The Sound and the FURRY

A local ferret shelter needs us all to come to a weaselization

Kurt Peterson's office is a disaster area. Towers of files, photos, calendars and furniture taper upward from the floor like stalagmites. So much equipment has overflowed into the hallway that Peterson says his landlord recently "relocated" a good chunk of it to a spare room without telling him. But although this cramped space in south county's Grasso Plaza can barely be traversed, a narrow path that leads to a refrigerator in the back storage room always remains clear.

Inside the freezer compartment are five dead ferrets. One is in a plain cardboard box; three are in Capri Sun boxes.

And then there's Broadway.

The first mascot of the FURRY (Ferrets Underfoot Running 'Round You), a nonprofit club and ferret shelter Peterson co-founded, Broadway was found by a security guard at the Owens Corning factory in Alton. The white Mustela putorius furo was a tad worse for the wear -- he'd lost the fur on his belly and the bottom of his tail, and had one dead eye on the left side and an empty socket on the right. After consulting a vet, Peterson doused a Q-Tip with peroxide and prepared to clean the ferret's wounds. He'd barely touched cotton to empty eye socket when the animal leapt toward his face. But instead of attacking him, Broadway gently commenced grooming Peterson's right eyebrow.

"He was in terrible shape, barely hanging on," recounts the 46-year-old ferret lover, removing his eyeglasses and caressing the previously tended brow. "And the hydrogen peroxide had to sting like hell, but he somehow still knew I was trying to help him."

Six years later, in 2003, Broadway died in Peterson's arms. To this day the beloved ferret lies in state, wrapped in a purple felt blanket inside a tiny cedar coffin. Peterson has commissioned a special urn to serve as Broadway's final resting place, but he can't bring himself to take the necessary steps with the body. Plus, a FURRY volunteer says they've lost touch with the guy who normally handles these jobs.

Peterson closes the fridge and apologizes for getting choked up. Then a pause. "You oughta look inside the deep-freeze on the back porch," he imparts. "Back there I've got about 30 more."

FURRY headquarters, located across the street from Peterson's office off Gravois Road, is a two-story residence fronted by an unkempt yard. The front-room "Ferrarium" houses 57 ferrets -- among them Snickers, who was mistaken for a male by her previous owner's vet; Bunker, whose genitals were infested with maggots when he was rescued; and Trooper, FURRY's current mascot, who got his name after enduring a painful procedure to remove a collar embedded in his neck. Though all the animals here have had their scent glands removed -- a ubiquitous procedure with domestic ferrets -- musk hangs thick in the air. The small wire cages, each of which contains anywhere from one to four ferrets, are arranged in the center of the room and along one wall. The remaining space is crammed with medical supplies, food, files, an old shampoo sink and a carved ferret clock with a swinging tail. And somewhere toward the back of the house, a top-loading freezer holds 30 ferretsicles, which Peterson says are awaiting transport to the University of Missouri.

Conceived as a celebration of all things ferret, the cadre Peterson and his then-wife Sara founded in March 1997 has evolved into a ferret-rescue group (Web site: www.furryferrets.org). Twenty volunteers now donate their time, including Heather Oursley, who lives with five ferrets she calls her "angels," and Eryn Epley, who crawls into the cage with his three ferrets when his girlfriend kicks him out of bed. FURRY still holds picnics with events like the Tube Race, Paper Bag Escape and Costume Contest, but mostly these days they field calls from local pet shelters and law-enforcement agencies, and toil to save homeless ferrets and raise money for same.

That, and protesting PetsMart Inc.'s recent move to begin selling ferrets.

For five years, FURRY members have held informal Ferret Adoption Days at local PetsMarts, where they talk ferret with customers and direct interested parties to the shelter, where they can learn more, and perhaps pick out a ferret and take it home. (To defray expenses, the shelter charges an adoption fee ranging from about $75 for a single ferret to $280 for a family of five.) As long as they clean up after themselves and don't sell products the store carries, FURRY folks say, they've peacefully coexisted with PetsMart: no competition, no foul.

But earlier this year, volunteers set up operations at a PetsMart in O'Fallon, Illinois, only to discover that the store had begun stocking ferrets as part of their living, breathing inventory.

Indeed, in addition to ubiquitous PetsMart staples -- ferret food, toys, casual wear and "Hairball & Obstruction Treatment" -- two ferrets, priced at $130 apiece, are housed in an endcap display. Arrayed on a cart nearby are pamphlets about the care and feeding of rabbits, mice and other small mammals, but nothing pertaining to ferrets. A sign near the ferret display reads "Ownership Regulated In Some States" -- presumably a reference to the fact that the state of Illinois requires a permit or license to own a ferret. (It's illegal to possess a ferret anywhere in California and Hawaii; wildlife officials in Missouri and Illinois say that elsewhere ownership is typically governed by municipal laws.)

Peterson and crew shudder at the thought that the nation's top pet-stuff retailer intends to peddle ferrets in its 700-plus stores.

They fear a stray-ferret population explosion.

The ferret is commonly cited as the third most-popular U.S. pet, but figures vary wildly: In 2001 the American Veterinary Medical Association estimated the nationwide population of pet ferrets at 991,000. A year earlier, Performance Foods Inc., which manufactures Totally Ferret chow, put the figure at 7,354,892. According to the American Ferret Association, 44 states are home to at least one ferret-rescue organization, with an average of three per state. (FURRY's all Missouri has; Ferret Luv in Overland shuttered its doors last year, and a Jennings shelter closed in the mid-'90s.) Each of these shelters, says the AFA, houses anywhere from 40 to 100 animals up for adoption. By Peterson's count, his shelter has taken in 1,300 ferrets, found permanent homes for 930 and reunited 14 that had been lost or otherwise separated from their keepers.

"We get a lot of people who want to donate their ferrets," affirms Kevin Koening, a naturalist at the Saint Louis Zoo. "The problem with ferrets is that even with their scent organs removed, they're still smelly, and they'll rub furniture. They're extremely active, and some people aren't prepared for them to nip."

Adds Peterson: "[Often] ferrets are impulse purchases, even though they take more effort to care for than people realize."

FURRY volunteers fear a nationwide boom might fuel the creation of ferret mills.

"Our ferrets are produced exclusively for PetsMart, not bought from breeders," counters Dr. Nick Saint-Erne, a PetsMart vet. "We're trying to take a very cautious and effective approach in introducing ferrets that are healthy."

Saint-Erne says PetsMart began test-marketing ferrets in three states in January and now offers the critters in twenty of its stores. "Everything done in every PetsMart is coordinated though the corporate office," he explains. "Ferrets are put in certain stores based on a variety of demographics, and not every store has ferrets, nor will they."

Peterson isn't about to let down his guard. But for the St. Louis area's go-to ferret man, there's other work to be done.

Like the breeder he's been trying to get shut down in Ellsinore. And the new office space he'll have to find as soon as Grasso Plaza landlord Greenberg Development Co. finds a tidier tenant. He thinks he's got a lead on 800 square feet in a new strip mall nearby, but moving this mess is going to be a tough slog.

"What is it about ferrets? Why am I such a ferret advocate?" muses the man who also supports four dogs, four birds, a snake, two crabs, a tankful of fish and four foster cats.

"Because they have no other voice. There's no one else here."

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