ANNAPOLIS – The ferret – described by fanciers as the long-suffering victim of discrimination – faced the cruel reality of the legislative process Thursday when the Ferret Protection Act of 2002 was condemned in committee.
“We have doomed the ferrets,” said Delegate Barbara Frush, D-Prince George’s, a co-sponsor of the bill and member of the committee. “It is sad.”
None of the more than 40 bills heard by the House Environmental Matters Committee Thursday will become law, said Frush and other delegates, because they were filed late and lawmakers have run out of time to try to pass them.
Advocates for the furry, foot-long carnivores sought protection from hazardous neutering and premature shipping that puts the animals in pet stores as young as four weeks.
The bill would have set age limits to end practices that maximize cuteness and adoptibility but have cruel consequences, ferret advocates said. Sold too young, the ferrets often die during shipping, develop aggression and have long- term health problems.
Laws protect puppies and kittens from being sold too early, but not ferrets. So, after unsuccessful attempts to negotiate with pet stores and ferret farmers, local fanciers took their cause to the capital.
“Some constituents came to me advocating on behalf of the ferrets and explained their plight,” said Delegate Alfred W. Redmer Jr., R-Baltimore County, who sponsored the bill. Redmer owns no ferrets – “so there’s no conflict of interest,” he said – but he has received dozens of letters in support of the legislation.
“The ferrets are finally getting their voices heard,” said Sharon Dowell, the ferrets’ lobbyist.
While no ferrets attended the hearing, several owners came on their behalf. They wore buttons declaring support for the bill and bearing the fuzzy face of baby Zeus, rescued after falling out of a wooden crate on a delivery truck at four weeks old.
The life of the ferret is dangerous enough, they said. The feisty, mischievous pets frequently get stepped on, trapped in recliners or abandoned by negligent owners.
The 130-acre Rocky’s Ferret Rescue and Shelter in Parkton is home to more than 30 hard-luck ferrets, said director Barbara Clay, who calls them the “terminally misunderstood pet.”
In some circles, the ferret has a reputation as a fearsome creature with savage teeth and claws. But that’s a bad rap created by the improper socialization the bill was designed to address, Clay said.
“Without socialization, they bring their anxieties into the new home,” she said. “Then they end up thrown in the trash, thrown out the door, and they end up in the shelters.”
Ferret rescuer Claudia Johnson caught the fever when she met little Samantha Jane, found in a trash bin. Johnson, an Elkton resident, carries a studio portrait of Samantha Jane in her wallet, alongside those of Junie Bug and Zeke Monster. A tattoo of Zeke’s pointy face adorns her calf.
“They are the best thing God put on this Earth,” Johnson said.
Maryland is a “hotbed” for ferrets and their owners, said Mary McCarty- Houser, vice president of the American Ferret Association.
Although illegal in California, Hawaii, New York City and the District of Columbia, the ferret is the third most popular “interactive” household pet after dogs and cats, McCarty-Houser said.
The ferrets won’t get their bill signing or press conference this year, Redmer said. And he will have to be re-elected to take up their cause again, he said, adding, “It may or may not be a part of the campaign.”
But the ferrets’ political momentum in Maryland politics is just beginning, McCarty-Houser said.
“You can bet they’ll be back,” she said. “Ferret owners are very persistent.”