Skip to main content

Freedom at last for New York ferrets?

By Errol Louis
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Fri May 30, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Errol Louis: New York City is considering an end to a 55-year-old ban on owning ferrets
  • Louis: City's owners of undocumented ferrets have submitted petition to lift the ban
  • Louis: What's next? Beavers, hedgehogs, elephants, wolverines, numbats, stoats?
  • Ex-Mayor Giuliani hated ferrets, or "weasels," famously berated activist. (It's online)

Editor's note: Errol Louis is the host of "Inside City Hall," a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has opened the door to Noah's ark by considering an end to the ban on owning ferrets, which dates to 1959.

New York City's ferret owners -- a shadowy underground that smuggles and coddles the beasts in defiance of the law -- say that their pets, which are legal to own everywhere in America except Hawaii and California, should not be banned from the city.

If only things were that simple.

Errol Louis
Errol Louis

Having voluntarily chosen to live locked up in brick and steel towers, the 8 million homo sapiens who dwell in New York tend to get antsy about the idea of sharing our fancy concrete cage with other animals.

Our wariness is codified in law, leaving no room for confusion: Section 161.01 of the New York City Health Code describes and classifies the species that cannot be kept as pets, with mind-numbing taxonomic precision.

Barring professional exceptions like running a licensed zoo, circus or laboratory, says the code, it is illegal to own a polar, grizzly, or brown bear. New Yorkers cannot own bats, beavers, wolves, lemurs, hedgehogs, porcupines, elephants or dolphins.

A priest in Madrid blesses a ferret at the blessing of the animals ceremony on St. Anthony\'s Day.
A priest in Madrid blesses a ferret at the blessing of the animals ceremony on St. Anthony's Day.

You might consider these prohibitions to be common sense. Who needs a law? You'd be wrong. In 2003, a New Yorker named Antoine Yates was discovered to be living in a Harlem public housing project with an alligator and a 400-pound Bengal tiger. The situation came to light after Yates showed up at the emergency room with a suspiciously large bite wound.

So the code is a guide to help people avoid getting hurt. It prohibits hooved animals, "including, but not limited to, deer, antelope, sheep, giraffe and hippopotamus."

Sounds good to me. It's hard enough to find parking on my block. Who needs to worry about hippopotamuses taking up spaces?

But unlike most of the beasts on the forbidden list, the wily ferrets have developed a political constituency.
Errol Louis

New Yorkers cannot legally own members of the Procyonidae family, including "kinkajou, cacomistle, cat-bear, panda and coatimundi." Again, no problem. To tell the truth, I never heard of any of those creatures except the panda -- although a cat-bear reminds me of a popular science fiction series I read as a kid, featuring 500-pound feline aliens that nearly wipe out the human race.

Marsupials are prohibited in New York: No Tasmanian devils, no kangaroos, and none of those other odd-sounding Down Under critters like dasyure, bandicoot, cuscus and numbat.

You also cannot own any "nonhuman" primate.

And no ferrets.

But unlike most of the beasts on the forbidden list, the wily ferrets have developed a political constituency.

"They have an odd half-monkey, half-dog kind of intelligence that bonds them to their people and makes them always very interesting and often very funny" is how one owner described her pet to the City Council at a hearing in 1999. When pressed on the subject of ferret attacks on humans, one council member noted that New York probably has more spouse bites than ferret bites.

Rudy Giuliani, the mayor at the time, was having none of it. He famously berated a ferret advocate on a radio program, telling him, "There is something really, really, very sad about you," and "This excessive concern with little weasels is a sickness." Giuliani's rant remains posted online to this day, as does an official statement denouncing the creatures.

Fast-forward to 2014, and a new mayor already embroiled in a high-profile battle over whether to ban horse-drawn carriages from the city. The Department of Health announced it has received a petition from the pro-ferret forces, and will duly consider lifting the ban.

A word of advice to de Blasio: Tread carefully. If the ferrets get traction, it's hard to say where the revolution will end. People may want to have zorilles, wolverines or stoats. Advocates for binturongs, fossa, linsangs and suricates -- whatever those are -- may follow the ferret freedom fighters.

And the scene down at City Hall, where one protest or another already takes place on any given day, could start to get truly wild.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:47 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
updated 5:56 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
updated 6:21 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
updated 10:17 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
updated 5:39 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
updated 8:15 AM EDT, Thu October 2, 2014
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
updated 7:12 PM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Wed October 1, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 7:03 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT