Health Department Upholds Ban Against Ferrets

Watson sleeping in one of his toys.

Watson sleeping in one of his toys.

Watson and Nacho are two illegal residents of New York City. Since their arrival, the two fuzzy little creatures have spent their days in the confines of a top floor apartment in Forest Hills, Queens. When the ferrets, which are banned by the city, do venture outside, it becomes a covert operation and their owner can only hope that no one reports them.

For a brief moment on Tuesday, March 10th, it looked like Watson and Nacho would be liberated as the Department of Health debated a citywide ban on ferrets. But only three members of the board voted in favor of legalization of the animals, meaning their bid for freedom in New York City would have to wait for another day.

The two pound pets that can live for up to ten years have been banned from the city since 1999. Along with the states of Hawaii and California, and Washington D.C., the Big Apple is one of four places in the country where ferrets remain illegal. They are legal in the rest of New York State.

In the discussion leading up to the vote, the Department of Health’s board raised concerns over the animal’s “unique skeletal structure” which they feared would allow ferrets to easily escape into other people’s apartments through pipes, cracks and air vents.

Some board members worried that escaping animals would create a colony of “feral ferrets” that would be dangerous to the public and impossible to control.

David Gaines, the American Ferret Association’s director of legal and legislative affairs, said there is no evidence of such a mass escaping. “There are no statistics because it doesn’t happen often enough for it to be significant,” he said.

The original petitioner, Ariel Jasper, sat through the meeting with a toy ferret replica on her knees. She said she put a lot of time, money and effort into the 14-month process but was frustrated at how the case was presented to the board. She said she had answers to all the questions that were raised. “I’ve never been this let down by the government,” she said.

Watson and Nacho’s owner, Veronica N., who’s last name has not been included to protect her pets, was also disappointed. She illegally keeps her two ferrets, Watson, 3, and Nacho, 2, in her Queens apartment and says the animals, which sleep for up to 18 hours a day, are the ideal pet for her busy work schedule. “When you come home from work they’re like, “Yay its play time,” she says. “It’s fine that I was locked up all day I was sleeping.”

Veronica N. holding her ferret Nacho.

Veronica N. holding her ferret Nacho.

Veronica describes ferrets as goofy and says as pets, they are “playful like a dog, but independent like a cat.”

She keeps a watchful eye on them when she lets the ferrets out of their large cage in her living room. With their soft white fur and beady eyes, they snoop around the furniture and snuggle up in her arms before taking a nap in a play tunnel.

She says that she only takes the animals out of the house when she takes them to the vet, who is by law allowed to treat banned animals. Whenever she does this, however, she says she has to put them into a blackout bag that makes it hard for passersby to see inside. “You have to kind of smuggle them,” she says.

No one knows how many ferrets are being kept as pets in the city, but the wide availability of ferret-related products in pet shops suggests that there are quite a few, like Watson and Nacho, that are being kept hidden. A sales assistant at the Petland Discounts store in Forest Hills, says the store stocks ferret food, treats and cages. But the employee, who would not give her name because of the store’s policy, added that the demand for the items is limited.

The city health department’s decision can’t be appealed, but The Ferret Club of New York City won’t give up on its aim of making the animals legal in the place they call home. “We care about owning ferrets and we care about living in New York City,” member Isis Vera says. “We’re going to regroup and try again.”