“Ferrets are like Pringles,” says Dr. Ruth Heller, a judge at the Winter Ferret Fandango. “You can’t just have one.”
After my hours spent in Gilbertsville, PA, a small town located on the outskirts of Philadelphia, this seems undeniable. It was evident as I walked from the parking lot full of minivans clad in ferret bumper stickers, strolled through the firehouse doors, and entered the judging ring. Here was a safe haven for people who owned not just one but, in some cases, upwards of 20 ferrets. Ferrents (ahem, ferret parents to common folk) gathered from various parts of the country, some driving as much as seven hours for the chance to show off their furry friends. You won’t find ferrets sauntering in dresses or ferrets jumping through hoops here—instead, nearly 100 ferrets and a strong, genuine community who have been coming together for more than 20 years. Yet somehow this is completely under the radar in comparison to cat shows and dog shows. Why? “I think it’s because a lot of people don’t realize how many ferret owners are out there,” explains Suzy Hahn, an attendee.
It wasn’t quite the Westminster for ferrets—that’s actually in August, at the Buckeye Bash in Ohio—but it was pretty damn close. Here is an inside look at the ferrets, festivities, and what the ferrents had to say at the 2014 Winter Ferret Fandango.
Doreen Anderson, membership director of the American Ferret Association
VICE: How did you get into ferrets in the first place?
Doreen Anderson: It’s funny: I never thought I’d have a ferret. I’m the type of person who is very particular about smells. I thought I never liked ferrets because they’re smelly. I was actually looking for a small, apartment-sized pet for my daughter. I was looking for a chinchilla but could not find one that particular year. I was in a pet store that had two teeny-tiny baby ferrets, and I said, "You can’t tell me if you don’t take care of them carefully you can't keep the smell down." And that’s the truth. You keep them in the right bedding, change their litter boxes frequently, and you can control the smell. It’s actually not horrendous.
I decided to try it, and we just fell in love. I started working with the shelter. There are so many that people buy on impulse and just turn back to the shelter. I started fostering, but they all end up just staying at my house. I now have eight. To most people that’s nothing.
￼What do people say when you tell them you have eight ferrets?
Usually, “You don’t look like the type.” I’m just like, What "type'" has ferrets? The next thing they say is “Does it stink?” I say, “Come to my house and see. I have eight ferrets.” I’m sure I have good days and bad days. I’ve had as many as 12 in the house, and people say they can’t tell.
Where do your ferrets stay in your house?
They stay in two rooms. My ferret rooms are the rooms of my children, who have grown up and abandoned them.
What do your children think about this? Do they feel like you kicked them out for the ferrets?
My son does, no doubt. I told him, “When are you moving out?!” He had graduated college and was still living at home. I had just taken in some more fosters, and I needed the room. But, yeah, they do love 'em.
What brought you here today?
Suzy Hahn: We’ve been showing ferrets since 1996. We’re breeders—we’re the Four Paws Wrecking Crew, from Columbus, Ohio. We also do the photography—we’re Digital by Joe & Suzy—so we do the photography at the ferret shows. We’ve been doing this for quite a few years and really enjoy it. Enjoy meeting a lot of great people, enjoy seeing all the pretty ferrets. Oh, there are some really gorgeous ferrets around.
How many do you have?
We currently have 43 at the house.
How do you manage that?
They have their own two rooms of the house. They have their play areas, and you get them out and have to clean frequently. They are like any animal. You have to keep them clean, or they are going to smell. They do have a musky odor to them that fades if you get them fixed.
What drew you to ferrets?
Their personalities. Each one is so different. They are so individual. They will make you laugh and just constantly play. You could have a bad day at work, and they will just perk you up.
So, your love affair with ferrets, how did this start?
John Boccardo: After my dog passed away and my wife’s cat passed away, we thought, you know, we needed to take a little bit of time to grieve. We didn’t know what we wanted. One day we were supposed to go out for Valentine’s Day; instead we came home with a ferret.
Wait, what? How did that happen?
Well, we were supposed to go out to dinner, but my wife decided, "Let’s just go to the pet store." We saw Bella sitting in the little window. We actually weren’t ready for a ferret, but we saw her, came home for a few hours, and talked about it. We went back, spent the money, got ferret toys, a ferret cage, and had a ferret.
Where do you normally take your ferrets?
We have a camper in Upstate New York, and they like to go up there. We take them out camping in the woods with us. During the summers we go camping, and they love it.
In a lot of ways it seems like it’s similar to having a dog and bringing it with you when you go away.
We live in North Jersey; it’s a two-hour drive here, and we have one overnight bag each. The ferrets have at least five bags.
They are divas, basically.
Yes, they are. They travel with an entourage.
Tammy Boccardo and Brittany
How many shows do you got to a year?
Tammy Baccardo: Between three and four. Usually four. The farthest one is in Ohio, the Buckeye Bash. That’s something like the Westminster of ferrets. It’s the largest ferret show in the United States. Brittany is up for the Ferret of the Year award.
What does it take to be ferret of the year?
Well, they look for different things in different categories. She’s not a breeder; she’s a companion. They are looking for a lot of friendliness, good temperment; they don’t want a ferret who goes for the throat. More so, they want to see a healthy ferret—clean ears, clean eyes, clean nose, clean mouth, clean teeth. Generally healthy, happy, goodcoated animals.
Who is the ferret on the blanket?
Melissa Nelson: Kahlua was Full Nelson Ferretry’s first breeder ferret. I got her back in 2009. She’s not here today because she just went into season and she’s done breeding.
What’s your favorite part about having ferrets?
I love their antics. For one, I ran out of underclothes because they were stealing them and taking them under the bed.
This one is not happy. It’s her first show. This is mom and daughter.
There a competitive energy to ferret shows, I assume?
Yes. Yes, there is. It can get... how can I put that? I don’t want to say we’d eat our
￼own, but we might.
How long have you been judging?
Sally Heber: Since 1991.
How did you start?
There was a need. So we created an organization and a system to go with it. It’s the American Ferret Association. Our motto is to promote, provide, and protect for the domestic ferret. One way we do that is through our judging system, which has the goal of keeping the ferret the way it was meant to be. No miniature ferrets, no giant ferrets, no short-legged ferrets. Just the way it was meant to be.
What do you like about the judging process?
Well, you get to meet all these ferrets. You get your long, busy, skinny ones; then you get your long, chunky, snuggly ones. There’s a lot of variety that comes through here. Especially now, since we’re doing the babies. They are a blast, because, well, they are babies! They are going to have fun.
Apprentice judge Michael Fisher
How did you get started in judging these events?
Michael Fisher: They yelled for people to go up to the judging tables to learn how to find winning ferrets.
What is your relationship to ferrets?
￼I have ten ferrets. I got my first ferret when I was six, and I've had ferrets in my house my whole life. Before I was born there were ferrets in my house. My dad was a ferret owner.
What’s your favorite part about having a ferret?
Watching my wife jump off the couch to get away from them.
Dr. Ruth Heller
What is it like as a judge at this kind of event?
Hectic. When I was coming to shows before, a lot of the time was spent socializing, seeing people I didn't see anywhere else. As a judge, you get a little of that, but because there’s so much that needs to be done, you’re swamped. I’m the only licensed specialty judge on this side of the country right now. I go to a lot of different shows because of that.
What is it about ferrets that you think draws in such a strong sense of community?
You cannot change that personality. I often describe it as kitten, and if you like a kitten, you’ll like a ferret. Only that never goes away, that curiosity, exploration and playfulness. So you have seven or eight years as a kitten. That sucks you in. Once you have found one and you realize how much fun they are, you want another one. Then you find the communities and learn about the differences between the pet-store babies and the privately bred babies. You expand into that. Then you start showing.