By L. Vanessa Gruden
For part of the 20th Century, ferrets were legal to own in New York City, which encompasses the five boroughs: Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island, Brooklyn and the Bronx. The U.S. Department of Agriculture actually encouraged their use for hunting wild rats. What happened?
Ferrets Become Illegal In NYC
Nationally, ferrets were banned for hunting everywhere in the United States in the early 1900s. Because regulating what people did with their animals wasn’t practical, some states simply banned private ownership. The official ban in New York City didn’t occur until 1999, but prior to that a law dating from 1933 implied a ban according to the New York City Department of Health. In 1999, the Department of Health instituted a specific ruling banning dangerous animals. Included in the long list were bears, wolves, gorillas and crocodiles. While it banned all felines other than domesticated cats, the list included EVERY member of the weasel family, including its lone domesticated member, the ferret.
At testimony during a public hearing prior to the 1999 ban, many groups (including the ASPCA and Animal Medical Center veterinarians) spoke in favor of removing domesticated ferrets from the list. The single voice condemning domesticated ferrets was written by a veterinarian from New Hampshire. This vet claimed to be a “ferret expert.”
We may never know why the public health commissioners chose to listen to his testimony — filled with inaccuracies — rather than anyone else. Additionally, there were some confrontations with then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani by a ferret advocate. A radio show confrontation has been kept alive via the Internet, famously revealing the mayor losing his cool when speaking to a ferret advocate. [Giuliani recently stated he was no longer opposed to ferret legalization. — Eds.]
Ferret Legality In Other States
During the mid-1980s, ferrets had their first burst of popularity as pets. Lawmakers in states that had banned them were confronted with an uncommon animal that they didn’t understand. Concurrently, for years federal and state health departments had been engaged in an effort to eradicate rabies. Vaccination laws for cats and dogs went into effect: but ferrets had no approved rabies vaccine. This further consolidated the “establishment” view of ferrets as unsuitable pets.
The introduction of an FDA-approved rabies vaccine for ferrets, Imrab 3, in 1990 persuaded many states to overturn ferret regulations. But several held out because what wasn’t yet known was the length of time that a ferret might “shed” the virus in its saliva and potentially transmit it to people. It was the funding of a formal study in 1997 to establish this period, conducted by Kansas State University, that gave ferret advocates the ammunition they needed to convince all but the most obstinate lawmakers to allow ferrets. The study essentially demonstrated that ferrets that contracted rabies died before it was transmissible.
The Fight To Legalize Ferrets In NYC
New York City Friends of Ferrets, at that time spearheaded by Gary Kaskel, brought a lawsuit in 1999 seeking to eliminate the ban and remove ferrets from the jurisdiction of the Department of Public Health. The Federal U.S. District Court ruled in the City’s favor, citing many of the old arguments against ferrets, including the infamous California “Pet European Ferrets: A Hazard to Public Health, Small Livestock, and Wildlife” report.
Concentrated efforts to overturn the City ban languished until 2014, when Ariel Jasper, a brave college student, filed a petition with the Department of Public Health challenging the ferret ban. Jasper, along with Isis Vera and Veronica Nizama, found each other via a Craigslist ad looking for fellow ferret lovers and resurrected the newly named NYC Ferrets. Supported by the Ferret Association of Connecticut and the American Ferret Association, there was an outpouring of public support in favor of allowing ferrets with one important caveat — not allowing their sales in pet stores.
While smart and humane, this proposition meant the pet industry wouldn’t bring their money and influence to bear. The ASPCA and HSUS also chose not to speak out. In the March 2015 vote, most health commissioners chose to abstain and there was no quorum that could overturn the rule. However, without enough votes for a formal ruling, the petition hasn’t been turned down; it has simply been tabled. This means the challenge can continue.
What Owning An Illegal Ferret In NYC Means
It’s important to understand that owning a ferret in New York City is not an arrestable offense. Vera explained to me the process of illegal ferret ownership enforcement:
- There must first be three complaints (or physical evidence, such as a bite reported at a hospital) made to the NYC Department of Public Health.
- The Department of Health will begin to send a series of three notifications, informing a ferret owner of the complaint and requesting a response.
- A ferret owner’s postal responses could be as simple as denial or statements that the ferret was removed from the city.
- If the complainant persists or in the case of a bite, which DOH will take far more seriously, a notice will be mailed informing you of an upcoming inspection of the premises.
- Should the inspection occur and find no evidence of your illegal ferret, the matter likely will be closed. Should the complainer be a landlord (this is a great way to force out rent-controlled tenants), anyone with a ferret who does not wish to give up their pet would need to find a new apartment. Will the NYPD come knocking at the door? I think it’s unlikely.
Because there are few immediate threats to ferret owners, it’s easy to be complacent about the ban. But all it could take is one bureaucratic, anti-ferret fanatic to change that, so rescinding the ban continues to be important. It could also help influence legislators in California or Washington, D.C., where ferrets remain prohibited.
The Future For Ferrets In NYC
So what’s next? NYC Ferrets is finding, as many others have, that once you begin challenging (literally!) City Hall, it can be an overwhelming and time-consuming endeavor. Each member has a busy life, and it’s difficult to find more people to help.
More city-dwelling, vocal advocates are needed. Any NYC resident has the right to meet with elected officials. If one councilperson, alderman or member of the mayor’s staff were persuaded to push for ferret rights, the regulation could be overturned easily. This is truly a situation where one person could make an incredible difference. New Yorkers are known for their stubborn independence and belief in fair treatment. NYC residents interested in being a ferret hero can contact NYC Ferrets via Facebook or its website.