Journalism Archive

Much of what I have written over the years has been lost or never filed.
What I have posted here is a selection of some of the journalism I have written over the years

The Houdini in a fur coat

First published in The Times, 17 May 1997

They make surprisingly affectionate and fun-loving domestic pets - but beware,
ferrets are also expert escapologists. Brendan Martin reports.

If you have never seen a ferret, you would be forgiven for thinking they are
small, smelly savages ready to sink their sharp teeth into you at a moment's
notice. You could not be further from the truth.

Ferrets are becoming a popular domestic pet and, according to Mary Neale of
the National Ferret Welfare Society, they are affectionate creatures, each with
a distinctive personality. She says they make excellent pets although she does
admit they are not suitable for very young children. The ferret is as much at
risk from the children as the other way round. But she is quick to add that she
would not trust very young children with any animal: "It's not fair on either
the child or the animal."

As an active member of the NFWS, Ms Neale is happy to offer advice to anyone
considering taking on a ferret as a pet. "There are three things I say to
people who want to keep ferrets," she says. "First, buy a good book on the
subject." The NFWS recommends The Complete Book of Ferrets by Val Porter and
Nicholas Brown, known as the ferret owner's bible and full of useful tips and

Second, it is important to talk to local vets before taking on a ferret. "Not
all vets have seen a ferret and in some cases they don't want to," Ms Neale
says. The NFWS has a nationwide list of vets who will treat ferrets.

And third, ferrets should be obtained only from a reputable source such as a
local Ferret Welfare Society or a recognised breeder. That, according to the
NFWS, is the only way of ensuring you get a healthy animal.

"The important thing you want to know is that if things don't work out, the
person supplying the ferret will take it back," Ms Neale says.

There are associations all over the country and the NFWS will supply a list of
members as well as a free booklet advising on all aspects of ferret ownership.
Dick Nutt, although a countryman at heart who likes to work his ferrets and
share the spoils of a rabbit hunt with them, agrees on the creature's
suitability as a domestic pet. He owned his first ferret when he was eight
years old.

Mr Nutt, who lives near Warminster, says people should not take on a ferret if
they do not have time to play with the animal. Ferrets are not only loving
animals, they also crave affection. They love human company and will playfully
sit on your shoulder as you go about the house.

Escapology is an activity much loved by ferrets and prospective owners are
advised to invest in a sturdy wire mesh cage that cannot be bitten through.
Chicken wire, for example, will not keep a determined ferret confined for long.
"A strong rabbit hutch set on concrete is ideal," Ms Neale advises, "otherwise
they dig into the ground and escape."

The ferrets' sense of fun and desire to investigate their surroundings means
they spend much of their time burrowing - or ferreting. Make sure your home has
no areas such as small holes near heating or ventilation ducts that a ferret
can get through. Even an innocent-looking couch can be a danger if there is a
hole in it. An adventure among the springs and foam can be a perilous one.

Ferrets are carnivorous and, contrary to popular belief, do drink water. but
there are still some people who believe the animals can live on bread and milk.
"Where do they think a wild polecat finds bread and milk in its natural
environment?" Ms Neale asks.

Mr Nutt feeds his 14 ferrets on a mix of meat and pellets made by James
Wellbeloved, the pet food manufacturer. It is available from most large petfood
shops. Dried cat biscuits are also a good source of food for ferrets as they
contain the right proteins and vitamins; but wet cat food does not. Mr Nutt
also advises adding some roughage to the ferret's diet in the form of frozen
day-old chicks.

A misconception the NFWS is keen to dispel is the belief that ferrets have to
be allowed to breed. Mr Nutt argues that this is nonsense: "All a careful owner
has to do is 'take the ferret out of season'. In other words, have the ferret
neutered by spaying the female (also known as a jill) or castrating the male
(or hob)."

"Jill jabbing", a hormone injection, is a temporary solution administered by a
vet which acts as a contraceptive when the female is in season.

Unneutered hobs advertise their availability by giving off a strong odour
during the mating season, which lasts from March to May. Castration puts an end
to the smell and the mistaken belief that ferrets give off an unpleasant whiff
all year round.

The biggest misconception, Ms Neale and Mr Nutt both agree, is the animal's
legendary bite. Neither denies the sharpness of a ferret's teeth but both are
at pains to point out that bites are rare.

The ferret only bites when provoked, a feature common to most animals. "If
treated properly they are not vicious," Mr Nutt says, readily admitting that he
has had his fair share of bites during the 44 years he has kept ferrets. "But
what I have found is that it is usually my own fault."

* Ferrets come in a variety of colours, including: albino, sable, chocolate,
cinnamon and champagne.

* Adult weight: 1-5 1/2 lb (500g-2.5kg). It varies considerably (up to 40 per
cent) according to time of year. Even though they are not wild, ferrets adopt
the diet regime of animals which are - stocking up for winter by eating large
amounts in autumn and less in spring, when they also shed their heavy coats.
Length when fully grown: 17-24in (44-60cm) including tail. The male can be
twice as large as the female.

Lifespan: up to ten years (older ones have been known).

Breeding season: Mainly March-August.

National Ferret Welfare Society






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