Remembering the fight to protect ferrets

Buddy and Gumby squirm around like furry worms on speed. Their bodies stretch and collapse into balls, their paws clambering for an object that seems eternally just out of reach. They’re escape artists. Look away for a minute and they’ll sneak inside your dishwasher or reclining chair — perhaps bringing your glasses with them.

"They’re like kittens that never quite grow up into cats,” said Diane Rogers, a former Baltimore resident and founding member of the Baltimore Ferret Club and Shelter.

"They make me laugh," said Jim Brown, a friend of Rogers' and another of the club’s founding members.

These are no casual ferret owners. Brown presents a T-shirt for the Baltimore Ferret Club, featuring a ferret in an Orioles cap. Rogers shows off trophies won at ferret shows; she once had an artist in Fells Point paint a portrait of her three prize-winners.

Rogers purchased her first two ferrets in Virginia in the mid-1980s, only to be informed by her vet that her new pets were illegal in Baltimore. Should they get loose — a real possibility, given their proclivity for escaping — the health department would automatically euthanize them.

Determined to keep her pets alive, Rogers connected with Brown and other pet owners she managed to find in the area.

“Jim and I started our underground network,” she said. Unbeknownst to her neighbors in Dickeyville, she began sheltering ferrets that would otherwise be killed by animal control and keeping them in her daughter's bedroom (up to 20, she said, until her husband finally protested).

And she got involved in the sausage making of the legislative process. Rogers submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to get statistics on the number of ferrets euthanized in Maryland each year. In the 1990s, the ferret cause found a sponsor in state Del. Marsha Perry. "She was a real hero,” Rogers said.

Reached for comment, the now-retired Perry let out a laugh before apologizing. "Our past comes back to haunt us," she said.

At the time, Perry recalls, there was concern from ferret pet owners whose children were nipped by their pets. According to law, the offending ferrets were automatically killed, deemed a rabies threat.

"I knew nothing about ferrets but again, it seemed ridiculous to kill" the ferrets who otherwise showed no signs of rabies, she said.

"Poor Glendening," she said of then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening. "I had a meeting in his office with the head of the health department. It got a lot of publicity at the time just because it was something unusual."

The resulting bill, HB 426, passed in 1996, and included ferrets along with cats and dogs as domesticated pets, requiring that they be vaccinated for rabies. Should a pet ferret nip someone, they would be quarantined, rather than automatically killed.

To Rogers, it's about more than ferrets. It's about standing up for what's important to you, and persevering.

"If you have a cause you really care about, no matter how weird or how small, you can get it done," she said.

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