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Dinner with the Ferret People

You may think of ferrets as giant rats that smell like musk and pee. You may think their owners are weirdos. But as one woman who had 18 ferrets told me, "People’s kids stink, but I don’t complain about that."

The author with Ping, who might smell weird but clearly has a good heart. Photo by Jeni Clarke, Oregon Ferret Shelter

People think of ferrets as giant rats that smell like musk and pee. But any ferret owner will tell you that ferrets aren’t rats. They’re mustelids, which, without getting into the biology of anal glands and incisors, makes ferrets as different from rats as humans are from donkeys. And you get used to the smell. I should know—I owned a ferret named Wiggy, and he made me laugh for his entire seven-year life. Despite his strange, slithery body, we were close friends, and I’ve long questioned why ferret owners get labeled as weirdos.

My girlfriend broke it down for me: “You equate rats with filth, and ferrets are rat-like. They smell, shred things, and steal your stuff to stash it in their nests. Because of that, they seem like a hoarder’s pet, the kind a dirty person would have.” She said all of this while petting her neurotic bony greyhound. So, I said, if it’s true that owners often resemble their pets, then ferrets are naturally linked to people who sit around their apartments in piss-stained sweatpants, smoking cigarettes with all the windows closed and eating pizzas just to collect the boxes? “Exactly,” she replied. Her greyhound stared unblinking.

To meet the Ferret People in person and prove the stereotype wrong, I attended the September meeting of the Friends of Ferrets Club meeting at the Oregon Ferret Shelter, the West Coast’s largest all-ferret, no-kill sanctuary. A married couple runs the nonprofit organization in their semi-rural home near Portland, rescuing ferrets and putting them up for adoption.

When I walked in, the musk scent hit me like a broom handle. Fifteen people sat in the living room eating dinner around a large circular playpen filled with tubes and prancing ferrets. The group was mixed: young and old, heavy and skinny, tattooed and not. Mostly white. I greeted them with a wave. They said hello and waved back.

Dave Mathis, who runs the Oregon Ferret Shelter, holds up a rare breed. Photo by author

A short-haired woman extended her hand. “I’m Chris.” She and her husband Dave Mathis have run the shelter since 1993. I grabbed some food, and before long Dave was describing how pine martens crush the skulls of their pray and eat the brains first. “That’s where the fat is,” he said. “It’s a sucking sound—they just slurp out the brains... I really like that soup, James,” he added to a fellow ferret lover.

“It’s kale from our garden,” James replied. “No added salt. Just light chicken stock.” James is 37 years old and has a long ponytail coiling down his back. Tonight he was dressed in electric-blue running shoes, baggy jeans, and a dark jogging jacket. He and his wife, Jeni, have nine ferrets, not including the two who passed away recently. Jeni told me that when they have parties, they “usually have a pen or two out for ferrets to enjoy the sunshine [in].” It comforted me to know that Ferret People, like Trekkies and World of Warcraft obsessives, could find love.

I don’t know for sure, but this certainly seemed like the largest gathering of ferret fans in all of western Oregon. Among the attendees was Stephanie, a 36-year-old with glasses and an eyebrow piercing who had 18 ferrets, down from 30 (five of them died of cancer and other disease). One of her pets, Dookie, had his own Facebook page. “He’s known in 23 countries,” Stephanie said. “He’s met the guy from Pit Boss. And the Grimm cast, they love him.” To ensure that the shelter’s sick and aged ferrets die with love and dignity, she handles hospice care. I tell people all the time: my ferrets are my kids,” she said. Tara, a young business analyst, and her software designer husband George had three ferrets after a death the previous week. Their ten-year-old daughter was preparing to adopt an albino named Ping.

The decor in Chris and Dave's house could be described as "ferret-centric." Photo by author

Our hosts beat everyone in terms of numbers—Chris had at least 50 ferrets of her own, along with two dachshunds, three mastiffs, and numerous cats. “I hate those cats,” she said, snickering. “If I had the chance, I wouldn’t have children. I love my kids, but they’ve clung too close.” She inherits the deaf ferrets and biters that can’t find homes. “They need love too,” she said.

When I asked to use the bathroom, her husband directed me to one down the hall. “There’s a baby Brahma chicken in the other,” he said.

These were the kind of people with emails like “ferretgirl37,” the kind who listed both the human’s and ferret’s names in photos, who let their ferrets roam their apartments and sleep in their beds, like I had with Wiggy. So why do ferret owners get labeled as weirdoes?

“Because we are,” Chris said. “We’re nuts.”

“We admit it,” said Stephanie. “We embrace it.”

A cat jumped on the dinner table, nearly landing on the pie.

Chris said, “My daughter will tell you that all my friends are weird.”

“I’d rather have ferrets over kids,” said Stephanie. “Ferret ownership is an addiction.”

Tara agreed. “I guarantee you that whoever walks in here and gets one ends up with more than one.” She made ferrets sound like tattoos. Or heroin.

A member of the Friends of Ferrets Club and her son play with Ping. Photo by author

To Ferret People, the stigma surrounding their lifestyle stems from lack of education and exposure. By measuring all domestic creatures against cats and dogs, Americans have an inaccurate conception of normalcy. Tara knows lots of people who’ve never wanted to touch a ferret in their lives but who, after hanging out with hers, now can’t get enough.

Granted, ferrets aren’t for everyone—some are afraid they’ll bite, or get freaked out by the way they move like furry Slinkys. There’s also the smell. “They’re kind of like a wet dog,” Chris explained. “If you go outside, they get wet and they stink, but your dog stinks, too. Dog owners get used to it.”

Stephanie adjusted her glasses. “I don’t even notice anymore. People’s kids stink, but I don’t complain about that.”

There was supposed to be a costume contest in addition to the meeting, but only two people showed up: Amy, who had put her sable ferret in a handmade chainmail vest; and Lisa, who’d dressed Kasper in a gray hat and cape modeled after Gandalf’s. I would have pegged Lisa, with her black lace dress and long blond hair, as a reptile person, which shows that stereotypes are hurtful and wrong. She’s actually into tarantulas and ferrets.

Lisa and her adorable pet Kasper. Photo by Jeni Clarke, Oregon Ferret Shelter

Someone asked Lisa how she got her ferrets so calm. George said, “Do you drug them?”

Lisa smiled.

After the contest, we sat around the playpen and watched the ferrets. While I played with a sable named Viper, Chris announced that Tara and George would host the next meeting and serve a Thanksgiving meal. “I’m bringing gluten-free stuffing,” Chris said. “I hope that’s OK.”

“How many ferrets are you up to?” Lisa said.

“Three,” George said, “We just lost one. It’s our first loss.”

Dave laughed. “I like not counting.”

Lisa said, “My husband says I’m capped at ten.”

Dave petted Ping as he described his current work stresses. He was 64 and made a living providing technical support for the Air National Guard. Without warning, he gently flipped Ping upside down and sang, “I am cool/ I am sweet/ I’m a ferret hangin’ by my feet.” Then he kissed Ping’s nose. “So,” he asked Lisa, “what else is new?” It sounded like any dinner party: eating, joking, discussions of work.

Chris might think Ferret People are weird—and who’s in a better position to judge than her?—but the rest of us are pretty weird, too. Getting wasted at a wedding and embarrassing the groom? Pooping at exactly 3 PM every day? Countless people enjoy popping zits, while others obsessively count the number of almonds they eat in order to control their weight. Normal isn’t the baseline. Weird is. Scratch below the surface of any human and you’ll find a set of thoughts, habits and fixations that seem deeply odd but which aren’t, in the wider scheme, so abnormal at all.

Ferret People seem like anybody else. They’re human beings living in the cold dark loins of suburban America, searching for laughter, community and mutual understanding, except their houses sometimes smell like pee. So what? Have you sniffed around your laundry pile lately?

Another ferret knickknack. Photo by author

While I ate more pie and browsed ferret photos on the wall, Jeni asked, “So what do you think?” Pretty normal to me, I said. “Like I like to say: ‘We’re weird, but it’d be OK to get stuck in an elevator with us.’ OK, I have to go chip five ferrets that we’re getting tonight.”

As she stepped toward a back room, her husband said, “We’re doing that tonight?”

“Yeah,” she told him. A lap dancer had been dropping off and picking up these ferrets at the shelter, off and on, for the last three years. “They’re bonded,” Jeni said. “What are you going to do?”

James shrugged. “It’s not the number I mind. It’s the amount of time they require.”

When I left, people were standing around the stacks of cages in a back room, swapping stories of tragic ferret adoptions and insulinoma. Dave offered me a gluten-free chocolate muffin. “You know,” Stephanie said in the driveway, “you can come back anytime. Come on Monday. We always need help cleaning the cages. Bring your girlfriend.”

When I returned home, my girlfriend smelled my jacket. “Oh my God,” she said. “You’re going to need to wash all of that.”

Aaron Gilbreath has written for the New York Times, The Believer, Bookforum, Kenyon Review, Flavorwire, Paris Review,and Oxford American, and wrote the musical appendix for The Oxford Companion to Sweets. Find him at @AaronGilbreath

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