wild, they might outbreed and outcompete native species.

For San Diego resident Pat Wright, legalising the ferret has become his life's work.

Laws being ignored

Under the slogan "do it for the little guy", Pat has run for office, organised campaigns and even gone to jail in his struggle for ferret's rights. He even managed to get the Californian legislature to pass a bill overturning the ban in 2004 but it was terminated by former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Now Pat is turning to President Obama. If he can get 25,000 signatures on a petition within 30 days, the White House is promising a review.

"California has more ferrets than New York and Texas, where they are legal, " he told me referring to the fact that anything up to 500,000 of the animals are owned illegally in the state.

Image copyright Pat Wright
Image caption Pat Wright has been fighting for ferrets for 25 years

"It's a law that's being ignored. It's hard to get in trouble with a ferret - we've had people take ferrets to the state capital and not be able to get arrested," he said.

However the Californian authorities argue the ban is justified because ferrets can spread diseases like rabies.

They point to other countries such as New Zealand where the animals were imported in the 1880s to control rabbits that were breeding like...err... rabbits.

The ferrets escaped into the wild and thrived to the extent that New Zealand has the largest wild population in the world. But they have proven themselves a serious threat to many native birds, including brown teal penguins and kiwi.

In recent years scientists have linked them to the spread of bovine TB. They were banned as pets in 2002.

Ferret legging

Pat Wright insists that the conditions in California are very different and the animals could not thrive in the wild.

"Ferrets cannot go feral except in an island ecosystem where there's nothing to eat ferrets, and there's plenty for ferrets to eat," he said,

"It can not happen in mainland California."

The campaign now hinges on getting enough petition signatures to involve President Obama.

Who knows, perhaps if it is successful the great British tradition of ferret legging, involving stuffing the creatures down trouser legs, might one day become a common sight in the bars of Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Pat Wright thinks not.

"No we're a little more sane over here. And American ferrets are a little more mellow than British ones," he added.

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