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NewCityNet Musk See

By Dave Chamberlain

OCTOBER 27, 1997:  The most common phrase used by guests in our home is "What the hell is that?" It bursts from people's lips as a long, thin and furry creature bounces across the floor with some valuable object in its mouth, like keys or a wallet. The creature is a ferret, and we are proud ferret owners. Despite the little thieving creatures being the third-most-popular pet in America, they remain low-profile pets when compared to dogs and cats. But last weekend at the DuPage County Fairgrounds in Wheaton, the Greatest Ferret Show on Earth held its ninth annual gathering. In addition to judging the furry creatures on regular pet show attributes (size, temperament, physical characteristics), the event featured such ferret-specific categories as best yawn, a tube race and a costume contest.

Ferrets belong to the animal family Mustelidae, the smallest of which are the martins, the largest being the wolverine. Ferrets were first domesticated by the Egyptians to control rodents and snakes, a trade they are still used for today. Contrary to popular belief, there is no such thing as a wild ferret, except for the black-footed ferret (mustela nigripes) which hangs on near extinction in the western United States.

At the Greatest Ferret Show on Earth, tables line the walls selling all things ferret. Little coats and hats are displayed alongside ferret leashes and foods. One vendor sells various ferret T-shirts displaying logos from "I Love My Ferret" to "F.A.D.D.: Ferrets Against Drunk Driving."

Mingling with fellow ferret owners, I quickly become aware that ferret lovers are the Trekkers of the pet world. Other attendees weave in and out of the ferret cages, virtually squealing with joy every time a tired ferret lets loose with one of their typically extended yawns (which reveals a set of formidable teeth and fangs, bad news for a rodent) or when two young ferrets (kits) go on an extended energy burst and start playing. (As a ferret ages, it never loses the playful tendencies it has as a kit.) Many visitors perambulate through the booths with backpacks, from which a masked face occasionally peers out.

In front of a booth which is selling ferrets bred from New Zealand stock (unusual because of their size, up to triple that of North American ferrets), Anne James watches two kits rough-housing. "I already have ten ferrets," she says with a laugh. "And chances are, I'm about to have number eleven." Another woman, contemplating the purchase of a ferret which has only three legs after being thrown into the wild by a previous owner, says, "I only live in a tiny studio apartment, and I have four. And I think I'm holding my fifth."

Mary Stilson, a volunteer at a shelter for stray ferrets run by The Greater Chicago Ferret Association, has been a ferret owner for fifteen years. "Right now I only have five," she says. "But I've had as many as nine at once." Since ferrets are relatively small, she says, it's not hard to keep acquiring them. Her job at the shelter has also contributed to her family.

The Greatest Ferret Show on Earth has been sponsored by the GCFA for nine years, and with this year's success at bringing in people from out of state (breeders are represented from Michigan, Oregon, Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin), the tenth is a lock. Stilson also notes that, as the popularity of ferrets as pets has increased, so has attendance at the annual ferret show. "After all," she says, "they're such good pets, once you have one, it's never enough."

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