The Fight to Legalize Ferrets in California

Why the Legislature Addressed The Ferret Issue

Prior to 1985, ferrets were legal in 40 states. In fact, in most of these states, they never were illegal. Since 1985, eight states have legalized ferrets bringing the total to 48. In six of these states, legalization was accomplished through legislative action (page 5 1996-97 Nationwide Ferret Survey of State Wildlife Agencies). In one state, a court decision affirmed the ferret’s status as domesticated and therefore outside the mandate of the state wildlife agency, and in the other, ferrets were legalized by a pro-active state wildlife agency.

During this entire time, from the late 1980s to the present, the California Department of Fish and Game not only remained resolute in its hard line opposition to ferret legalization, but has been an active promulgator of ferret misinformation. So in 1994, when AB 2497 (California’s first ferret bill) was introduced, it faced a wide array of opposition from farm, waterfowl and environmental organizations and failed to pass the Assembly floor. None of the bills in any of the other states generated such controversy. In fact, few had opposition of any kind. Significantly, none of these bills were opposed by their respective wildlife agencies.

In November of 1995, ferret proponents asked the California Fish and Game Commission to remove the domesticated ferret from the restrictive wildlife list. Based on the information provided by proponents, the Fish and Game Commission voted to go to public notice and consider the request. The Department of Fish and Game then advised the Commission that an environmental study would need to be completed prior to a Commission regulatory action and suggested that ferret legalization advocates be required to pay for the study. The Commission president instead directed the department to conduct the study. The resulting study consists of two documents: the 1996-97 Nationwide Ferret Survey of State Wildlife Agencies and a ferret bibliography compiled by Whisson and Moore,1997.

In the meantime, the Fish and Game Commission’s legal counsel informed the Commission that it “did not have the authority to adopt regulations to remove restrictions on ferrets, so legalization of ferrets was a legislative matter” (Page 2 1996-97 Nationwide Ferret Survey of State Wildlife Agencies). This opinion was eventually ruled incorrect by Superior Court Judge Judith McConnell and incredibly the Commission was advised by counsel to appeal this decision–the equivalent of winning an election then demanding a recount. The appeal was unsuccessful.

On April 6, 2000, armed with the legal authority to address the ferret issue (however against their wishes), a new Fish and Game Commission contradicted the earlier Commission by requiring ferret legalization proponents to hire an environmental consultant to do a new study at an estimated minimum cost of $100,000 prior to even considering a vote to go to public notice. With nothing to gain from this avenue, ferret legalization supporters continued their efforts in the legislature and SB 89 was authored in 1993 by Senator Dede Alpert.

SB 89, by grand fathering the hundreds of thousands of ferrets already here in California (with provisions that they be spayed/neutered and vaccinated), and establishing an owner-funded ferret study, acknowledges the reality that ferrets are here in large numbers while addressing the arguments of the opposition. SB 89 passed all committee and floor votes by overwhelming majorities. California’s Legislature, like California’s citizens, would like to see this issue move forward.

Why the Department of Fish and Game Should Not Regulate Ferrets

Fortunately for the cat, the legislative intent behind the creation of the Department of Fish and Game did not foresee agency regulation, let alone prohibition, of domesticated pets. Otherwise, these adept hunters would find themselves on the other side of the law in California. In fact, the dog, horse, goat, pig, sheep, rabbit and burro might well join the cat as furry fugitives. Why? Because all of these domesticated pets are able to survive and multiply in the wild according to the 1993 United States Congressional report, Harmful Non-Indigenous Species in the United States.

Like the animals listed above, the ferret is also a domesticated pet. It is classified as domesticated by the United States Department of Agriculture, Smithsonian Institute, Museum of Natural History, the Humane Society of the United States and 150 zoos, zoological societies and other authorities. Unlike the domesticated pets listed above, the ferret does not survive and multiply in the wild. This fact was substantiated by the California Department of Fish and Game's own 1996-97 Nationwide Ferret Survey of State Wildlife Agencies. The intent of this survey was to aid in “assessing environmental concerns relating to proposed legalization of ferrets as pets.” The good news: no breeding ferrets were documented at any time, now or in the past, by any state wildlife agency in the entire country. This gives the ferret a stellar record with regard to the environment, one that other domesticated pets don’t share.

These reasons alone should be enough to justify removing a domesticated pet from the grasp of a wildlife agency, but there are other compelling reasons as well. There are 500,000 illegal ferrets already here in California according to a 1989 estimate by the Department of Fish and Game. While the department may now argue about their earlier estimate, the 12 foot long ferret product aisles in pet stores throughout California are inarguable evidence of a large number of people needing ferret supplies. Twenty percent of all ferret food is sold in California and the largest consumer ferret magazine sells more copies in California than in any other state. In spite of the large numbers of ferrets in California, the Department of Fish and Game acknowledged in its own survey that no breeding populations of ferrets have ever been documented in the wild at any time in this state.

SB 89 is a compromise bill. It is not a straight legalization bill in response to the Department of Fish and Game’s own arguments: that a study is necessary, and that the Fish and Game Commission, not the legislature, should make the final determination of the ferret’s status. While we disagree with the need for additional ferret studies, and also with the notion that California's legislature is not as capable as the legislatures in six other states that legalized ferrets, we do agree with the Department on one recent position. As a wildlife agency the Department now argues that it is not in the business of regulating pets.

When a law is unreasonable, it is widely disobeyed, and therefore difficult, if not impossible, to enforce. Sporadic enforcement keeps ferret owners frightened and angry, but it accomplishes little else except to drive these owners and their animals underground. A full-blown ferret enforcement effort would not only be financially prohibitive to the Department, it would also be political suicide and the Department knows it. The Department may also know that the best way to get rid of a bad law is to aggressively enforce it.

This information was provided by:
Jeanne Carley
Californians for Ferret Legalization