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Furry, frisky ferrets make frolicking friends

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What looks like a blond fur boa curled in a circle suddenly twitches, and one beady brown eye blinks at the viewer. Four tiny paws with black, needlelike claws and mauve pads wave languidly in the air, then disappear as one of the furriest, newest wrinkles in household pets stands up to survey the scene.

Ferrets as pets are not about to drive cocker spaniels and Siamese cats out of the business, but they are developing a following of loyal and often laughing owners. Ferrets, their owners say, are the fur clowns of the pet world. I saw my first ferret this winter at a Washington pet store, just down the aisle from the iguanas, lizards, pythons, water dragons, cockateels, and the real boas that constrict.

This particular ferret, whom we'll call Fred, was a sable one, with a fluffy, dark-honey coat tipped with black. He went for $69.50; Siamese ferrets, a pale shade of blond, with dark masks and tails and feet, were slightly pricier: $79. 50.

When Fred uncurled and stretched out to stalk around on the wood shavings of his glass-walled cage, he looked a bit like a miniaturized fur dinosaur. That's because when ferrets move their slender but long (up to 16 inches) bodies, they tend to hump up the center section like the Loch Ness monster or a croquet hoop, to give their minuscule legs traction to move that long torso.

When a pet-store employee picked up Fred, the ferret was on his best behavior , cuddling in his arms like a long cat. A trio of baby ferrets, or kits, looked on. The tiny, triangular face - with its twitching whiskers and its minute pink ears that look cropped but aren't - peered inquisitively around. But Fred stuck to his decorous behavior, which, as any ferret owner will tell you, is unusual. Ferrets tend to: jump up and down with joy, literally, when they are happy; do a little skittering sidewise dance with their mouths open; burrow under rugs and behind refrigerators; dig up house plants; and play hide-and-seek with your gloves or your supper. Owners talk about ''ferret-proofing'' a house, which means sealing up all the little nooks and crannies in which ferrets like to hide themselves or their loot.

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