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Ferrets get a bad rap. They're supposedly smelly and bitey, and in some places they're illegal to own, despite the fact that they've been domesticated for centuries. When she first saw one at the veterinary clinic she worked at, Claudia Johnson says, "I remember being afraid of it." Johnson has come a long way since then: She now cares for more than 70 ferrets at Oxford Ferret Rescue in Fawn Grove, Pa., one of many ferret rescues across the country.
Like other pets, ferrets often end up in rescue because someone didn't do his research; it turns out that caring for a ferret is way more complicated and costly than you might expect.
At a pet store, you'll see ferrets in the cages next to other relatively easy-to-care-for small mammals like guinea pigs and hamsters, but don't be fooled. "Ferrets are the most expensive small pet to own," says Johnson. They also need time and social interaction that's more on par with a dog. The result is that many ferrets are surrendered for reasons familiar to any animal shelter: Kids have lost interest or gone to college, or people say they just don't have time.
It's frustrating to hear those excuses over and over, but Barbara Clay, directorof Rocky's Ferret Rescue & Shelter, says what was almost worse were the stories she heard when the economy went bad and surrenders increased dramatically.
She was constantly dealing with the sad situation of wonderful people who really didn't want to give up their animals. "Good people lost their homes as a result of losing their jobs and their incomes," she says. "One day, I had a family pull up here to give me their ferret who had become sick; they were living in their van."
Clay says that she's proactive about looking for cruelty and neglect, but that she often finds that both start with people who meant well and found themselves in over their heads.
"I have found a lot of people with good hearts and bad judgment," she says, like in the rescue of 200 ferrets that started her shelter in 1995. "You think of backyard breeders; you think of some horrible person — it just wasn't the case. These were nice people. They loved these animals, but it was bad judgment. I rescued everything that had a breath left in its body, and I had them sign an agreement that they would never do this again."
Clay has had more than 3,000 ferrets pass through her shelter since it started. On average, they rehab and rehome 300 ferrets per year.
And Johnson says that while she places 25 to 30 ferrets per year on average, she takes in more like 70 to 100. The rest end up staying with her because they're sick or too old. "The majority of people who call want young ferrets," she says.
People who've found they made a mistake getting a ferret often expected a pet who stays in her cage all the time. Instead, they need at least 4 hours a day out of the cage. "In general, a cage is where they sleep," says Johnson.
And they need a safe place to spend that time out of the cage — ideally, a room that's been ferret proofed, which isn't easy. When she and volunteers do home inspections, Johnson says, "One of the first questions I ask is, 'Are your heating vents on the floor or the ceiling?'"
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