I’m going to back into this story because I want to show our subject at the high point of his star power.
“The Big Lebowski” was a comedy of 20 years ago. A main character was Jeff Bridges as a doofus called The Dude. Anyway, some bad guys were after The Dude and found him luxuriating in his bathtub. They didn’t get what they wanted, so enter our featured performer.
It was an excitable ferret with a big grin held by a bad guy. It showed a row of teeth that could mend socks. The exasperated bad guy suddenly tossed the ferret into the tub to the shock and dismay of The Dude.
Here’s something else that caused The Dude to splash--They didn’t throw the toothy little beast at The Dude’s head or his feet, but somewhere in-between. I never before saw anyone dance in a bathtub....well, you can rent the movie.
It might make entertaining cinema to show a ferret as a 2-pound T-Rex, but it grieves Pat Wright who knows them to be furry little cuddlers that wouldn’t hurt a fly (rodents, not so much).
They are related generally to weasels, skunks, minks and polecats (not to be confused with Old West outlaws of a lesser rank with the same name). They used to hunt rodents and small game, but that’s been lulled out of them, though I imagine a ferret in fighting trim could still go a few rounds with a middleweight rat.
Ferrets are adorable little guys who might become housebreakable after 100 more generations of selective breeding. They like to slink around the house getting into dark little cubby holes like cupboards and upholstered couches.
A note of caution: If you’re closing the metal springs of a hide-a-bed, check carefully before--Sorry, close your mind to that until after breakfast.
Pat Wright is Mr. Ferret of La Mesa. He is a gentle man of 58 who loves animals, but especially ferrets. He introduces me to Jethro, Mustela. (That’s his family name.) He’s Pat’s main guy at the moment. He has another ferret but we were not formally introduced.
Pat is friendly but outspoken and is quick to say what’s right is right. He can even more loudly say what’s wrong is wrong--In this case, the law that says little Jethro is a criminal and Pat is harboring a fugitive.
Pat has had dust-ups with authorities for years. Generally, he take the ferrets out of state or to Mexico, then after a couple of months, quietly retrieves them and it’s one big happy family again.
Pat is perhaps the only man in criminal history to have cops with drawn guns surround his house to make prisoners of ferrets and Pat, to boot. Pat was the only one to fit the handcuffs. That’s a story I’ll get to shortly.
Ferrets are illegal as pets in California. Everywhere else, except Hawaii, you can lead your ferret down the street on a leash and not worry about cops, just dogs. That legal incongruity simply throws kindling on Pat’s fast burn over ferret injustice.
“This is not the United States that we grew up about being taught in school--land of the free, home of the brave,” he says, making a patriotic issue over the state’s stubbornness in defending a law he thinks is stupid.
Pat has his teeth into this (circling back to teeth). He might even put a statue of Jethro on an empty Confederate pedestal.
You might think he’s stupid for caring so much about an animal that cavorts happily like an overgrown weasel. But if we eliminated all the people with causes that others think silly, we would soon be left with only self-righteous grumps, and desperately miss silliness.
Why are ferrets illegal in California? It goes back to 1933, but a 1988 report by the Department of Health Services seems to have blocked the little critters’ path to being legitimate.
The report reads, “...(Human) infants may often be seen by ferrets as prey, and (they) sometimes unleash frenzied attacks on infants... (ferrets) have been reported to then drink the victims’ blood and eat the shredded flesh...ferrets are known to boldly approach wildlife.”
As I soak up these dreaded words, Jethro is watching me with bored, beedy eyes from his cage bed. I return the look with the awe that I feel a blood drinker has earned.
The idea that this foot-long creature could harass wildlife is laughable. Were he to wander out past the front door, a hawk or coyote would go to bed that night with a full tummy. A neighbor’s well-fed beagle would have a trophy to drop on the family room carpet.
All those predators would support legalization in hopes of population growth. The more the tastier.
Pat says, “The Hawks are out there. I see how they sit out there with a knife, and a spoon, and a bib,” just waiting for bite-size edibles, a role that Jethro would deliciously fill.
Pat and his partner have two dogs and three cats. He says the cats are disdainful of their housemates, but the dogs, a corgi and a golden retriever, accept them as sniff mates. Of course, with the retriever, the greatest danger for Jethro is drowning in slobber.
“I like having a household with a lot of life in it. I have one catfish who's 12 years old, when he goes it's like--Crap, that'll be an awful day. You get attached to things. I feed the birds. I've got squirrels that totally decimated my garden; rabbits out there, I don't know when they came. We've got skunks in the back yard, and every once in a while they (spray) the dogs. It's just I like a lot of life.”
He’s had about two dozen ferrets over the years, many of them rescues. I ask about their comical antics.
“I had one ferret, an albino. He had gotten into Miracle Gro, so he was green. He was under the counter, this green ferret...”
He waits for my reaction and is rewarded inadequately with a bemused smile. He shrugs. “Well, maybe you had to be there. Ferrets are funny.”
Pat has been a Bozo Bop Bag in working for legalization. The system knocks him down, but he swings right back up. He and other zealots are voices in the wilderness, shouting into legislative empty space.
The logic of his appeal in Sacramento falls short on the one essential ingredient of successful lawmaking--cold, hard cash. Plus, ferrets don’t vote and don’t have a PAC.
His desire to change the law is untiring. He’s now trying to do it though a website, LegalizeFerrets.org. Lately, Pat has ratcheted down his ambition and is trying to make La Mesa a “ferret friendly” city. He thinks he’s got a shot at city council passage. I’m not sure what that would accomplish. The law will ignore it, as will ferrets.
He first wanted a stronger municipal designation of a “sanctuary city,” but sanctuary cities for “illegals” have come under fire lately.
Pat says the popularity of ferrets has mushroomed. He says there are thousands in San Diego alone. “Nowadays, it seems everybody knows what a ferret is. When we started they'd say, ‘Is that a mongoose?’
“Actually, people are surprised by their intelligence and their charm. Because 20-30 years ago ferrets were more prone to bite. Now they're bred to be docile. They come from big farms spayed, neutered, descented and with shots. One farm has 70 per cent of the market. You can buy them easily at the Arizona border for about $200.”
He says ferrets are needy for affection, like a dog, but they do what they want, like a cat.
Pat was once jailed for a conflict with authorities over ferrets. Hearing that, my imagination bursts its bonds and leads me to think of him being checked into the jail, maybe after midnight on a Friday night.
Starting off, the name “Pat,” that’s not the best “representing,” as the gangs say, what with the Edgars, the Raouls, and the Zekes eyeballing you. And if you don’t have jailhouse tats, you might not welcome their attention.
When Zeke asks what you’re in for, and you say, “Keeping a ferret,” Zeke smiles and says, “You’re gonna be my cellmate.”
That’s my fun fantasy. But when Pat describes what happened to put him in jail, it gets serious and makes you realize how a peaceful, law-abiding citizen can lash out in frustration over what he sees as persecution.
It was in February 2000 that things took a nasty turn. At a pro-ferret rally in Balboa Park, one of his beasties either nipped or accidently scratched a little girl who grabbed it.
That led to a warrant with several officers showing up at his apartment in North Park to take the ferret into custody, and as Pat feared, maybe send it to the ferret great beyond.
He freaked. “I wouldn't let them in,” he says. “But they broke the door down, and as they did that I had a knife because I was crazy. So they got me for brandishing a weapon. I wasn't threatening anybody, but they didn't know that. They had guns on me. They said they were close to shooting.”
He exhales slowly at the recollection. “Not my finest moment. Not the best thing to do.”
He was sentenced to 45 days in jail, but served only 17 due to overcrowding. In jail, the novelty of his crime made him a minor celebrity, or at least a curiosity.
From his description of his tenure behind bars, I would not call him a troublemaker to jailers, but certainly a nuisance.
I’m not an animal behaviorist, and even less of a people behaviorist, so I take my leave of the great ferret inquiry with a simple question: Why can’t these cute little guys come out of the shadows?
Bureaucrats try to squeeze law into a system to master its administration, but then often the system becomes the master, leaving no room for common sense.
The late Laurence J. Peter, he of the “Peter Principle,” once wrote, “Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status.”
Deal with it, Pat, and my best to Jethro.