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History of the Ferret

By Susan A. Brown, D.V.M.

History of the Ferret -- By Susan A. Brown, D.V.M.

The domestic ferret has been a useful member of the human household for a few thousand years. Today they have reached true companion animal status and are appreciated throughout much of the world.

SOURCE OF DOMESTICATED FERRETS

The domestic ferret (Mustela putorius furo) is thought to be a domesticated Western or Eastern European polecat. The Eastern European or Steppe polecat (Mustela eversmanni) and the Eastern European polecat (Mustela putorius putorius) are very similar in appearance and skeletal structure. The ferret can interbreed and produce fertile offspring with either of these species of polecat. The domestic ferret is not a domesticated form of the black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes) which was native to the western United States. Black-footed ferrets recently became extinct in the wild, but they are gradually being reintroduced through captive breeding programs.

The name Mustela is a Latin derivation of the term mus for mouse. Animals in the Mustela genus include weasels and other “mouse catchers”. Putorius is from the Latin putor, which means a stench referring to the musky odor of the ferret. Furo comes from the Latin furonem meaning “thief”. So we have a “mouse-catching, smelly, thief”! The word ferret most likely comes from the Latin furo or the Italian furone with the same meaning of “thief”.

Currently there is still controversy over which species of polecat the domesticated ferret actually came from. Studies have been performed comparing skull structure, coat color and behavior in all three species. In addition, there is little archeological evidence to suggest exactly when ferrets were domesticated and what path they took in becoming established in Europe. This maybe because their tiny bones decay rapidly or because archeologists previously overlooked their remains as insignificant and did not record these findings. Some suggest that the ancestors of the domestic ferret originate in Northern Africa and then were spread to Europe with Roman and/or Norman invasions. Many researchers believe that the spread of ferrets through Europe was accompanied by the spread of the rabbits that they hunted, as we shall see in the discussion under Historical Use.

EVIDENCE OF DOMESTICATION

One strong piece of evidence that an animal is truly domesticated is that it retains some of the characteristics of the juvenile of the species. This is done through selective breeding and it serves to make the animal more docile and able to be manipulated by man. There have been extensive studies done on the behavioral differences between wild polecats and ferrets that indicate there is indeed an alteration in behavior. In general, ferrets show less fear of man and less fear of an unfamiliar environment than do the polecats. In addition, it took ferrets longer to get used to a repeated noise they were exposed to than the wild ferret. These behaviors exhibited by the ferret indicate are retention of more juvenile responses.

It is interesting to note that if wild polecat babies are taken from their mother prior to opening their eyes and then raised by a human, they will imprint on the human and become relatively tame. They can remain tame if there is continued contact with humans. In contrast, mink and weasels that are hand-reared may become tame for a short period, but usually revert to a fearful wild state at maturity. This docile behavior upon being hand-raised may be a key to why ferrets could be domesticated in the first place.

HISTORICAL USE

A ferret-like animal was mentioned by Greek authors Aristophanes in 450 BC and Aristotle in 350 BC. The references are unclear because an exact description of the animal is missing. Somewhere between 63 BC and 24 AD Strabo writes of a plague of rabbits in the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean that was causing a famine. He describes a Libyan animal that was bred for the purpose of hunting, was muzzled and put into rabbit holes. This animal, which behavior sounds like a ferret, would cause the rabbit to bolt from the hole where men and dogs were ready to dispatch it. This practice bears a striking resemblance to the practice of ferreting that has taken place in Europe for centuries. Pliny in AD 23-79 and Isidore of Seville in AD 600 also mention ferrets being used to hunt rabbits. Ferrets may also have been kept around households to control rodents, but the majority of references relate to ferrets and rabbits. The ferret’s close cousin, the mongoose was used more often for rodent and snake control and continues to be used in this manner today in areas where it is indigenous. These early references to ferrets have given rise to the hypothesis that the ferret originated in the Mediterranean area, but there is still insufficient evidence to call this a fact.

By the 1200′s ferrets had spread to Germany and there are stories that Genghis Khan may have used ferrets in Afghanistan in 1221. The first references in England are in 1223 and again in 1281 where a ferreter was listed as part of the Royal Court. Other interesting bits of information from England in the late 1200′s to the late 1300′s include the fact that one needed an annual income of forty shillings to own a ferret and that ferrets were owned by high-ranking church officials. King Richard II issued a decree in 1384 allowing one of his clerks to hunt rabbits with ferrets and again in 1390 prohibiting the use of ferrets on Sunday. In 1551, Gerner in Zurich described the first albino ferret as “the colour of wool stained with urine”. From here on, there is increasing evidence in Medieval European literature of ferrets being used to hunt rabbits. Ferrets were also used for fur production, although this seemed less popular until the 20th century. In addition, probably by at least the eighteen century ferrets were being used on ships to help control the rodents that were so prevalent. It is also highly likely that a few humans historically also enjoyed the ferret’s lively personality and kept these little critters purely for their companionship. It is clear that ferrets were used early on to hunt rabbits, both as a pest control measure and as a sport. There is evidence that Roman soldiers routinely used ferrets in hunting rabbits. Ferrets may have spread to the northern European continent during the spread of the Roman Empire, or as others have suggested they may have spread with Norman invasions.

It does seem clear, however, that wherever ferrets went there were rabbits. The European rabbit, which, by the way, is also the ancestor of our pet rabbits, originated in the Iberian Peninsula, in the region of Spain and has been Raised in captivity for at least 2000 years. Rabbits were intentionally introduced into Northern Europe and now, so it appears, the ferrets were introduced along with them.

In the 1860′s New Zealand colonizers imported game animals including the rabbit. By the 1870′s rabbits were decimating the landscape because there are no natural predators that control the rabbits in New Zealand. Five ferrets were released in 1879 to control the rabbit population. This was followed by the release of thousands from 1882 to 1886. Stoats and weasels, which are close relatives of the ferret, were also released. Ferrets developed feral (able to live under “wild” conditions) colonies in New Zealand which resulted not in the eradication of rabbits, but contributed to a disastrous decline in native birds. Ferrets were able to live successfully in the wild because the climate of New Zealand may be ideal, and the ferrets had no predators other than man. Many of New Zealand’s birds are flightless and thus at risk of losing their lives to a ground-dwelling predator such as the ferret. Ferrets are not the only factor in the loss or these species, but their presence is significant. The current estimate of the number of feral ferrets between the two islands is around one million.

Rabbits were introduced into Australia by early British settlers for much the same reason and with the same consequence as in New Zealand. Ferrets were then introduced to control the situation. However, in Australia, ferrets were not able to establish feral colonies probably due to a different climate and the fact that they have predators such as fox, feral cats, dingoes and hawks.

In recent history there has been a significant decrease in the use of ferrets for hunting rabbits, for rodent control or for fur production and they are now more commonly kept as pets. Ferrets are kept as companion animals in South Africa and Japan as well as most of Europe at this time.

INTRODUCTION TO THE UNITED STATES

Ferrets were probably introduced into this country in the eighteen century via ships that carried them as ratters. In addition, some colonists brought them over as hunting companions. By the early 1900′s ferrets were being imported by the tens of thousands to be used as “vermin” exterminators. They were used to destroy rabbits, raccoons, gophers, rats and mice. Prey animals will usually flee in the presence of the “scent of a ferret” and so ferrets few were needed to protect barns, warehouses and granaries. The USDA promoted the use of ferrets for rodent control. If your farm was infested you could call the ferretmeister to come and release ferrets on your property. The ferrets went on a search and destroy mission and then humans and dogs, usually terriers, placed around the area would kill the vermin as they tried to escape. Some establishments simply maintained their own colony of ferrets for this purpose. When chemical rodenticides became available there was no further need for the “ferret patrol” and this practice died out.

Fur farming never took a strong hold in the United States and hunting with ferrets was made illegal in most states in the twentieth century. In the mid-twentieth century ferrets were readily embraced as companion animals by Americans and this continues to be the primarily role of the ferret in the U.S. today. There are currently no feral populations of ferrets in the United States. The only ferret introduced into the U. S. has been the domestic form and not the wild polecat.

USE OF FERRETS

The following is a list of some the historic and modem uses for the ferret:

Hunting Rabbits – As mentioned, this was probably one of the first historical uses of the domestic ferret and perhaps its main reason for domestication. The use of a ferret to hunt rabbits is commonly called ferreting. Ferrets were used both for rabbit population control and as a means for humans to obtain food. There is very little training involved because ferrets naturally enjoy running through burrows and seeking out prey. In ancient times, muzzles were used to prevent the ferret from killing and eating the rabbit underground and then taking a nap. There is also evidence that some ancient ferreters made holes in the upper and lower lip of the ferret and tied the lips together or placed a metal ring to hold the lips together before a hunt. Fortunately, muzzles are not used today, but occasionally a harness with a long line attached is employed. These items are rarely needed because when the rabbit smells the ferret coming and it bolts out its escape hole before it can be caught. Prior to releasing the ferret the rabbit holes are covered by purse string nets held in place by a stakes. The net closes around the rabbit as it tries to escape. Alternatively dogs, such as terriers or lurchers. Which is a dog that contains greyhound blood, chase and catch the rabbit or the hunter shoots the rabbit. Lighter colored ferrets are preferred because they are easier to see and retrieve after a hunt. Ferreting is still practiced in some areas of the world.

Rodent control – It is likely that ferrets were also used for rodent control around houses as soon as they were domesticated. Small mammals and birds make up the majority of the wild ferret’s diet and if allowed it is certain they would have hunted within the household. As mentioned, in more recent times, ferrets were used to control rodents around barns and granaries and on European and American ships. The Massachusetts Colonial Navy, which was organized on December29, 1775, was reactivated in 1967 and in 1986 proclaimed the ferret it’s official mascot. An excerpt from the ceremonial speech shows the importance of ferrets on these ships. “Now in the days of the wooden men o’war there was quite often, an uninvited population of rodents aboard ship… Dogs were completely unsuccessful mousers and besides their barking kept both captain and crew awake. Cats were infinitely preferred over dogs, but they were unable to chase mice into the many narrow holes and passageways aboard the ship, so more mice escaped than were caught. But… there was one animal the rats and mice could never escape from… no matter where they tried to hide… no matter how small a hole they ran into… they were doomed! This animal was one of man’s best friends and totally fearless. They were in great demand aboard ships of the colonial navy, and fortunate indeed were the crews that had a ferret for a mascot and friend.”

Fur Production – Ferrets have been raised for fur production for centuries in Europe and in the early 1900′s an effort was made to establish this practice in the United States. The wild coloring of the ferret is preferred and it is likely there was a considerable amount of breeding back to the wild European polecat to maintain the uniformity and quality of the fur. A coat made out of ferret fur is called a fitch coat. Fortunately the practice of breeding ferrets for their fur has become much less common and eventually may die out altogether.

Transporters -The ferret’s anatomy and willingness to run through dark tunnels make them ideal in transporting cables through long pipes. Oilmen in the North Sea, telephone companies, camera crews and people working on airline jets have used ferrets for this purpose. The ferret wears a harness where a long thin nylon line is attached. The nylon line is then connected to the cable that needs to be pulled through the conduit. The use of mechanical devices for this purpose has made the ferret obsolete as a transporter.

Ferret Legging -This is a silly English pub sport that has been around for centuries, but fortunately is no longer common. The contestant must ties his trousers legs securely around the ankles, then places two ferrets, who have full sets of teeth, down his pants and finally tie the waist of his trousers securely closed. If a ferret bites, it can only be dislodged from the outside of the pants. The object is to be the person that keeps the ferrets in his pants the longest. In 1983 a 72-year old Yorkshire man withstood the ferrets for 5 hours and 26 minutes.

Biomedical Research – Ferrets became models for biomedical research in the twentieth century. One of their first uses was for the study of human influenza virus, which they are susceptible to. Currently they are used in the areas of virology, toxicology, pharmacology, reproductive physiology, endocrinology, physiology, teratology, and anatomy. Some of the byproducts of their use in human research has been a tremendous growth in our understanding of ferret anatomy, physiology and ferret disease. Biomedical use of ferrets is the greatest in the United States because of the presence of large-scale ferret breeding facilities that can produce healthy ferrets in large numbers. Other countries lack these facilities and thus ferrets are not used as readily. Unfortunately or not, these breeding facilities produce the largest percentage of ferrets used for pets as well.

Companion Animals – By far the most common use for ferrets today is as a companion animal. They are small, easy to care for and have entertaining and responsive personalities. Ferrets are bred in an astounding variety of color variations and now there is even a longhaired ferret available. Ferret organizations devoted to the nurturing of the ferret as a pets have sprung up all over the world. Devoted ferret owners attend ferret shows where their pets compete in areas such as color classes, best-dressed ferret, yawning contest and races involving bags and long tubes. It is perhaps fitting after a history of working for humans that ferrets should now enjoy a life of luxury as a beloved companion!

References:

  1. Biology and Diseases of the Ferret by James G.Fox, D.V.M., 1998, Williams and Wilkins.
  2. Ferret Husbandry, Medicine and Surgery by JohnH. Lewington, 2000, Butterworth-Heinemann
  3. The Complete Book of Ferrets by Val Porter and Nicholas Brown, 1987, Pelham Books.
  4. The domestication of the ferret by Clifford Owen in The Domestication and Exploitation of Plants and Animals. Peter J. Ucko and G.W. Dimblebyeds. 1969. Aldine Publishing Company.
  5. Some behavioural differences between the European polecat, Mustela putorius, the ferret, M. furo, and their hybrids by Trevor B. Poole. Journal of the Proceedings of the Zoological Society, London (1972) 166, pp 25-35.
[intlink id="gcfa"]This article originally appeared in the March /April 2001 issue of "Off the Paw".[/intlink]