ANNAPOLIS – Hundreds of years ago, the feral ferret roamed the earth, wild and wily, it hunted its prey — mostly rats.
Today, a ferret would look only for its water bottle and kibble, which is why ferret lovers keep coming back to Annapolis year after year to press for passage of the “Ferret Protection Act.”
Lawmakers in the House Judiciary Committee heard familiar testimony on the issue that has come before House lawmakers since 2002. This year’s bill, HB 620, regulates ferret commerce, mandating no neutering or spaying before the animal is 6 weeks old and no sale of animals before they turn 10 weeks.
Proponents say the bill is needed for the healthiest growth psychologically and physically of the fifth-most-owned pet in the United States behind dogs, cats, fish and birds.
The bill’s sponsor said the bill isn’t just for the ferrets.
“It is an important protection for prospective pet owners,” said Delegate John W.E. Cluster Jr., R-Baltimore County.
“I guess it is just like a child,” Cluster said in an interview. “The longer you are with your parents, you develop what they are. You take the ferrets away from their mothers early they get really mean.”
The director of shelter affairs for Rocky’s Ferret Rescue in Parkton is behind the bill.
“We domesticated a wild animal; we’ve changed its natural instincts. A ferret can no longer escape from a house and fend for itself because of what we have done to it,” said Barbara Clay. “Because it is a man-made pet, we are morally charged with the responsibility of giving it every opportunity to achieve” maturity.
Clay and other proponents say that delaying spaying may reduce the number of cases of adrenal gland cancer called hyperplasia in ferrets.
In a brief hearing, a co-sponsor on the bill recounted his personal experience with ferret ownership.
Delegate Joseph C. Boteler III, R-Baltimore County, said he has owned three different ferrets. The first ferret was too young when he bought it and suffered from hyperplasia as well as behavioral issues.
“These animals really need to be given time to wean from their mothers,” Boteler said.
A pet store owner who opposes the legislation disagrees.
“Their insistence of (the) fact that ferrets wean at such an old age is akin to saying women nurse until 5 years,” said Ruth Hanessian, who owns the Animal Exchange in Rockville and appeared on behalf of the Maryland Association of Pet Industries.
But, Clay said, it’s not just about weaning.
By pulling ferrets away from their parents and siblings early, Clay said, they don’t learn important socialization tools like “paw-to-paw combat” and “open-mouth play.”
“Our ferret went kinda nuts,” Boteler said. “We had to have it put down.”
A lobbyist for the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council said his organization opposes the legislation.
“We habitually enforce regulation for the safe and humane shipping of pets,” Michael Maddox said. “We’re very pro-regulation, if it is rational and consistent with the needs of the animals.”
The director of animal health for Marshall Farms Group Ltd., which sells ferrets, said the legislation isn’t consistent with the animals’ needs.
Roberta Scipioni Ball said “the age timeline proposed is not biologically relevant.”
Maddox said his group would support the legislation if the minimum sale and sterilization age changed to 8 weeks and a requirement to educate consumers was added.
The committee may not even ponder such amendments.
“There is a lack of understanding about the need to protect ferrets,” said Delegate Robert Zirkin, D-Baltimore County.
A fellow committee member, Delegate Luiz Simmons, D-Montgomery, said the committee has a strong history of animal protection.
“The committee has been very, very good on these issues. The question of the ferrets is something that we have to spend more time on if we are going to pass it out. I just don’t know if we have the stamina or the time,” Simmons said.
The Tech Council of Maryland asked the committee in writing to consider an exemption from the rules for research animals.
“We believe the bill’s current language could result in unintentional consequences that could hinder research,” wrote Government Relations Director Charlie Scott.
If the issue doesn’t make it out of committee this year, Simmons said it may return next year.
“It is clearly,” he said, “a vote that we will not be able to weasel out of.”