Ferrets (Mustela putorius furo) have been domesticated for thousands of years. Unfortunately, we do not know the first civilization that decided to take on the challenge of living and working with ferrets. It is thought that the domestic ferret is a descendant of the European polecat (Mustela putorius putorius) and/or the Steppe Polecat (Mustela eversmanni). It is not known if it is a direct descendant or if there was another now-extinct weasel species in-between.
According to “Ferrets For Dummies” (Kay Schilling, 2000), the first written record of a ferret was in the writings of the Greek playwright Aristophanes (448 – 385 BCE). He compared a character to a ferret as the punchline to a joke. If a ferret reference is used in humor, then it can be assumed that ferrets and their habits were well-known creatures among ancient Greece at least.
Ferrets may have originally been domesticated in order to control the vermin population that always seems to thrive whenever a human being is around. But unlike cats, ferrets responded predictably well to training. Soon, ferrets were used for hunting rabbits in a bloodsport called, appropriately enough, ferreting. Ferreting is illegal in countries like America and Canada, but is still allowed in some countries such as the UK and in Australia.
Honor Among Thieves
But what really caught the attention of humans was the ferret’s knack for stealing and hoarding a wide variety of items. The ferret has a reputation of being the partner to thieves, especially gypsies. It is unknown how much truth lies in this reputation. It is unknown just how much a ferret companion was trained to specifically steal objects or if the ferret owner just decided to keep any interesting item found in the ferret’s hidey-hole.
Two ferrets were the stars of the hit fantasy movie “The BeastMaster” (1982) that displayed thieving behavior. This movie certainly has added to the ferret’s reputation of being a companion of thieves. And having a black marking on the face that looks like a robber’s mask doesn’t help.
Ferrets have been owned by Frederick II of Germany, Genghis Khan (yes-that Genghis Khan), Caesar Augustus and comedian Dick Smothers of the Smothers Brothers. Queen Elizabeth I not only owned ferrets – she gave them away as gifts. Ferrets became the vermin control on many boats, including boats fighting on both sides during the American Revolutionary War.
Ferrets have also been used by builders to crawl through narrow tunnels. A ferret was a great way to lay wire, unless the ferret decided to curl up and take a nap.
Ferrets are also now used in medical research, particularly for work on viruses and for behavioral research. In order to supply both the pet industry and laboratories, ferret farms (similar to puppy mills) breed the animals for quantity verses quality.
“Ferrets For Dummies.” Kay Schilling. Wiley Publishing; 2000.
Ferret: History of Domestication. Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferret#History_of_domestication
Small Mammal Health Series: History of the Ferret. Susan Brown, DVM. http://www.veterinarypartner.com/Content.plx?P=A&A=496