POP GOES THE FERRET!

With the questing instincts of a fox and a build like a wet noodle, the ferret rivaled any hunter. So society passed laws against him, Ferretville, U.S.A. died and the author was left with memories of a wriggly pocket
December 07, 1964

In New London, Ohio a visitor has the uneasy feeling that he had better finish up his errands in a hurry before a crew of stagehands folds up the whole place and stores it away in some huge property closet. Just around the next elm tree one keeps expecting to meet Frank Craven, who will point across Prospect Street and drawl, "There goes our Emily Webb."

In New London there is a gray depot with a mansard roof. There is a weekly newspaper featuring a frontpage column, Chenango Charlie Says. There are real, kindly, white-haired ladies sitting, knitting, on the deep front porches and ever ready to serve their guests some Ma Perkins sugar cookies. At the high school baccalaureate service the Senior Girls' Triple Trio sings. "Hallelujah, praise ye the Lord""—the Supreme Court notwithstanding.

New London is peaceful and gracious and Our Town, which makes it all the harder for the visitor to convince himself that he is at the world capital of a sport that was once as much a part of rural life as the buggy or the sweet chestnut: a bizarre and exciting sport—"shush," say the old ladies on the porches—that was eventually to be outlawed, namely, hunting with ferrets.

Turn back the clock now (there is that Our Town lilt again) a generation or two. back to the first 40 years of this century. New London had a nickname then—Ferretville, U.S.A.—and it was a working, not a promotion, cognomen, since mail so addressed regularly reached the little Ohio town. In and around the community, New Londoners bred, raised and sold 30,000 or 40,000 ferrets a year. These long, sinuous weasels, originally native to Africa and Asia, were shipped from New London to docks, ports and factories all over the world, where they were used to control rats. They were also used as experimental animals in medical laboratories and for such worthy jobs as pulling telephone wires through long underground conduits.

Mostly, however, the little predators being raised in New London were shipped to the Cottontail Belt, which runs mainly from the Mississippi east, and sold to country and small-town boys who either did not have the price of a gun or did not need a gun as long as they had a ferret. Given a good aggressive hob (the male of the species) and a burlap bag to hold over the mouth of a bunny hole, a ferreter could take as many rabbits as a gunner. And ferreting was something more than just a method of getting rabbit stew. If you wanted excitement you could run your weasel down a woodchuck hole or a fox den. The result was sometimes more action than the average burlap bag would hold.

In those days if you met a friend out walking in the December powder snow empty-handed but with a coat pocket that wriggled, the question was not "What have you got?" but "What color, brown or white?" Ferrets were sold in hardware, sporting and general stores as commonly as steel traps or case knives, and almost all of them, or their ancestors, came from that Detroit of the ferret world, New London.

Despite the fact that no other place challenged New London's claim to being Ferretville, the town has made no effort to memorialize or capitalize on its former fame. About the only physical remains of the ferret boom are a few of the long breeding sheds and a mush house or two (mush made of milk and whole wheat was the ferret diet), which ex-ferret ranchers have not gotten around to demolishing. None of these falling-down sheds are marked with historical plaques. There are no ferret museums in New London, no oil paintings of grand champions, no Hob Inn Motor Lodge. There are, of course, many ferret memories, since the majority of citizens over 40 seem to have been somehow involved with the animals. However, even talk about the good old days is somewhat muted in New London. No one actually denies that New London was Ferretville, but the fact is not being pushed. There is a sort of three-billy-goats-Gruff routine that crops up in ferret conversations in New London:

"I was just in it in a small way. Kept 20 or 30 in the shed. Now, Farnsworth was in it big."

"My brother had a few, but the Hartmans shipped thousands."

"Talk to Donald Day, or to Morrie Smith down at the tire shop. He's still crazy about ferrets."

Talking ferrets in New London is something like asking a financier who made his first million in the Klondike or the used-car business about early times. There was nothing demeaning about raising and selling ferrets, but there is the impression that New Londoners now regard the whole business as having been a little gay and sporty for Our Town.

The first ferrets came to New London around the turn of the century and were imported from England. (Ferrets have been domesticated for several thousand years—Plutarch gave them high marks as mousers—but they became most popular with the 19th century British sporting squirearchy.) One story has it that an unknown farmer imported a single English ferret, which escaped and turned up in the barn of Levi Farnsworth. Farnsworth, who became Mr. Big among the ferret breeders, apparently experienced a "eureka" moment upon finding this strange beast, the first such he had ever seen. He became enamored with, if not the personalities, then at least the commercial possibilities of ferrets. Nobody seems to know if he returned the first strayed ferret, but by 1905 he had imported breeders of his own and was advertising ferrets in sportsmen's and sportsboys' magazines.

News about making money gets around fast, and soon various neighbors, seeing that Levi was on to a good thing, began to convert their own chicken coops into ferret pens. The real ferret boom started during World War I, when it was discovered that ferrets made the best experimental animals for influenza research. In the crash effort to combat the great flu epidemic and to prevent its recurrence, laboratories ordered thousands of New London ferrets. There were 20 or 30 New Londoners each raising and selling between 2,000 and 5,000 ferrets a year. There were also many smaller backyard ranchers acting as subcontractors for the big operators. In retrospect, it seems that while the great ferret rush lasted everyone in and around New London who was not mortally allergic to weasels had a few pairs stashed away in the garage or basement.

Ted Cunningham, now an officer in the Savings and Loan Banking Company of New London, started as a clerk at the New London Railway Express office in 1915. "We shipped out five or six carloads of ferrets a night, night after night," he recalls. "There was some money made out of ferrets in our town. Not fortunes, as the word is used now," Cunningham adds, with a banker's reticence, "but some people made very comfortable livings, very comfortable indeed."

"We did well with ferrets, I am not ashamed of it," admits Mrs. Everett Hart-man, a placid, practical lady who, with her late husband, raised thousands of ferrets over a 40-year period. "I had a friend who asked me one day how I could stand those smelly little animals. [Ferrets, like all of the weasel clan from the skunk on down, have what can delicately be called a musky odor.] I just told her that the money didn't smell."

One of the nicest things about ferret ranching, aside from the smell of the money, was that the work was light. A man and his family could raise two or three thousand ferrets a year without undue strain. Several hundred breeding females (jills) were caged in each of the long, unheated coops. The mush they were fed was not much more difficult to mix up than domestic breakfast food. In the months of the year when the females were pregnant or nursing, horse-meat was added to the mush. But in those days old horses were plentiful and were sold to knackers instead of to suburban riding academies, so this dietary supplement did not add appreciably to a ferret breeder's overhead.

Ferrets produce two litters of somewhere between four and a dozen young a year. Though they were occasionally stricken with distemper, diphtheria, foot-rot and flu, the New London ferrets generally ate their mush and multiplied without incident. Concurrently the New London ferret ranchers went about their business of crating up the animals and peddling them around the world at $5 or so a head.

As most good things seem to do, this pleasant and profitable arrangement came to an end. Technological change destroyed the commercial ferret market. As civilization became more adept and less cautious about producing lethal pesticides, ferrets were replaced as ratcatchers on ships and docks by a variety of toxic powders, fumes and pills. In the laboratories it was found that such rodents as hamsters were easier to handle and cheaper than ferrets.

Ferrets were displaced from sport for a less scientific reason. They were declared illegal. About 1920, many states began enforcing laws which either banned ferreting outright or else made it extremely difficult and expensive to carry on the pastime. Currently, though automatic pistols and switchblade knives are freely marketed, citizens in almost every state of the Union are fully protected from the evils of owning, using or associating with ferrets.

The laws of Pennsylvania are more or less typical of the benevolent legislation that has made America safe from ferrets. To own a ferret in Pennsylvania one must obtain a license from the state game commission. The fee is $10 per ferret, and at such rates a man could go broke quickly if he owned a compatible pair. By way of comparison, you can get a dog license for $1 and a hunting permit for $5.20. In the Keystone State it costs only $15 for a menagerie license, under which one can presumably keep anything from a bushmaster to a rhinoceros—anything, that is, but a ferret.

If one does have the patience and money to duly register a ferret, there is still not a lot he can do with his licensed animal. It may not hunt rabbits or be placed in any opening "in which a rabbit might be found." Earlier laws stipulated that ferrets would not be permitted on the highways, in vehicles or "on railroad or railway cars." Though ferrets are reasonably alert little mammals, there is not one in a hundred bright enough to master the code of behavior which the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has expected it to obey.

The forced decline of ferrets and ferreting is admittedly not one of our major national disasters, but I am of the wriggly-pocket set, and since a man can still deplore whatever he wants to, I choose to deplore the ferret ban. It strikes me as silly and unfair. Two groups, the hunting and humane clans, allied themselves for the great antiferret crusade. Gunners, of course, have a long tradition of this sort of meddling. Being the most efficient predators on the face of the earth, they are implacably opposed to anybody who wants to do anything with game other than shoot holes in it. In addition to ferrets, gunners are usually against foxes, mountain lions, hawks, falconers, archers, snare setters, posted lands, game wardens and sanctuaries.

Gunners who agitated for the suppression of ferrets at least acted out of a twisted sense of self-interest, but for the humanitarians (who believe all animals should subscribe to the high ethical standards of humans) it was a moral matter. Their case was that ferrets are bloodthirsty, vicious, bad beasts that should not be permitted to associate with and torment good animals. Overlooking this soap-opera biological system of classifying animals as good guys and bad guys, the argument shows an abysmal ignorance of the actual nature of ferrets.

It is true that ferrets are partly carnivorous, along with such other creatures as dachshunds and ladies attending ASPCA luncheons. Ferrets take a bit of horsemeat tartare or a drop of blood when it is available but, as any old New London mush mixer can certify, their blood lust is mild compared to the rest of us meat eaters. Bread, milk and an occasional egg will keep a ferret happy and healthy for an indefinite period. As to ferrets being vicious, I think this rap grows out of the fact that ferrets have always had a bad press in novels. Innumerable fictional blackmailers, pickpockets, cat burglars and Peeping Toms have been described, from the time of Charles Dickens on, as being "shifty as weasels" or "vicious, ferret-faced creatures." These literary figures of speech are ridiculous. I have known many ferrets, and their normal facial expression is a cross between that of an intelligent squirrel and a perplexed certified public accountant.

The first ferret I knew well was a white one belonging to my grandfather. In theory, this hob lived in the basement and was employed as the family rat chaser. In practice, he was usually found either asleep in a broom closet or sitting up on his hind legs begging for toast and cheese in the kitchen. Occasionally my grandmother, exasperated by this vicious killer, would chase him downstairs with a broom, ordering him to go catch a rat and stop pestering her for cheese sandwiches. As far as I know, this ferret never leaped at her jugular vein. Between then and now I have known other ferrets, all of which were considerably more personable and peaceable companions than myna birds, Pekingese dogs or Siamese fighting fish.

A few years ago I bought my last ferret at black-market prices from a poacher friend. He shall go unidentified and un-located, for if he were caught with his dozen ferrets he would be treated harshly. This ferret was a little brindle female who, when she was brought to my houseful of children, dogs, cats and assorted livestock, took up residence under the refrigerator. She was named Parker (after the famous Nosey) in recognition of a ferret's most notable characteristic, which is not lusting after blood, but insatiable curiosity.

Ferrets are congenitally unable to resist exploring holes, nooks, crannies and cracks. Parker, like all ferrets, had an ideal build for this investigatory work. She weighed about a pound, was 16 inches long and as supple as a serpent. She could get her sharp-pointed little head through a hole two inches in diameter, and anyplace her head could go her shoulderless and hipless body could follow. She squirmed into heating ducts, into the innards of radios and pianos, into boots, into the decapitated corpses of hollow-bodied dolls and under bookcases and rugs. Her only violent act was committed against a clumsy German shepherd who stepped on her one morning as she was emerging from her den beneath the refrigerator. In a chattering rage, Parker twisted around and bit the stumblebum on the nose. Forever after, this boob of a dog treated Parker with great respect. Parker had only two habits that ferret detractors could call depraved. She would run nylon stockings as she tried to climb up the legs they encased, and she would steal dish towels, dragging them into her pad under the refrigerator.

Despite her easy adjustment as a house pet, Parker was, after all, a ferret, whose traditional line of work was supposed to be chasing things out of holes, not dusting under chairs with her tail. So in the spring of her first year we took her to the farm of a friend, Glenn, who had a pasture full of rabbit and woodchuck holes. In the evening Glenn and I, with Parker in my pocket, set out on one of the last great ferret hunts.

One of the advantages of ferreting is that the principal participant, the ferret, does not need much training. All a ferret's instincts urge him to go down any hole he is shown. The man, who is supposedly in charge of the operation, only has to put his ferret on the ground, sit down and wait to see what comes up. The difficulty is that sometimes a ferret gets into a hole he likes too well. He may follow a maze that brings him to the surface a long way from the original entrance; he may decide to curl up and take a nap; or he may, on rare occasions, decide to catch himself a meal, which he will eat in leisurely fashion despite any pressing appointments the man waiting above ground may have. Even love may detain a ferret. One oldtime ferreter tells of dropping a she-ferret in an amorous physiological condition down what he thought was a rabbit hole. Actually, there was a he-mink in the burrow. These two close cousins proved simpatico, and the ferreter claims that whatever went on in the dark was tempestuous and took the devil's own time to accomplish. However, he was never able to prove that his ferret was not all she should have been since, as the saying goes, there was no issue.

To avoid these annoying delays, ferrets are sometimes harnessed and worked on long leashes. In this way they can be dragged back on demand, except when the leash gets tangled on a root or around a stone. When this happens there is nothing for the ferreter to do but get out a pick and shovel and start digging. This kind of thing tends to take the fun out of a hunt, particularly if the ground is frozen. A muzzle is also sometimes used on a ferret. The idea is that the animal can now chase, but cannot dine, on his quarry. The risk of this method is that if the ferret meets up with a hole owner who is ready and willing to dispute a passage, the hunter is likely to become the hunted. Still other ferreters hunt only mated pairs. They send the female underground and keep the male with them, as a sort of hostage. The reasoning is that the little lady will hurry back to her husband. The female is never kept waiting for the male. If nothing else, this procedure ought to interest young wives and marriage counselors.

Parker, Glenn and I were innocent of any fancy equipment or philosophies when we set out on our expedition. As it turned out, we did not need them, for Parker took to woodchuck holes like a woodchuck will to a sweet-corn patch. She dived down the first hole we showed her and came up a few minutes later at the mouth of an interconnecting tunnel. She had earth on her nose and a pleased gleam in her eye. Then, as we followed, she began to work down the fence row, diving and surfacing in the loam like a porpoise in the sea. The only disappointing aspect of this operation was that Parker was the only creature who came up out of any of the holes.

"I know there's chucks in there," Glenn complained. "They sit around stuffing themselves on clover all day. I see them when I'm plowing."

External evidence confirmed this claim. Many of the holes had fresh earth and woodchuck table scraps at the mouth. Occasionally, while Parker was underground, we would hear an ill-tempered rumbling. Even so, Parker would come up alone, with a worried, apologetic look on her face. Finally we decided that since it was getting late the woodchucks must all have been sacked out and Parker had been far too much of a lady to rouse them.

Eventually Glenn raised a young rabbit that bolted down a hole in the bank of an old quarry. We picked up Parker and ran to the spot. This burrow had two entrances and we put Parker in the one we thought the rabbit had used. Almost at once there was a satisfying commotion. Shortly, both animals emerged, but there must have been some underground confusion, for the rabbit came out of the hole Parker had entered and the ferret popped up from the far exit. They stared at each other for a brief moment and then the rabbit jumped. The bunny was clearly adolescent, but it already outweighed Parker about two to one. With sort of the rabbit equivalent of a straight arm, the quarry simply ran over the vicious ferret. When the dust settled, Parker picked herself up and looked around groggily after the fashion of a T-formation quarterback who has been blitzed. The rabbit was long gone. It was a humiliating experience for both Parker and me. We got no sympathy from Glenn, who howled hysterically, "She's a tiger, a tiger. Please don't let her get me."

In attempting to rebut the various slanders that have been circulated about ferrets it would be unrealistic to claim that all of these little animals are as ineffectual as Parker was on this occasion. I admit to remembering a great white ferret who was once dropped down a wide-mouthed hole. There was an almost instantaneous explosion of action. Two fox pups followed by a vixen came boiling out of the den, with the hob ferret in close and ferocious pursuit. Most ferrets do chase things-it is their nature- and catch them, too. A ferret worked frequently can probably take as many rabbits in the course of a year as a man driving to conservation meetings can kill with his car. Even Parker might have become an efficient ferret if given a little practice. It was just that at the time of her maiden hunt she was more accustomed to dealing with dish towels than game. After this first and last field trial, she was retired and lived out her days in the kitchen, operating from the security of her refrigerator den, where no rabbit could get at her.

In time, as all creatures must, Parker came to her reward. Though she was mourned, she has not been replaced. What with all the assaults recently being made on law and order, I did not want to contribute to the breakdown of public morality by keeping a bootleg ferret, and I did not have the time or money to license one. However, my recent visit to New London renewed my craving for these weasels. Deciding to live dangerously, I inquired about buying one in this Cooperstown of ferretry. I had no more luck than Parker did with the rabbit. Rumor has it that there is one retired ferret rancher near New London who keeps half a dozen of the animals for old times' sake. But this man will not admit to such carryings-on and so, lacking a search warrant, there is not a ferret to be had in what was once Ferretville, U.S.A. There is nothing left in Our Town now but Chenango Charlie and the girls' choir and those nice old ladies on their porches.

ILLUSTRATIONBARBARA NESSIM ILLUSTRATIONBARBARA NESSIMHunting ferrets edge their way into any below-ground den, causing commotion when meeting either foe or friend. ILLUSTRATIONBARBARA NESSIMHappy ferrets prefer to do their hunting in a kitchen, where cheese sandwiches prove tastier than rabbit in the raw.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)