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 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT