CFL Response to Sierra Club

May15, 1997

Sierra Club
California Legislative Committee
1414 K Street, Suite 300
Sacramento, CA 95814

Dear Committee Members,

A simple error in classification made over 60 years ago in California landed one domesticated pet in a list of prohibited wildlife. That error today causes hundreds of thousands of underground ferret owners to have their own classification nightmare: they are considered criminals for simply choosing one domesticated pet over another. While California was not the only state to make this mistake, it is the only one whose wildlife agency has fought the public's legitimate request for a correction.

As part of our extensive research on the ferret issue, we asked the Legislative Intent Service in Sacramento if the Department of Fish and Game's mandate included domesticated animals. We also asked this service to find out if ferrets were mentioned specifically as a problem at the time of the originating statute in 1933. Their research revealed the answer to both questions: no!

In fact, of all of the domesticated pets to choose from, the ferret is one of the most environmentally sound. It is strictly an indoor pet, and has demonstrated an inability to survive and multiply in the wild. A national survey of all 50 State Departments of Fish and Game documented no feral ferrets anywhere in the U.S. Recently, a 3 year study entitled "Harmful Non-Indigenous Species in the United States" published by the Office of Technology Assessment in 1993 documented no less than eight domesticated animals as feral: the cat, dog, horse, goat, pig, sheep, rabbit, and burro. Ferrets weren't even listed in this comprehensive 400 page report despite the fact that they've been kept as pets or as working animals in this country for well over a century.

A look at the inability of an endangered wild relative, the Black-footed ferret, to re-establish itself in the wild can shed some light on the question of the domesticated ferret's survivability outdoors. The U.S. Fisheries and Wildlife Service has spent well over 1 million dollars in its attempt to breed and release the Black-footed ferret into some of its original habitat, the high plains areas of Wyoming and Montana. Sadly, after 10 years of cage rearing, this intelligent predator has lost its instincts for hunting and predator avoidance. Thus far, attempts at reintroduction have failed due to predation and starvation. Domesticated ferrets have been cage reared for centuries. There aren't enough wild instincts left in this animal to allow it to last a week outside let alone a lifetime. And, without the ability to reproduce (AB 363 mandates sterilization), the possibility of a feral population is non-existent. Fish and Game estimates of illegal ferrets in California exceeded 500,000 animals as long ago as 8 years, yet there is no feral population of ferrets in California, nor is there in any other state, few of which have spay/neuter requirements.

AB 363 does not set a precedent for the ownership of non-native wild animals. Nor does it weaken any policy against importing non-native wild animals. In fact, it follows a precedent set centuries ago by English law, and codified in our own State Constitution and Civil Code, which designates domesticated animals as private property and wild animals as property of the State. The sole intent and mission of AB 363 is to remove a domesticated animal from a wildlife list in which it cannot belong. The large number of illegal ferrets already here in California is powerful testimony to the public's regognition of that basic inconsistency.

One precedent that AB 363 does set is one the Sierra Club should support. If successful, California would pass the first state-wide mandatory spay/neuter policy for a domesticated pet. Clearly AB 363 has the potential to open the door on much needed spay/neuter mandates for other domesticated animals which do go feral and impact our environment, or suffer needless euthanasia due to overpopulation. AB 363 is the kind of responsible animal legislation that other domesticated pet owners should be encouraged to adopt and support for their companion animals.

We understand the Sierra Club has expressed a concern about the ability to regulate the spay/neuter clause. Thankfully 95% of the pet trade alters ferrets prior to sale. For health and odor reasons (female ferrets die if left in heat for extended periods and unaltered male ferrets are stinky company), ferrets not purchased in pet stores will be routinely altered by their owners as they are in other states, but we believe it is best for the ferret to put that requirement into law. As with any reasonable law, we expect a reasonable level of compliance. How would a mandatory cat or dog neutering law be any different? Should other organizations and individuals who wish to eventually see spay/neuter for these domesticated pets abandon the idea as unenforceable?

Please review the enclosed letters from all 50 State Departments of Fish and Game documenting an absence of feral ferrets in this country. You will also find a photocopy of the cover, title pages and index of the Office of Technology study referred to earlier. If there are any questions about the ferret's status as domesticated, you will find several letters from major agencies classifying the ferret as a domesticated species including letters from the United States Department of Agriculture, Smithsonian Institute and Museum of Natural History.

We hope you will re-evaluate your position on AB 363. This bill recognizes the true nature of the ferret as a domesticated animal, legalizes it as an option to other domesticated pets which have demonstrated an impact on the environment, and is a watershed bill with the first state-wide spay/neuter mandate ever in California. It also will decriminalize 250,000 Californians who have already chosen a ferret as a pet, and who see the California Chapter of Sierra Club's opposition to AB 363 as a serious, unjustified and unfair threat to their personal freedom and liberties.

Thank you for your time and consideration.


Jeanne Carley