Though domesticated for millennia, the quirky little ferret has only been popular as a pet for about 30 years. Although they resemble rodents, ferrets are actually members of the carnivorous mustelid family, alongside otters, weasels, minks, badgers, and wolverines. They are endlessly interesting creatures with a long history of hunting, manufacturing airplanes, and participating in one of the most bizarre blood sports in the world.
In various places throughout the world, an ancient, horrifying sport has made resurgence. Ferret-legging is an endurance event wherein participants drop two live ferrets into their pants, which are cinched off at the ankles and waist. The animal claw and bite fiercely in an attempt to get free. The winner is the man who can withstand this torment the longest.
Weasel War Dance
For those unfamiliar with ferrets, the so-called “weasel war dance” could be rather off-putting. With its back arched, the ferret will hop about in frenzy, its tail puffed out. It often makes strange hissing noises. This display might seem like the ultimate expression of ferocity, but it is really just an invitation to play, much like a dog will wiggle around when its leash or a favorite toy is produced.
While they might be new to pet stores, ferrets have been domesticated for over 2000 years. A hunter would travel afield with his animals in a small cage or pouch, and upon sighting a rabbit warren, would let the ferret crawl inside. A few moments later, the rabbit would burst from another hole, the ferret in hot pursuit. From there, the hunter might shoot it or send fleet dogs like lurchers after it. For centuries, such practices were a vital lifeline for people trying to feed their families, but today it is largely done for sport or for controlling the rabbit population. The hunter will gut the rabbit and feed it to his ferrets, as they are a much better source of nutrition than commercially available foods.
Despite their savage history, in general, ferrets make excellent pets. They are very intelligent, and can be trained to do all sorts of tricks. Like cats, they will use a litter box. They are happiest when there is at least one playmate in their cage. A group of ferrets is called a “business,” and they can be very entertaining to watch.
The majority of “working” ferrets are used to eradicate vermin, but they have other, less obvious purposes. Their ability to worm their way through confined spaces has led several institutions to use them for running wire. The photo above is of “Nibbler,” who helped with the wiring of the Large Hadron Collider.
Colors and Waardenburg Syndrome
The vast majority of ferrets are either albino (white with pink eyes) or sable colored like their wild polecat ancestors. In recent years, ferret breeders have begun producing animals with designer color patterns, like “badger” and “panda”. Unfortunately, these patterns make the ferrets more susceptible to developing a congenital defect called Waardenburg syndrome, which causes the skull to broaden and causes deafness.
As the gray wolf can interbreed with the domestic dog, ferrets and European polecats can readily produce offspring. There are some polecat-ferret hybrids living in the wild in the UK, and some hunters prefer to use them over pure ferrets, which have lost some of their predator edge through domestication.
Ferrets love to sleep but did you know that ferrets can give an impression of being lifeless while sleeping. They cannot be wakened even when picked up or jolted and lasso they look kind of cute when doing this.