Resolution to support legalizing ferrets fails to win Encinitas council backing

A man who’s been campaigning for years to get California to lift a ban on ferrets as household pets finally got a chance to make his case to the Encinitas City Council Wednesday, March 20, but only won one vote.

And, even that lone supporter -- Councilman Tony Kranz -- declined to keep the “Ferrets for Dummies” book he’d been given, saying he’d only made it through a few pages.

“That’s not a good sign,” ferret advocate Pat Wright said as he took back his book and the council began its deliberations on his proposed ferret resolution, which called for supporting statewide efforts to legalize ferret ownership.

Tiny relatives of weasels and wolverines, ferrets typically weigh less than 5 pounds and are less than 18 inches long. They’re banned as pets in California and Hawaii, but allowed in the other U.S. states. Domesticated pet ferrets in the U.S. are descended from a European species, but there also is a native, non-domesticated ferret in the United States -- the black-footed ferret, which is considered one of North America’s most endangered mammals.

Wright, who lives in La Mesa but owns property in Encinitas and grew up in the city, has been trying for decades to get California to end its ban on pet ferrets, which dates from the 1930s. Over the years, he’s tried everything from legal action to direct appeals to state officials.

His latest campaign involves trying to get city officials to approve resolutions supporting efforts to legalize ferret ownership. In 2017, La Mesa’s City Council approved such a resolution and Wright hoped to make Encinitas next on the list. That effort failed March 20.

The city’s mayor and the three other council members all told Wright they could not back the proposed resolution before them that night. They said they knew the proposed city resolution wouldn’t make it legal to have ferrets now in Encinitas -- that would be against current state law -- but said they worried about long-term impacts if the state ever does end up legalizing ferrets.

They weren’t the only ones raising concerns about whether pet ferrets might escape, set up “feral ferret families,” and ultimately displace native species. Several Encinitas residents who’ve been active in environmental issues urged the council to stay out of this ferret fight, noting that the state Department of Fish & Game has opposed ferret legalization.

Jim Wang, an Encinitas Environmental Commission member, told the council that legalizing ferrets could have “pretty grave consequences” and said much more scientific research needs to be done before taking any action. That’s because once an unwanted exotic animal or plant establishes itself in a new habitat, it’s almost impossible to eradicate it, Wang said, noting that Australia is now over-run with non-native rabbits.

Leucadia resident Dennis Lees and his wife Kathleen agreed. Dennis said that rabbits have created a “world of problems” for Australia, while Kathleen said she once worked in a university research lab that had a population of ferrets. Ferrets are very smart and that’s why they would be a danger if they established themselves in the wild, she said.

Several people sported pro-ferret legalization T-shirts at the March 20 council meeting, but only Wright spoke to the council in favor of the resolution. He said he often felt out-gunned when he spoke up for ferret ownership because he’s facing off against wildlife agencies that fear they’ll be sued by environmental attorneys if they agree to lift the ban.

“I always feel like Bambi verses Godzilla,” he said.

— Barbara Henry is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune