“A Small Half-Domesticated Polecat”

It’s a beautiful spring afternoon and there’s a costume contest going on at Eagles Aerie Number 33 on St. Paul’s East Side. The contestants—an Indian, a bride, a hillbilly, and a witch—are decked out in gorgeous homemade finery. Their handlers hover nervously, while judges with clipboards move in for a closer look.

My personal favorite is the hillbilly, with his patched denim overalls, straw hat, and curly wig, but, predictably, the judges go for the showier Indian, with his regal feather-decked headpiece à la early Village People. After the ribbons are passed out, the witch squirms out of her peaked hat, and the white-veiled bride slumps dejectedly, like a skinny, beady-eyed Miss Havisham.

“Isn’t this the cutest thing you’ve ever seen?” asks Barbara “Grandma” Martin, leaning in to pat the winning contestant, a furry, pointy-nosed ferret named Kinsey. I’m at Ferret Funfest 2003. It is a gathering of ferret enthusiasts and a fundraiser for Minnesota’s only no-kill ferret shelter, a place called In the Company of Ferrets. Hardcore ferret enthusiasts call themselves ferreteers, and this crowd is definitely hardcore. The games now finished, dozens of ferrets snooze in specially designed hammocks, rest on shoulders, or scamper around the hall on leashes, making skritch-skritch noises on the polished wooden floor.

This annual event is the brainchild of Laura Palmer—not the cheerleader from that creepy TV show Twin Peaks, but the founder of both the shelter and a nonprofit ferret club called FROLIC (Ferrets Require Our Love, Involvement and Companionship). She is arguably Minnesota’s leading ferreteer.

“Old-style ferret people tend to be alternative types,” says the husky-voiced Palmer, on a cigarette break near the back door. On second thought, she does seem jaded in a David Lynch kind of way. “Now there’s a whole new generation of ferret owners—yuppies and soccer moms who don’t understand that having a ferret is like having a two-year-old child.” Palmer’s shelter is actually more of a network of foster-ferreteers willing to care for abandoned animals in their homes. She started it seven years ago, after Petco began selling the animals in their 18 Minnesota stores and the state’s ferret population began to skyrocket.

As the local ferret count rose, so did the number of animals abandoned at the humane societies, in parks, and even on the side of the road. “Ferrets are not a good pet for someone who’s anal-retentive or germ-phobic,” Palmer says. “They’re little hellions. They will trash your house. People who tell you that ferrets are easy to care for, like cats, are all wrong. They’re practically a full-time job.”

In the United States, ferrets are domesticated animals, and on average they live to be about 7 years old. (They are prone to certain cancers, often escape from houses, and can even be killed by hairballs.) Ferrets are also notoriously difficult to housetrain. Each year, a few of the shelter’s ferrets are adopted, but many are too old, frail, or unstable to move. “Our vet bills run around $10,000 a year,” says Palmer, who keeps the oldest and sickest animals in her Stillwater home.

Vicki Collins, a slim, soft-voiced woman with short, spiky hair, loaded her family and her four favorite ferrets, Cami, Kinsey (the Indian), Romeo, and Naughty Tawney, in the car and drove all the way up from Osceola, Wisconsin, for the Fun Fest. “There’s no pet better than a ferret,” Collins says, her eyes glittering enthusiastically. “But they are a lot of work. They’re not something just to be pretty and looked at. They’re like little children. They train you.”

Deb Carlson, a tall, flushed woman also known by her fellow ferreteers as “Big Deb,” takes a break from her duties as master of ceremonies. “I got a new man in my life,” she says, her voice hoarse from yelling over the din. “He came over to my house and I gave him a ferret to hold. He’s like this,” and she pantomimes a man holding a ferret gingerly at arm’s length. “I said to him, ‘I suggest you bring that ferret close to you because if you want to be with me, you better get used to having that little fucker around.’”—Andy Steiner