Small, Fuzzy Justice

Photo by Davis BarberFor decades, the California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) has exercised a rigorous ban on that most pernicious, most terrifying, most insidious of threats to the Golden State: not the illegal immigrant, but the elusive, sock-stealing, illegal ferret.

The department maintains that ferrets pose a threat to California agriculture, an industry whose lobbyists wield tremendous influence in Sacramento. The ferret is ostensibly a rabbit-like breeder, with the teeth of a great white, the ferocity of a pit bull and the heart of Zorro. Oh, and the sex drive of a porn star: if a male and female were to find some way into the wilds, the CDFG has argued, they would rapidly reproduce—and then turn Chef Boyardee on the state's fruit and vegetable producers.

But a 1996 study produced by the CDFG itself refutes that image of the ferret as the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse.

The report, not yet available to the public but released under the California Public Records Act and obtained by the Weekly, proves that ferrets are about as dangerous as house cats.

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But the report has been buried. As a result, thousands of California ferret owners continue raising and caring for their black-market pets behind the backs of state officials. Because they're banned, it's difficult to determine the exact number of ferrets in California, but conservative estimates run to 70,000, with others as high as 500,000. That's a lot of ferrets.

The CDFG report, kept secret since 1996, surveyed similar agencies in the other 49 U.S. states for their opinions on the Ferret Question; in 48 of those states (the exception is Hawaii), ferrets are legal. The result: not only have ferrets failed to survive in the wild, but authorities in a vast majority of states also don't even believe the possibility of feral populations is worth studying. According to the survey, not one state in the union was aware of a wild ferret population within its borders, and officials in just three states—Arkansas, New Mexico and Washington—could recall ever hearing about such a problem.

The CDFG's response to the study is—well, you be the judge: "It's not that they've never had feral ferret colonies," said CDFG wildlife biologist Ron Jurek. "It's that they don't know if any are there. Some states are unaware of a lot of things."

Which might suggest there ain't a problem.

Jurek's claim—that his counterparts in the other states' wildlife agencies are ignorant of their own fauna—is something critics often say about the CDFG. When interviewed by the Weekly, Jurek cited the case of San Juan Island, near Seattle, where evidence of a "wild" ferret population was found in the late '70s. Jurek didn't point out that by 1988, the Washington State Department of Wildlife concluded, "There are no ferrets living in Washington that prey upon native wildlife." Now, a decade later, any representatives of that utopian ferret community have been wiped out.

"Domestic ferrets have to be able to defend against predators to survive in the wild," said Jeanne Carley, a legalization activist who obtained the CDFG report after being alerted to its existence. Ferrets "have forgotten what a coyote is. Cage-born, cage-reared for centuries, there's not a [ferret] grandmother out there who can teach the ferret how to survive."

The argument is relevant for Carley, one of the major forces behind Assembly Bill 854, which would grant amnesty to illegal ferrets here before April 1999 and study the impact of legalization. Sponsored by state Assemblyman Jim Cunneen (R-San Jose), the bill swept through the state Assembly with overwhelming bipartisan support and passed the Senate Natural Resources Committee before stalling in the Senate Appropriations Committee. Cunneen withdrew it before it could be more or less killed by committee chairman Senator Patrick Johnston (D-Stockton). By withdrawing the bill, Cunneen will be able to re-introduce it in February 2000 without having to rewrite or move it through the same committees.

Johnston is a key figure in the ferret fight. He killed AB 854's predecessor, Assembly Bill 363, a more ambitious effort that would have provided blanket ferret legalization. Although unavailable for comment, Johnston had argued that AB 854 would have cost more than $200,000—too much, he said. His source for the figure? The CDFG.

Jurek, who is the CDFG official most closely associated with the war on ferrets, was unable to cite the source of his figures when contacted by the Weekly, claiming it came from "the University of California"; he could be no more specific. He did confirm the existence of the aforementioned 3-year-old survey and promised it would be "up on the Web site any week now."

Given the tight relationship between Johnston and the CDFG, it's unlikely his committee took into account potential revenues from ferret licenses. Even assuming the most conservative estimate of California's ferret population, ferret licenses at $4.50 a pop (that's what a dog license goes for) could generate $315,000, more than enough to pay for the AB 854 study.

The genesis of Johnston's ferret phobia is unclear. But he's never been a big one for exotic animals. In 1997, he authored Senate Bill 879; it passed and now allows the CDFG to issue permits to developers to kill a member of an endangered species on their property, so long as they "compensate for any destruction to an extent equal to the harm they cause."

Unfortunately, Johnston seems unwilling to even hear the issue, and the CDFG and its related California Fish & Game Commission (CFGC) would apparently rather spend big bucks keeping the animals illegal. A representative from Wolcott, New York-based Marshall's Ferrets, the largest breeder of ferrets in America and the manufacturer of the country's top-selling ferret food, figures that the CFGC spent at least $200,000 fighting a lawsuit brought by Marshall's to challenge the state's ferret policy. A court ruled for Marshall's, but the CFGC has appealed the decision. The appeal will be heard early next year.

"They're only concerned with their egos," charged Carley, the activist who first dug up the agency's report. "If the decision is upheld, they'll be forced to hold public hearings as to whether this is a wild or domestic animal. If it's domestic, they'll have a heck of a time keeping it on the prohibited list. If they find it to be wild, they may as well legislate that water runs uphill."

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