It's an affliction that can strike anyone, multiplying so fast, entire households are consumed without warning. They're called ferrets, and the slinky, domesticated descendants of polecats are now rivaling dogs and cats as the pet of choice in the United States -- with a difference.
Once someone buys a ferret, they can't seem to stop. They fill their homes with the cuddly critters, ringing up cash registers from coast to coast with sales of cages, pooper-scoopers, sleeping hammocks -- yes, sleeping hammocks -- and fleece carrying satchels.
The phenomenon of the multiplying critters has a nickname: "ferret math."
Consider Bill Strong, a retired bodybuilder who manages menus for prisoners at the Maryland State Penitentiary. With long black hair and a swagger to his step, the Dundalk dietitian doesn't look like someone who would coddle a cute-faced strip of fur and feet.
But there he was yesterday at the Baltimore Ferret Club's annual benefit on Putty Hill Road, with cages full of the weaselesque critters, showing them off for the ferret judges and taking home several ribbons.
Strong bought two of the raccoon-masked creatures last year. Now he has seven.
Why are people like Strong shelling out between $100 and $200 -- plus $150 or so for shots, vet bills and accessories -- for a foot-long ferret fierce enough to flush out rats from their hiding places?
"They're beautiful animals," Strong said. "They just click with me."
Strong has plenty of company. Since the federal government approved a rabies vaccine for ferrets in 1990, their popularity has been soaring. Between 8 million and 10 million ferrets are in the country -- making them the third-most popular pet in the country behind dogs and cats.
Ownership is allowed in most of the country, with California, Hawaii and Washington, D.C., the exceptions. Three years ago, Baltimore and Baltimore County lifted their bans on owning ferrets without special licenses. Now, 15,000 to 30,000 of the animals are running around in 5,000 homes in the state, says Diane Rogers, president of the Baltimore Ferret Club, who has 10 of her own.
"If I get one more, my husband will call the divorce lawyer," Rogers jokes.
For ferret owners, the attraction is no secret. Like kittens, they are playful and frisky. They like to cuddle, and best of all, they use litter boxes. Like dogs, they can be walked on leashes, and some even come when they are called.
But ferrets aren't for everyone, which was the point of yesterday's benefit.
Each year, thousands of ferrets are dumped by their owners who are less than thrilled by their habits. They have anal glands that can spray a skunk-like substance, although the glands can be removed. They become musky during the mating season if they are not fixed. And they don't tolerate children who squeeze their necks or tug their tails. Ferrets will bite.
Several hundred people paid $3 apiece yesterday to attend the ferret show at the Tall Cedars Hall in Parkville in Baltimore County. The money, along with fees 60 owners paid to enter 300 ferrets in the competition, will be used to support three shelters around Baltimore.
Ferrets can be traced to the fourth century B.C., when they are believed to have been bred from polecats. Averaging 20 inches long, including their 5-inch tail, and weighing about 3 pounds, ferrets became the perfect creature to slip through small places and "ferret" out other animals.
Ideal for flushing out rats and rabbits from underground burrows, they are a favorite for farmers in Europe and the United States. Smart and sly, ferrets also have a place in history.
During World War I, Allied troops used them to carry messages along enemy lines. During the 1981 wedding of Great Britain's Prince Charles and Princess Diana, a ferret saved the day when workers couldn't guide a television cable beneath the floor of St. Paul's Cathedral. They attached the cable to a ferret, and the animal scurried through to the other side, linking the world to the royal wedding.
The ferrets at yesterday's benefit had it a bit easier.
Between rounds of judging to assess their coats, their eyes and their style, the ferrets lounged around the hall. Many slept the day away in cloth hammocks slung from the sides of wire cages, or they curled up against the chests and necks of their doting owners.
For Black Onyx, a sleek, black sable ferret, the day couldn't have gone better. Fresh from taking first place in her class, the 16-week-old ferret, with bright eyes and tufts of black fur, nuzzled into the arms of her owner, Virginia Fincham. She yawned a few times, and then fell fast asleep.
Fincham says she and her husband of 40 years always considered themselves "dog people." But that all changed about 12 years ago when their son brought a ferret to their Forestville home.
"We fell in love on first sight," she says.
For more information or to adopt a ferret, call the Baltimore Ferret Club at 410-448-1281.
Pub Date: 4/20/97