New York City health department upholds ban on owning pet ferrets

AP logo
Tuesday, March 10, 2015
AmyJo Casner kisses her pet ferret, Manny
AmyJo Casner kisses her pet ferret, Manny, as he sits on her shoulder after dressing him in a bomber jacket and hat outfit she made for him

NEW YORK -- Ferrets won't get a legal foothold in New York City.

The decision Tuesday by the city Board of Health to maintain the ban on ferrets as pets came after some members expressed concerns about them biting and potentially crawling through apartment walls and getting loose.

"I'm greatly troubled by this. I have to say that, at this point, I'm not at all convinced that it wouldn't be a substantial health risk to allow ferret ownership in New York City," Dr. Lynn Richardson said.

But others suggested it wasn't fair to single out ferrets for potential problems that other, legal animals also can cause.

"I am sort of moved, a little bit, by the idea of equity," Dr. Joel Forman said.

Ferrets are legal in the rest of New York state, but fur has flown over the issue for years in the city. Former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani once told an ardent ferret aficionado to get psychological help, saying the man's "excessive concern with little weasels is a sickness."

The city has long defined ferrets as wild animals and generally prohibited them, but the ban became specific in 1999.

The vote was 3-2 to lift the ban, but it needed six votes to pass. There were four abstentions; board members didn't have to give a reason for not voting.

Related to weasels, ferrets are believed to have been domesticated about 2,000 years ago. They have gained popularity as pets in recent decades, spotlighted by such celebrity fans as Paris Hilton. The American Veterinary Medicine Association estimated in 2012 that some 334,000 households nationwide have ferrets, a minute fraction of those with dogs or cats.

Many states have lifted ferret bans over the past 25 years. California and Hawaii still have them, as does Washington, D.C.

Ferret fanciers say the ban reflects an unfair, outdated view of their inquisitive, playful companions. Owners say ferrets can make ideal apartment dwellers: They're small, quiet and litter-trainable and can be caged when no one's home.

"They're a perfect pet," ferret owner Shanise Regis said at a Health Department hearing in January.

Owners say concerns about biting and escape are overblown. The proposal to nix the ferret ban would have required the animals to be vaccinated for rabies, sterilized and restrained when outdoors.

"We are responsible pet owners, and we are begging to be able to take our pets to the vet without fear" that the animals will be seen and ultimately confiscated, says ferret owner Veronica Nizama, who clutched a ferret toy as she watched Tuesday's vote." Or even just go outside and let them feel the sun or the grass between their paws."

Four ferret bites have been reported in New York City from 2008 to 2014, Health Department staffers said.