Once Upon A Time In America
by Dick Nutt
In this article I would like to take a brief look at the position of the ferret in the USA today, and contrast it with an historical view. For the average British keeper the mention of ferrets and the United States, together in one sentence, can bring to mind some very strange images, sometimes, fairly or unfairly, resulting in amazement, amusement through disbelief to complete horror.
Probably the main reasons for this are the apparent minefield of the various State laws, and the position of certain Federal bodies with regard to ferrets that we, on this side of the pond, do not yet have to contend with. I say yet most advisedly, as with a Labour government hostile to the countryside, EU bureaucrats just waiting to poke their noses in and the seeming endorsement by the government of that loathsome disease "political correctness", who can tell what the future may bring.
In the USA today some states have had complete bans on ferret keeping, others will allow only castrated hobs, some will permit ferrets but not ferreting, many classifying them as wild animals and a few have no policy at all. Fish & Game Authorities in various States and Federal bodies such as the Food & Drug Administration and the U.S. Humane Society all add to the chaos in their own ways, with the Council on Public Health and Regulatory Veterinary Medicine (wow!) adding its pennyworth in the area of rabies control. The test for rabies involves removing the suspect ferret's head which is, I feel, a touch drastic when the test subsequently proves to be negative!
Although some of the more ludicrous restrictions have been and are being challenged, and successfully in a few cases, being a ferret keeper in say California must be akin to being a French resistance worker sheltering escaped Allied personnel during World War II!
Ferrets are, however, bred in vast numbers for the booming pet trade, for biomedical research and for "fitch" fur production. In this last area, not only in the USA but also Canada, New Zealand and Europe the favoured strain for "fitch" is the F1 generation European polecat mated with the ferret, or the steppe polecat mustela eversmanni, ferret cross.
Probably the largest breeder of ferrets in the USA today, established in the 1940's, is Marshall Farms Inc. of New York State who rear tens of thousands each year and who were pioneers in commercial breeding for biomedical and toxicological research. This in an area outside the scope of this article, but, for anyone interested, just about every paper published on research is listed in the bibliography to be found in Fox's "Biology & Diseases of the Ferret", ISBN 0-8121-1139-7.
On the veterinary side of life there are some areas where British vets will disagree with their American counterparts, and when Mike Oxenham, probably the top ferret vet in Great Britain, gave lectures in the States he caused some surprise when he compared the average life-spans of home bred ferrets in this country to the much shorter average of mass bred ferrets for the pet trade in USA. He put the difference down to the practice usual in America with pet ferrets of the very early castration/spaying, done at only 3 - 4 weeks, it is also a normal practice to remove the anal scent glands at the same time. As this latter operation is solely for the convenience of the American pet keeper, and usually has nothing to do with the ferret's health other than in rare cases of blockage, it tends to be regarded here as a cosmetic mutilation and our vets will refuse to carry it out for that reason. In my own opinion, I would place it alongside the surgical removal of cats' claws, purely for a selfish keeper's own ends.
Another area where some difference may be found is in that of showing; with, in the States, classes for ten or more colour varieties compared with our usual four. Whether or not this is a good thing I really wouldn't care to say, although at times our system can, and often does, cause some argument and problems. However, if the American system was faced with an entry of some 350 ferrets (New Forest Club Show Oct, '97) then judging would take an awfully long time.
One class often found in shows in the USA is that for "Best dressed ferret" and apart from its making me feel sick, I have to remember that this is a family publication and regulate my language accordingly! To see a ferret or, for that matter any animal, dressed as an angel, a Spanish dancer, a clown, or what have you, is, I feel degrading to both animal and keeper and is totally wrong. Anyone in the States, or elsewhere, who regards or excuses this practice as being "cute" can have very little regard for an animal's dignity.
So far then, for those of you who are still with me, this, has been a brief look at the ferret in the USA in relatively recent times, but what of the history there since America was first settled? Now insofar as the U.K. is concerned we have written and pictorial descriptions of ferrets and ferreting dating from Norman times, through the Middle Ages and Elizabethan period to the present. The Greek writer Strabo described them and their uses in about 30 BC and they are even mentioned in the Bible where Leviticus (Ch.11 v.30) tells the early Israelites that ferrets are on the list of forbidden foods!
However, when it comes to their history in the USA, the required information is not so easily found by the British researcher, and though I don't doubt that access to the Library of Congress or the Smithsonian Institute would be most useful, I've had to make do with what I can find here, allied to a few likely assumptions.
We British seem to have had a fondness for taking our native fauna to other parts of the world we have colonised, sometimes with unexpected results like the Australian rabbit plague, or the destruction of flightless or ground nesting birds by feral ferrets in New Zealand.
So it may well be that ferrets were taken to the New World when we first colonised Virginia in 1607, or a few years later with the arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers. Some will doubtless have arrived there in fulfilling a role that has been quite well documented, namely that of ship's ratters, a job for which they were much preferred to cats as they could clear mice and rats from tiny spaces in packed cargo holds where a cat could not go.
In the Revolutionary War, coastal States formed their own Naval Militias, with the Massachusetts Colonial Navy raised in December 1775. This unit still exists today as a body to keep alive early American naval tradition, and its official mascot is a ferret in recognition of all ferrets services on board ship. In the words of part of the official proclamation, "This animal is one of man's best friends and is totally fearless. They were in great demand aboard ships of The Colonial Navy, and fortunate indeed were the crews who had a ferret for a mascot and friend".
Probable proof of their use aboard British ships much earlier than the 18th Century was the finding among wooden artefacts such as bows, arrows, belaying pins etc., raised with the "Mary Rose", of small wooden cages of dimensions and design suited to ferrets.
Although I have not been able to find much documentary evidence of ferreting in the USA before about 1875, apart from their use against mice and rats, I would think that by descriptions written a few years after that date of their use against rabbits, gophers, ground squirrels, prairie dogs, mink, skunk, racoon and other fur bearing mammals that this use was certainly made of them in prior years. Should any non-working keeper reading this doubt that an animal the size of a skunk or racoon would be bolted by a ferret, I cite the case of Chester, a large albino hob kept by me some years ago, who bolted a full grown dog fox out of a large burrow with no trouble whatever! My own amazement was only exceeded by that of Chester himself, the look on whose face when he came up clearly said, "Blimey guv'nor, some rabbit!"
By 1875, with America pushing hard Westward, its thriving ports with shipping from all over the world, the opening up of the vast expanses of the prairies to wheat growing, the thousands of granaries, wheat silos, mills, barns and goods warehouses springing up everywhere, effective rodent control became a national priority. As no really suitable commercially available rodenticides were to be found for some years, there was only one answer - ferrets. So very effective was this means of control found to be that by about 1900 the Department of Agriculture was issuing bulletins on the use of ferrets against rodents. The result of this was the start of commercial breeding on a very large scale, with many thousands of ferrets being sent by rail from breeders to wherever they were required, and most of the breeding farms initially being found in Ohio but some located as far west as the Mississippi. This time, from about 1900 to the 1930's was, without doubt, the heyday of the working ferret in the USA and has been very documented indeed, as we shall see.
To digress briefly, the Westward spread of agriculture from the 1870's, with the upsurge in numbers of the domestic ferret, was, ironically, to see the start of the decline of America's native ferret the black-footed mustela negripes. They hunted and lived on the prairie dog, whose huge underground "towns" of burrows were so detested by farmers, as the collapse of a burrow in the soft soil could break the legs of cattle and horses. The large scale, subsidised prairie dog eradication programmes in the first half of this century resulted in the black-footed ferret finally being placed on the list of endangered species in 1967. Yet another example of a drastic effect of man's interference with a food chain, which may, hopefully be reversed, at least partly, by a captive breeding programme established in Wyoming when a small colony was discovered.
Almost unbelievably, the establishment of this was initially opposed by The Wyoming Fish & Game Department, who appear to be as barking mad as that of California. There has, however, been a small measure of success, almost reversed when canine distemper broke out in the captive colony, I wonder how?!! An excellent video about the black-footed ferret and this programme has been produced and shown on television.
The little town of New London, near Cleveland, Ohio with a population of 1,557 at the 1910 census, was where the American working ferret breeding industry was first established on a large scale, and by about 1915 there were probably about a dozen breeders around or near the town. With ferrets being sent to many parts of the USA from here, the town became known as "Ferretville", and 35,000 were sent out from there in a single season, with some ship owners in various seaports ordering anything from 50 - 100 at a time.
The largest and most successful of the Ferretville farms was run by one Fred Held in partnership with a man called Anderson, keeping on average 500 jills and 100 hobs and having, in a good breeding season, a population of about 4,500 ferrets.
The stock sheds were 100 feet long and 12 feet wide, about 4 1/2 feet at the eaves and 7 feet high at the apex of the roof, enabling a man to walk comfortably up the centre aisle. On each side of the aisle were 50 pens each 2 feet by 4 1/2 feet. Boards on the shed sides could be raised or lowered for more or less ventilation and, as the sides faced north and south, each got some sunshine throughout the day. There were six of these sheds, but when young stock had been sent off to wherever they were going, the breeding stock were relocated in one shed for ease of care and feeding until the next season.
All other buildings on the farm were connected with either storage, feeding or the manufacture of shipping crates.
A barn held six or eight milking cows and their winter feed etc., there were wheat storage silos, a cook house 30 x 16 feet with facilities for meat grinding, wheat milling and fitted with boiling cauldrons, with an outside engine house to provide power. Near to the cookhouse were cement lined pits, about 5 feet deep, covered with a lid and with a removable shed roof over them, where freshly killed meat could be stored, packed in layers with ice, so that it would keep for a week even in summer. A storage barn for ferret bedding straw and a carpentry and general workshop completed the layout, and an excellent finishing touch was the interconnection of all the buildings by a narrow gauge tramway, along which trolleys could be pushed. This made the labour of feeding, cleaning and general husbandry much easier as the tracks ran through the full length of each stock shed and other buildings.
An endless conveyor belt passed under the wire mesh "toilet area" of a line of pens, and could be manually wound on and scraped off into a container, thus making daily cleaning relatively quick and simple.
Ferrets were fed on a boiled porridge of milled wheat and fresh milk as well as a ration of horsemeat, the supply of this being cheap as old worked out horses were bought in, slaughtered and butchered on the farm, with the hides and bones sold on to local tanneries and glue factories.
A visitor to the Held and Anderson farm in 1915 noted that, "Several fresh horse skeletons lying about showed that these raisers fed much horse meat, particularly in the winter months."
Other farms near Ferretville followed similar housing and feeding methods, but one practice all followed was to locate as far away from town as was practicable and to surround the property with a dog proof wire fence. The effect of canine distemper on ferrets was a very well known hazard at a time when dogs were not inoculated and, to quote the same visitor again, "Stray mutts that would not be discouraged were likely to be given a lead pill!"
Apart from distemper, the other usual ferret ailment recognised and known about were foot rot, mange, sweats, lump jaw (growths around head and neck area), colds, ticks, lice, fleas and worms. In those times, before the advent of drugs such as antibiotics and steroids, most breeders and keepers had their own ideas on treatments, if, that is, the problem was considered worth treating at all. The foregoing, of course, applied not just to the USA or only to ferrets for that matter, and I can well remember some of the primitive "cures" in common use on a small hill farm in Yorkshire as late as the mid 1940's.
Much was written in magazines likely to be read by ferret keepers about how to avoid the occurrence of some of these diseases, such as keeping foot rot away by ensuring dry, clean living conditions or stock at all times, and many remedies for various problems were suggested in the letter columns. Some of these make for very strange reading indeed, and a few really stand out!-
"Some diseases of the ferret are foot rot, which is cured by dipping the feet in kerosene, regular like, for some days; scurvy is the same only all over the body and is treated similar to the feet. Distemper is a hard one to cure and all them as have it should be separated at once, but better to kill all that are sick than to let it run. They can be cured, if it is caught early on, by using skunk oil and sulphur, by pouring it down them and plenty of it. If given good care, ferret are not hard to raise."
A.J.P., Boone Country, Illinois.
Other letters suggested, as cures for distemper in its early stages, a few drops of sulphuric acid in milk, potassium chlorate in milk, castor oil followed by a warm wheat and milk mash or whiskey in warm, sweet milk. Although it may seem very odd now, it was probably no more so that other "cures" of the period, but please, dear reader, don't go trying them and then say that I told you to! I've no idea what skunk oil was supposed to do and I must say I wouldn't fancy trying to extract it, but the references to sulphur and sulphuric acid I found interesting. This was because the so called "Ferret tonic", still sold by some outlets, is very largely sulphur. The same outlets also sell a "Ferret wound powder", and if anyone can tell me what is in it I would be most grateful. A real gem of a letter, not connected with diseases, was this one from 1918.
"Some hunters have trouble with ferrets not coming out of a hole and use harness and strings on them. I use the following way: get some shells for your shotgun that are loaded with black powder, take the shot out and carry some with you. When a ferret decides to stay in the hole and won't come out, load with one these shells, poke the barrel in the hole as far as you can and fire. Your ferret will soon be out."
R.J.J., Topeka, Kansas.
Now there is a scenario for a possible Sadie Roberts cartoon!
So then, for those of you having trouble in getting a good supply of ferret meat, firstly dig a large hole in your garden, then obtain the following:- A half ton of ice, an ancient and clapped out horse (any sort will do) a block and tackle, a large calibre pistol, a good assortment of sharp knives...................
Only kidding, folks, honestly!
(Sincere thanks to Geoff Phillips for his help in researching this article.)
(First published 1998)