ANNAPOLIS – Del. Kathy Klausmeier got a smooch in celebration of her birthday. It was from a ferret.
At the start of a House Environmental Matters Committee hearing Thursday, Nadine Sufczynski, director of the Baltimore Ferret Rescue & Shelter, carried her ferret client — Knuckles — over to the Baltimore County Democrat and pressed it against her cheek.
Sufczynski, along with dozens of others, was there to support a bill that would require vaccinated ferrets to be treated like dogs and cats when it comes to rabies: quarantined and not destroyed. Rabies tests cannot be performed on a live animal.
“There is no case of a ferret transferring the rabies virus to a human being,” Del. Marsha Perry, D-Anne Arundel, said in a telephone interview before the hearing.
And that was one reason that Perry, the bill’s sponsor along with 20 other lawmakers, later stood before the committee holding a petition bearing hundreds of names of supporters.
Health officials, however, opposed the measure, saying there is not enough data on rabies in ferrets.
“This is not an opposition to a vaccination. Our opposition is to deal with a [ferret] bite as if it were a bite by a cat or dog,” said Dr. Diane Matuszak, deputy director of the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Ferrets are relatives of the weasel and come in colors ranging from cinnamon to chocolate to sable. Females are usually smaller than males — 1.5 pounds versus 2 to 3.5 pounds — and “want to go, go, go,” said Sufczynski. “Males are more laid back.”
Only one ferret has tested positive for rabies in Maryland, and that was in 1994 in Harford County, health officials acknowledged. But the disease is greatly feared, they said.
“Of all the hundreds of communicable diseases afflicting humans, none is more feared for its horrific consequences and virtually universal fatality than rabies,” Frances Phillips, health officer of Anne Arundel County who represented Maryland’s 24 local health officers, told the committee.
She added that if the bill were enacted it “would seriously weaken the state’s rabies protection and would dangerously jeopardize the health of Marylanders.”
Jim Scott of Crownsville, who runs All About Bandit Ferret Rescue & Shelter with his wife, said that in the sole known case of a rabid ferret, the animal lived in and out of its owner’s housetrailer. The owner found the animal under the trailer, covered with blood, and rabies symptoms — change in behavior, sluggishness — appeared three weeks later.
Scott said he had surveyed Maryland counties, and found that of 205 recorded incidents of a ferret biting or scratching a person, 190 were euthanized for rabies testing.
Matuszak, however, argued that “each bite that is reported is judged individually.” Whether an animal is destroyed depends on the severity of the bite or the length of time before the bite is reported, she said. A ferret probably wouldn’t be euthanized if the bite were reported six months after the fact, for instance.
The bill’s advocates countered that ferrets cannot get rabies if they are not exposed to wildlife that carry rabies.
“Ferrets are household pets, they are unlikely to be exposed to natural vectors,” said Dr. Edward Taliaferro, an Annapolis veterinarian who began working with ferrets in 1986 when the Scotts introduced three to him.
Ellen Byrne, director of the Montgomery County Metro Ferret Rescue League and a biologist with the National Institutes of Health, agreed.
“Ferrets have been domesticated for years,” she said. “In my professional opinion as a biologist … the pet ferret is a domesticated animal.” -30-