On The Couch - "The Hob From Hell"

DR JUNE McNICHOLAS, a senior pyschologist and expert on animal behaviour, has agreed to open her case notes exclusively for Ferrets First readers. Her second clinical analysis concerns 'The Hob from Hell'.

Flannagan, now called Barley

Flannagen, now called Barley, agreed
to be identified to help other ferrets
with the same problem.

"You'll have to come and get him, we can't get near him - he's dreadful, a Hob from Hell".

Not the most welcome phone message to come home to, especially when our ferret intake numbers were extra high and post-op animals overspilled into the office and the spare room.

More worrying was that they message was unlikely to be an exaggeration. It had been left by two friends of ours who run a wildlife rescue and are well used to handling everything from badgers and foxes to deer and birds of prey. And, as ferret owners themselves, they were not the sort to over-dramatise.

The large sandy hob had been discovered inside the boundaries of the rescue's fenced animal-proof enclosures. The implication had to be that he'd been thrown in deliberately. Our friends went to pick him up. The hob was totally unafraid and allowed them to approach but, without warning, spat aggressively and launched an all-out attack on the first hand that reached out to him. It was a severe bite and the hob was more than prepared to do a quick follow-up if given half a chance. Several attacks later, he was picked up with the aid of falconer's gauntlets, one of which had to be put into the cage with the hob still firmly attached. Once in the cage, the hob flew at the wires, hissing and banging violently at the cage front.

Our friends were not unduly disturbed. The animals they deal with are mostly wild creatures. They believed the hob would soon calm down enough for them to examine him to see if he needed treatment of any kind. They called him Flannagan and, since he was a very attractive sandy colour, they thought they might be able to keep him with their own three ferrets.

But Flannagan did not calm down - in fact he escalated his shows of aggression. He would not permit handling of any kind, nor would he even let anyone put their hand into his cage without a very serious (and usually successful) attempt to bite.

It got to the stage where no one could feed him or clean him out. Between attacks, he screamed and rattled violently at the bars. After three weeks of patience, kindness, bribes and offers of friendship, our friends felt they had to pass him on.

As these people handle animals I wouldn't dare touch, I was more than a little apprehensive as we approached the wildlife rescue centre. Jeff and I were taken to wonderful ferret pen - large run, lots of toys, ramp leading to a snug secure hutch. Any ferret would have thought himself lucky to have a home such as this.

Then he appeared in the doorway of the hutch, a very smart looking sandy hob, large, muscular - and very angry! Flannagan glared at us, daring us to approach. The slightest movement of my hand toward the cage had him at the bars screaming in anger and trying to bite through mesh and flesh. Satisfied that he'd frightened us off, he took up his position again in the hutch doorway. This was a particularly shrewed move as it gave him every advantage.

With only half of him (the teeth end!) out of the hutch, he was difficult to take hold of, yet as he was at the top of the ramp he had the opportunity to get hold of me! In fact he had a range of choices - my hand, my arm, possibly even my face if he launched himself vertically. For the first time in my life, I put on gloves to handle a ferret.

Now I am not the most elegantly co-ordinated person you could meet. Putting it bluntly, I'm pretty clumsy most of the time so it was with some astonishment that the first attempt to pick up the hob was successful. In fact, it was a dazzling display of lightning dexterity - although more by sheer luck than skill or design. The hob, clearly even more astonished than I was, was taken off guard. I suspect even the glove gave a sigh of relief.

The drive home was fraught. Flannagan, having recovered from his shock capture, was twice as angry and I began to eye the carry box with some real concern that he would break out. Memories of an irate polecat escaping from his box while I was driving along up the M40 did little to relieve my anxiety. That incident led me to always have two people collecting a ferret - one to drive and one to get bitten. This time I'd drawn the short straw!

Flannagan's box and our nerves were in near shreds by the time we got home.

Barley with June The overcrowded situation meant he would have to be put in a cage in the house. With a mixture of shaking, coaxing and prodding, Flannagan was 'decanted' into a large hutch in the spare bedroom. We waited for the explosion of temper - nothing. Flannagan blinked up at us fairly benignly. Clearly exhausted he trundled off to bed.

A couple of hours later, the sounds of Flannagan on the rampage permeated the house. Nicely rested, he was ready for round two. I sat quietly and watched him. To my surprise, he sat quietly and watched me. However, even the slightest movement of my hand sent him beserk with rage. Talk about being handshy! This was going to be a tough case, I thought.

Now two things can be immediately investigated when you have a handshy ferret determined to affix himself to your hand. Firstly, is he hungry? Many ferrets just have food thrown into cages, and, being kept the wrong side of hungry, any approaching hand is seen as bringing a much-needed meal. Solution - always feed well before trying to handle a stange ferret.

The second thing to investigate is whether he is scared or feels threatened.

This is obviously easier if you know something about the ferret and/or its previous owner. If you get a ferret whose owner has never handled it or never done so without a rough grab while wearing gloves, then it is not surprising if the ferret has learned to associate hands with something uncomfortable or even painful. Solution - you have to 'undo' the learned response to hands and teach a new association between hands and pleasant experiences.

Flannagan had eaten with some gusto and he had certainly not been on short rations at the wildlife centre. I guessed that the poor animal had just never been handled with respect, gentleness or affection. That was what we had to try to put right. One of the best tips I've ever been given for this was from a keeper who had probably forgotten more about ferrets than I will ever know. A kind but unsentimental man, he had genuine affection for his ferrets, and a firm belief that you had to be friends with any animal you worked with. His tip was to get a deep narrow container, like a round margarine tub or a deep cup (he used a half pint beer mug!) and put something tasty in the bottom, like butter or a little egg and milk and let the ferret reach down into it to lick up the treat. While he is doing that his head and teeth are safely inside the container and you can stroke his back, talk to him etc and take the first steps to teach him that hands and your voice go with something pleasant. Another bit of advice was not to use something so tasty that you provoked a show of possessiveness, so ice cream, Ferretone, or other especially appreciated treats are not always wise to start off with. They can be introduced as rewards later.

Flannagan responded well to the 'head in a tub' method. It was probably the first time anyone had touched him in friendship. A couple of strokes and a few soft words and that was enough for the first time. An hour or so later, we did it again, this time for a little longer. He did turn and make a half-hearted attempt at my wrist but the butter was obviously nicer than my blood! Again and again we did this over the next few days. Jeff too, did the same. By day five, Flannagan was ambling happily to meet us at the wires of his cage with no show of aggression, just a mildly expectant look of 'what's today, then, folks?'

By the end of one week, Flannagan showed no sign of wanting to have a go at anyone. He could be picked up, although he wasn't sure he liked it yet, and he could be let out of his cage for a wander about. After two weeks, anyone could pick him up and he'd started to play with us. The first time you offer your hand to a ferret for a play-bite is always a bit hairy, but he was fine.

Within three weeks, Flannagan was at a show. He didn't win a thing - we hadn't expected him to - it was part of his 'socialising' lessons. However, the fact that he was relaxed and happy enough for a steward to handle him and a judge to examine him was prize enough. No one guessed what he'd been like just a few weeks before.

Today, Flannagan has been re-christened Barley and he regularly works with children at a special needs school and does PR at shows and fetes.

He's as soppy a hob as you could ever wish to meet. And the credit is all his. Jeff and I did nothing special, nothing magical. We just gave him the opportunity to trust people again. His gentleness and kind nature is his own, not of our making.

(From Ferrets First Issue no. 6 June/July 2002)

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