By Joyell Nevins
Group aims to make La Mesa a sanctuary for ferret owners
A group fighting a 20-year legal battle is now employing a new tactic. “Legalize Ferrets,” founded by La Mesa resident Pat Wright, still has the ultimate goal of having ferrets as legal domestic pets in the state of California — but now they are working with council members to declare the city of La Mesa a “ferret-friendly” or “ferret sanctuary” city.
“We know there are ferrets and people who love ferrets in our city,” La Mesa councilwoman Kristine Alessio told the Legalize Ferrets group at a meet-and-greet on July 15. “I have taken on the challenge.”
How the law stands now
The Mustelidae or mustelids family of animals was first banned in California in 1933. The species family of fur-bearing carnivores includes ferrets, weasels, otters, badgers and polecats, according to Brittanica.
Ferrets remain on the restricted species list, pursuant to Fish and Game Code Section 2118 and California Code of Regulations Title 14, Section 671. Within Section 671, ferrets are further designated as “detrimental animals.” California and Hawaii are the only two states that still ban ferrets from domestic ownership (in fact, Legalize Ferret supporter Tyler Jernigan, who is out in San Diego for flight school for the summer, said his girlfriend stayed in South Carolina 90 percent due to the fact that she couldn’t move her ferret out here).
Erin Chappell, wildlife supervisor of the California Fish and Game Commission, said those regulations exist because animals like ferrets pose a threat to native wildlife, the agricultural interests of the state, or to public health and safety. She explained those laws and regulations are intended to prevent depletion of animals in the wild and to restrict animals that pose a threat to native wildlife, agriculture, and public health and safety.
However, the Center for Disease Control, the Humane Society of the United States, and U.S. Department of Agriculture all classify ferrets as domestic animals, linking them with pets like dogs and cats. According to a study done by the California State University in 2010, no state has reported a major detrimental impact on agri-business by ferrets or from having a feral ferret population.
In California, permits are allowed for qualified businesses like zoos and research laboratories to keep ferrets; however, individuals are not permitted to own them. Currently, a possessor of ferrets could be fined and have their animal confiscated (although ferret owner Megan Mitchell noted that many California regions operate under a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy).
To get the ferrets off the restricted species list would require one of three things — the California Fish and Game Commission to amend the code, the California Legislature to remove ferrets from the list through a bill, or for a ballot initiative to be passed by California voters.
The fight for legalization
Legalize Ferrets has tried all of these routes. From 1994 to 1999, four different bills to legalize ferrets were introduced in the legislature. In 2004, SB89 actually made it to the floor, but was vetoed by then Governor Schwarzenegger on the last day (ironically, Schwarzenegger worked with a ferret in the film “Kindergarten Cop.”) Since then, no legislator has picked the cause back up.
“It’s not a sexy issue,” Alessio said. “But it’s one of those ridiculous laws in California that needs to be changed.”
La Mesa Councilmember Bill Baber elaborated, “These domesticated pets are legal in 48 states. The main impediment to legalization here is an intransigent state bureaucracy.”
In 2015, Legalize Ferrets launched a ballot initiative, and collected 10,000 signatures — but they needed 91,470 to trigger a legislative hearing.
Starting in the mid-1990s, the group has advocated for regulation changes at the California Fish and Game Commission public hearings.
But as recently as April of this year, the commission refused to move ferrets off the restricted species list.
“The commission chose not to issue permits for ferrets as pets,” Chappell said. “They are not willing to consider that.”
Chappell’s memo to the commission, written with the legal counsel of Mike Yaun, recommended this course of action. To move the species into non-restricted territory would first require an environmental impact report.
Legalize Ferrets had submitted a report with their petition from a professor at California State University analyzing the impact of domesticated ferrets on human health and agriculture. Chappell’s memo noted that the purpose of the report was to “fully summarize the body of knowledge on the domesticated ferret for potential impacts and an analysis to identify potentially significant issues so that commission could proceed with the preparation of an Environmental Impact Report.”
The staff recommendation to the commission was to deny the petition to remove ferrets from the restricted species list, and if the commission wanted to move forward, establish a “contract selection process” and proceed with a “petitioner-funded” EIR. The commission chose to let the issue drop.
Time to open a new door
But the Legalize Ferrets organizers have not been deterred. Wright connected with his neighbors, Alessio and Baber, and have introduced them to a region of ferret lovers.
“Ferrets are just too cute,” Sandra Ignosci said, who loves her pet ferrets so much she has cremated former ferrets on her mantle. “They really are good animals. I love it when you can let somebody learn what ferrets are really like.”
Somebody like Mary Abbott, who after being around the ferrets belonging to Legalize Ferrets’ friends, has a new perspective.
“People say ferrets deserve to be in the wild, but they don’t seem dangerous at all,” she said. “They’ve really changed my mind! These ferrets like to cuddle. They are really not going to cause any harm.”
Nick Scofield, who was introduced to the species when he married Mitchell, also had a conversion experience.
“There was a stigma attached to ferret owners, being kind of weird,” he laughed. “But ferrets play and interact just like a dog would.”
Mark Raszkowski, who now dates a ferret lover, agreed, “Ferrets are amazing. They’re like a curious little puppy — totally harmless.”
Scofield and Mitchell run a similar organization in the Los Angeles area called “Angel City Ferrets,” and refer to Wright as the figurehead of the legalization movement in California.
“He’s put so much effort into this cause,” Scofield said.
And Wright is still going full bore. His next step is to create a petition to present to the La Mesa City Council, along with video interviews asking Mayor Arapostathis to support the idea of a ferret-friendly or sanctuary city. Then it’s back to the capitol.
“It’s a freedom issue,” Wright emphasized. “We need to live and let live. All these years of lies and deceits — it’s our duty to resist. We’re going to win this one!”
For more information or to get involved, visit legalizeferrets.org or call 619-303-0645.