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The ferret: Pet or pest?

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Keeping a ferret as a pet takes more time, care and money than owning a dog or cat. The American Veterinary Medical Association in Schaumburg, Ill., which recently posted a YouTube video on pet ferrets, noted that they need to be caged most of the time, require hours of exercise and emit a musky odor that many people find unpleasant. Large cages are expensive, but on the other hand, ferrets don't require as much medical or dental care as cats or dogs.

"They are wonderful little clowns that not only steal your heart but they will steal anything they deem is theirs. This includes your shoes, socks, pens, pencils, hairbrushes, potatoes, car keys, wallets and clothing. I had two ferrets that tried to take my notebook computer to what is called their hidey-hole," said AmyJo Casner of Harrisville, Pa., who legally owns ferrets Manny, Marcuz, and Marylin.

Their antics are better than antidepressants, said Casner, whose pets inspired her to start a ferret clothing line that she sells online.

A count of ferret owners across the U.S. was unavailable, but the American Pet Products Association said that in 1992, 2 percent of people who owned a small animal like a mouse, rat, ferret, gerbil, rabbit, hamster or guinea pig said they had a ferret. In 2000, 10 percent of small-animal owners said they had a ferret, and 7 percent in 2010 had them. That's despite bans in the two states, plus a number of large cities including New York, and U.S. military bases.

In California, where having a ferret can net a $500 fine or six months in jail, Wright estimated between 50,000 and 500,000 pet ferrets live a clandestine existence. His guess is based on ferret-supply sales and a 5,000-member mailing list for his ferret legalization cause.

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