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The ferret: Pet or pest?

Ferrets, owners say, are full of personality. But depending on where you live, state officials concerned about the effects of released ferrets on native species have banned ownership and lawbreakers risk up to three years in jail.

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Ferret fans argue that the foot-long domesticated creatures make excellent pets and shouldn’t be regulated by wildlife agencies as such. Pat Wright, a La Mesa, Calif. advocate for legalizing ferret ownership, gets a kiss from one his three ferrets.

Associated Press

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The difference between owning a ferret in Hawaii and one in Pennsylvania can be up to three years in jail — and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

That's the penalty for ferret fans in the Aloha State, where the 3-pound members of the weasel and polecat family are banned amid concerns of the animals escaping and wreaking havoc on the islands' delicate ecosystems. Similar fears are behind a decades-old ban in California, which has one of the nation's most diverse ecosystems.

"The concern is that if these animals were released, like other non-native species have been, they would adapt and thrive and out-compete native species for food, and prey on native species," said Adrianna Shea, deputy director of California's Fish and Game Commission.

States have had problems with feral animals in nonnative environments, creating problems for native species by eating them or ravaging their food supply. Feral cats, for example, have decimated bird populations. In Hawaii, the introduction of the mongoose to combat a rat problem "was a very poor idea. Rats are nocturnal and mongooses are diurnal. They only saw each other for a short period between dusk and dawn," said Minami Keevin, a land vertebrate specialist with the Hawaii Department of Agriculture.

But ferret fans argue that the foot-long domesticated creatures make excellent pets and shouldn't be regulated by wildlife agencies.

"Ferrets are really wonderful animals for those of us who are so inclined. They are messy, and they're expensive, and they're demanding, but they are full of personality, full of love and full of joy," said Pat Wright, who lives in La Mesa, near San Diego, and has been fighting California's ban for nearly 20 years.

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